To an outsider many of the causal chains of our time would not be obvious, were they discernible at all. It is three months since a Minnesotan policeman — currently awaiting trial for murder — put his knee on the neck of George Floyd, engulfing America in protest and violence. Yet almost 100 days later the consequences of his actions keep rolling out like ripples in a pond, one of the latest being the BBC’s announcement that the words of “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” will not be sung at this year’s Last Night of the Proms. Why?
It appears that for many people at the BBC, as at various other cultural, media and governmental institutions, the death of George Floyd is not only symptomatic of the actions of one Minnesotan policeman — or indeed of some wider problem that may exist in segments of US policing. For these people the events in the American Midwest are only explicable if they come from a deep well-spring of unaddressed prejudice, and in particular unaddressed historical injustice.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Over recent years it has been striking how easily this assumption has settled in and how glibly many people appear to address it. In the United States there most certainly is a dark and difficult history involving the country’s two and a half-century involvement in slavery, yet it is inaccurate to claim that America has never addressed or “faced up to” its slave-owning past. The US fought a civil war over the issue more than a century and a half ago, at the cost of a million lives, and for the past six decades has very publically agonised over the legacy and historical injustice of slavery and racism.
Of course the follow-on claim is that America cannot be said to have fully addressed its past until it has made reparations of some kind for the sin of slavery, an argument most famously recently advanced by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a cover piece for the Atlantic magazine in 2014.
As though to demonstrate that culture wars which erupt in America inevitably spill out into other English-speaking countries, a set of similar arguments and rationales have now started to be replicated in the UK. The “Rule, Britannia!” row erupted because a number of people at the BBC and elsewhere — erroneously — appear to believe that the song’s lyrics about Britons never being slaves is some kind of celebration of slavery, or at least is impermissable for being written at a time when Britain was still a slaving nation.
It is clearly a disingenuous argument, not least because the words of “Land of Hope and Glory” are also now considered verboten by the BBC — clearly suggesting that this is an assault on the British past as a whole, slavery, empire and all.
But the BBC and their allies appear to have absorbed the same argument that Coates and co have been making, and with it an almost total, if inexact, transfer of the American context onto the British one. As with the American debate, those who have pounded the airwaves in recent days have been busily pretending that the lyrics of Thomas Arne’s song in some way demonstrate that Britain has not faced up to slavery. Once again they display their historical ignorance.
It is simply not the case that Britain never addressed its historical sins, including the horror of slavery. This country tore itself apart for decades in debating the question, and when Britain abolished the practice it did so not only for itself, but policed the waves in order to ensure that the rest of the world ended up abolishing the trade too.
This it did at considerable cost. People high on the excitement of recently-acquired knowledge have in recent weeks often trotted out the claim that Britain only finished paying off slave-owners in the last decade, but even this claim is malevolently dishonest. For it is the fact that Britain indebted itself in ending the pernicious trade in human beings that is noteworthy here; the critics present it as though this debt was a demonstration of support for the trade, rather than a commitment to wipe it out.
Listening to these arguments, many people might be struck by a feeling that the BLM movement, and its allies, are currently indulging in something of an overreach, chiefly because the campaign, with the claims being made about Britain and America, fail a basic moral test: the test of fairness. And if history is to be treated in this fashion — as a thing to be scoured in order that political points may be won and demands for cash reparations be made — then there are many directions in which equally vehement actors might go.
As this debate has reignited, fed by activists and unopposed by enfeebled institutions, so others have — quite reasonably — begun to point out that slaving was not by any means only a British or American practice. In the 18th century – the period in which “Rule, Britannia!” was written — Barbary pirates from North Africa made frequent raids on British territory and British ships. Until the Royal Navy put the pirates out of business, historians have estimated that between one and one and a half million Europeans were seized by Moors and taken or sold into slavery.
Why is there no cause for reparations from the states that engaged in these practices? Why has there been no call for reparations from the descendants and families of those who were taken? And why has there been no sustained campaign to denigrate the history and cultural practises of the people now living in the countries of North Africa? If there is going to be an ongoing attack on societies which led the way in abolishing the slave trade ought there not to be an attack — surely of far greater ferocity — against those countries who gave up slave-trading most unwillingly?
To ask the question is to return to one of the most curious aspects of the modern Western masochistic mindset, the way in which more than one generation have been educated to believe that only their countries ever behaved reprehensibly in history. Were this not so it is impossible to explain why the ignorance over the actions of the Barbary pirates is so total. To take just one example, in the mid-sixteenth century Barbary pirates raided the island of Lampedusa and carried off its entire population into slavery. Why should the current inhabitants of that island not demand recompense from the current citizens of Algeria? Likewise with Baltimore in Ireland, whose entire population were enslaved in 1631.
Every direction in which you take this argument you find yourself opening up some old fresh historical hell. Why is there still no sustained demand for the Ottoman Empire to pay reparations for its centuries-long and quite stupendous historical crimes? Modern-day Turkey is not a poor country yet when it comes to recognition of its past, it does not seem to have the necessary modern attitude of atonement.
What is more, were there to be compensation demanded by those who suffered from the various Moorish and Ottoman misdeeds of the past the demands would be far fresher and closer to the current date than — say — such demands as could be made of the United States of America. It is only 100 years ago that the Turks committed genocide against the Armenian people and the Anatolian Greeks, who they either expelled or murdered by the hundreds of thousands. Where precisely should modern-day Greeks send the bill? And does anybody think that this — any of this — would act as a palliative rather than an incendiary?
It is worth asking these questions not to engage in whataboutery but because it raises a truth which has been too glibly passed over of late. That is the fact that we should try to understand history not only in the round — as we are often told — but in a spirit of forgiveness.
It is too easy (we can literally all do it) to go through history and highlight places where certain people acted unreasonably or even reprehensibly. It is very easy to use history as a cudgel, as it has come to be used against the British people of late. A far harder, but more necessary task, is to recognise that history was pretty much hell for everyone. That few people ever come out of it very well.
But that when they do — as the abolitionists in Britain and America did — it is worth commending them, and dwelling on their actions. Rather than on the actions of that far larger number of people who always go along with the norms of their time. Who did so in this country for centuries. And who did so elsewhere for even longer.