Colin Brazier: By opting for reparations we will have decided that guilt and criminal responsibility can cascade down the generations

Colin Brazier
Colin Brazier

'This is a morally hazardous step.'

Published

Imagine. Ten years from now, the launch of a new government agency – let’s call it the Office For Reparations or OfRep for short – tasked by the Prime Minister Dawn Butler, with compensating the descendants of slaves in Britain.

It may sound far-fetched. But in the United States, where these things tend to start, there is a growing clamour for cash, lots of cash, to be handed over to Americans whose ancestors were enslaved in Africa and transported across the Atlantic.

Today we learned that a senior figure at Cambridge University thinks that the British state must consider something similar.

He is Dr Michael Banner, director of Theology at Trinity College. Doubly insulated from the realities of life by the dreamy spires of academia and the tepid certainties of the Church of England, Dr Banner speaks for an emerging liberal consensus: that slavery’s legacy is every bit as much a problem for Britain as it is for America.

And where is America right now on this? Earlier this year the US House Judiciary Committee agreed to set up a commission to look at reparations for slavery. It was one of Joe Biden’s campaign pledges.

One of America’s most influential voices on this, the writer Ta Nehisi Coates, says the federal government should pay $34 billion, about 25 billion pounds, every year to the descendants of slaves, for decades to come.

Only by doing that, can the legacy of white privilege be erased.So let’s assume for a moment that what’s gathering pace in America, winds up on the statue books of Britain. Let’s think about it practically first. How would an Office for Reparations or Restitution, whatever we’d call it… how would it work?

First, who would be eligible? How could black Britons establish that they were, without question, descended from slaves? Where does that leave Britain’s fastest growing ethnic group - mixed race Britons. Where does it leave more recent arrivals from countries like Nigeria, whose ancestors may have been complicit with the slave trade? It’s one thing to insist that Black Lives Matter, but not all black histories are the same.

Second, where would an Office for Reparations leave us ethically? Compensation for people long dead would introduce a degree of inherited guilt to our national conversation. Many white Britons, whose lives are not characterised by privilege or even access to diversity initiatives, would feel justifiable anger that their taxes were being used to advance a posthumous programme of positive discrimination.

By opting for reparations, we will have decided that guilt and criminal responsibility can cascade down the generations, that the sins of the great-great-great-grandfather can fall on the head of the son.

This is a morally hazardous step.

And those who advance it must extrapolate what it means. If you can demand compensation from people whose forebears behaved badly, then you surely must REWARD those whose forerunners behaved well.

You’d probably have to start with the descendants of the 30,000 Royal Navy sailors who died prosecuting the radical and unprecedented British plan to abolish slavery and stop its trade at sea.