The University of Cambridge is going to trawl its sins from the past. Or possible sins. Or some of them, anyway. It has set up a two-year study to find out how the university contributed to and profited from slavery during the colonial era. A college in Oxford University is doing something similar. And so is Glasgow University.
Since the great majority of academic research is as useful as a sun-hat in a hurricane, I suppose the universities involved could be at worse. But when (not if) they find out how deeply their institution was involved with the slave trade or benefited from it, what will they do then? Will they do anything, other than say “Here’s the dirty work we were involved in.”? Or maybe like David Cameron did with Bloody Sunday “British soldiers gunned down fourteen lives that January day and honestly, we’re terribly sorry.”
I believe some victims of abusive power derive satisfaction from hearing words of contrition. I doubt if I would. And I’m dubious about this focus on the slavery industry in Britain.
Take Ireland as just one small example of what the British Empire did. It invaded its next-door neighbour, insisted that it should make laws and administer justice; it imprisoned, deported or killed anyone who tried to say otherwise. Over eight centuries there were many acts of brutal suppression, with Oliver Cromwell a leading candidate for the title Savage-in-Chief. Then in the nineteenth century there was the calculated starvation of over a million Irish people and the effective deportation of over a million more.
I could go on longer, you probably could go on much, much longer. The point is, Britain could never make adequate reparation for the many unjust and cruel acts it has inflicted on Ireland over the centuries. It could apologise, it could make a symbolic monetary contribution, but it’d never atone for the sins of the past – assuming it wanted to acknowledge them in the first place.
This slavery remorse that appears to be sweeping UK universities isn’t bad – it’s just futile. British power and prosperity has always been built on the back of some unfortunate people. Britain can’t undo its gory past; it might be better to tackle its present injustices, starting with the small island to its left.