Interview with Clare Short

Photo of Clare Short

Clare Short, MP for Birmingham Ladywood, has been a strong contributor to this bicentenary year. She has delivered talks around the country in 2007 regarding the impact of the Atlantic slave trade and the cruelty of modern-day slavery. As a former speaker at the annual Wilberforce Lecture in Hull, Clare Short has had a keen interest in the way in which the 1807 Abolition Act has been marked across Britain. The interview took place on the 20th of September 2007 between Clare Short, Laurajane Smith and Ross Wilson identified respectively in this edited interview as CS, LS and RW.

LS: Can you tell us your opinions about why you think 1807 is being remembered?

CS: Well, I don't know who was responsible for the initiative to make it into a national commemoration. I think it's a very good thing that Britain has a discussion about slavery and its part in it. John Prescott certainly sought to play a big role in getting some credit in being the MP for Hull with Wilberforce coming from Hull. I think that it's a very good thing that it's happened.

LS: How would you characterise the government involvement in marking 1807?

CS: Well as I said the dominant voice and activity was all around John Prescott who I think by then ceased to have a department and was looking for his legacy. It's a bit harsh but I think there's a truth in it; I think he was trying to milk it and get some credit off the back of it. I think there was a debate in Parliament but I don't think that it created a great stir. There's an exhibition in Westminster Hall and lots of schools are coming through, so probably for London schools that's probably had an impression on those young people. And the rest of it that I'm aware of, I've been to a session in Glasgow which was a panel discussion about whether there should be apologies for the slave trade, I've been to the event in Hull, where the Prime Minister of Barbados was invited to do the Wilberforce Lecture. I've given the Wilberforce Lecture in a previous year, so I was asked to give the medal and say a few words. John Prescott was there because it was his constituency and the civil servants were very tense about us being together on the platform. And I visited the Wilberforce House Museum therefore whilst I was there, and I've been to this play in Birmingham, my overall impression is there's been too much emphasis on Wilberforce. It's as though Britain is heroic because it passed the legislation to govern the Atlantic slave trade and it was a sort of small band of members of Parliament who accomplished it, so it's a kind of establishment gift to the world. And I don't think it's anybody's fault, but I think it's the dominant message that's coming across. And I don't think that's historically true.

LS: To which group is that message that you've identified, speaking to?

CS: I think it's a self-congratulatory message to the British establishment. That Britain is more civilised than others, that members of Parliament achieved this great advance. That's the kind of gloss they want to put on it. Whether deliberate or otherwise, I think. I felt that that's there, and it underestimates the revolts of the slaves and the massive mobilisation of people that helped to lead to that change in legislation, and then how limited that was, how much further there was to go, and somehow that glosses over Britain's massive role in the slave trade, by commemorating an act of Parliament that makes Britain looks good rather than face up to it. I think it's third of all the movement of slaves across the Atlantic world, by Britain, by British ships and people.

LS: What would you like the key messages to be? How would you like the government to lead the debate on this?

CS: Well, I think the problem is the Government is leading the debate and therefore inevitably it ends up being a bit self-serving and I think the real message is that people resisted oppression that was visited upon them, and that ordinary folk in solidarity campaigning can help to achieve enormous historical change and the establishment will only move when those forces are working from underneath them.

LS: Do you see these debates as having any currency for debates about multiculturalism and what it means to be British or English?

CS: I'm not very comfortable with the discussion of Britishness. I just think it's kind of originated with Gordon Brown and it's largely about his Scottishness. I think this debate about slavery matters enormously to the African Caribbean community, and I think its for them to say not me, that having theatres, museums, big national events is important and acknowledges some of the main suffering and belittlement. I think it probably matters more to that community than others. Though, of course slavery has been part of the National Curriculum for some time now so I might be underestimating young people who have participated in that. But these are my impressions, I can't know this for certain, I'm just one person. RW: How would you like to see 1807 marked?

CS: Well it's interesting its 1807 being marked. I think I would have preferred 1838 really. But still it's good to remind people of historical change and then I suppose it is inevitable when that happens the establishment will try and put itself in a good light, and then it will be contested, and that is the way public debate proceeds. I don't know who or why initiated making 1807 the big marker.

LS: Do you have any sense yourself as to why 1807?

CS: No, I don't but I suspect, well this is just the noises I heard coming out of the House of Commons and the deputy Prime Minister, was this slight glorifying in the role, of Parliament and the role of Wilberforce, it might be unfair but that's my feeling and impressions. The exhibition in Westminster Hall doesn't do that exactly but of course ends up with a sort of debate taking place in the Commons and that becomes the pivotal thing. But I'm sure at the time the legislation mattered to slaves across the world and that they were disappointed thereafter that it didn't lead to what they were expecting.

RW: What do you think of the exhibition in Parliament?

CS: I thought it was limited. Some of the material was okay, but it was a bit disappointing. I only went a week ago so I thought it was a little bit feeble to be honest, not dreadful, but feeble.

LS: What opportunities have been missed do you feel in this year?

CS: I personally think the Quakers, the campaign of people, the nearly half a million people who were refusing to consume sugar that came from plantations, I think that's fantastically interesting. A very early example of mass-mobilisation for social advance that I think is fascinating. I think it's been under-reported and commented upon and read upon. I think we're in a similar stagnant period where the elite are separated from the people and there are all sorts of trouble in the world, and it would be of great value and interest to people currently to be aware of this sort of monumental historical change that was significantly won by ordinary folk outside the establishment campaigning and organising. I haven't heard that voice, though I haven't seen all the exhibitions of course, though it's hardly in the Commons exhibitions. Maybe something of the black campaigners, but its not very strong you know how a big a movement there was of people.

LS: There has been a lot of activity around the country, from your vantage point how do you see these events coming together and encouraging public debate?

CS: Well its noticeable how late in the year it's all peaking. Like Birmingham is a very multicultural city and our exhibition hasn't opened yet. I don't know why, that seems a bit unfortunate as the things that could have stirred up public debate have come later in the year and time is slipping away. I'm being a bit carping and I don't mean to be, its good that its happened, but its had less impact and its had this establishment type message a bit too much, and I think it hasn't reached as many people as you might imagine, but I don't know, the schools are just going back, I can imagine in a city like Birmingham there'll be lots of schools going to the exhibition. That'll maybe go on till the end of the year and that will have its impact. As I said I think a lot of schools in London have been to the House of Commons one, so maybe there will be a big impact but it's all slipping into the latter part of the year.

LS: Should there be an apology for the Atlantic slave trade?

CS: That was the issue at this debate panel discussion that I participated in, in Glasgow. I think the trouble is apologies are so easy. I mean, Tony Blair has done one for lots of things he's not responsible for; the Potato Famine; some of the miscarriages of justice in Irish cases. I think there should be an apology. I think the Archbishop of Canterbury did it more seriously and of course the Church involved itself. I think really there should be something more solemn, it should be the Queen really, on behalf of the state, symbolically as the head of state, in some really very serious ceremony, you know that Britain is good at, rather than sort of Tony Blair doing another one. I understand that different legislatures in States, in America that have done apologies, and that seems to me significant because it's a vote of the Parliament of that state. So I think there's a very big place for an apology but it should come with an acknowledgement of the history in a very serious way. And it should be more than one politician trying to get the benefit. So I took the line in Glasgow that a Prime Ministerial apology is too lightweight given the other ones that have been done, but if there was a formal on behalf of the head of state, the Queen making an apology, on behalf of the whole country in some sort of formal event then that would have been fine. But I don't think that's happening is it? Pity.

LS: Why do you see it is important that she does that? What will it achieve?

CS: I remember hearing Lenny Henry on the radio one day, saying how when the television series Roots was on, what a fantastic thing it meant to this mother and father and how they'd rang each other up. That the sort of public mainstream acknowledgement that this dreadful thing was done mattered enormously, and I think in the same way a formal serious acknowledgement and apology. I mean no-one can correct what has been done historically but acknowledging the wrong is probably a bit healing and it also challenges the racism and myths that have flowed from it and are still alive.

LS: Should there be compensation paid for the slave trade?

CS: No I don't think so as such. Because the people who are most damaged are dead, and some African leaders and kings participated in slavery so, you can't get to the people who suffered in any serious financial way. I mean the right compensation is the people of the Caribbean and Africa and West Africa in particular should have a better life. And there been lots of talk about Africa and making poverty history but very little delivery, so I think the right compensation should be justice and equity not seeking out individuals to be compensated because the ones who have been really hurt have died in the process and you can't make it right for them.

LS: What are the legacies of the slave trade for Britain?

CS: Deep racism. Against people of African ancestry and the pretence that they're inferior people, less civilised and less educated, which is of course the historical excuse for the evil that was done. The lies about African history, the pretence that there was no history before the Europeans came to Africa. I think slavery plus then the scramble for Africa and the terrible destructive boundaries which were drawn on the continent have damaged Africa's progress and development.

RW: How do you think the recognition of the history of the slave trade would heal the poisonous heritage of the transatlantic slave trade?

CS: I can imagine people arguing that of course acknowledging and bringing it out could even stir it all up and some people might reinvent the racial abuse around such a commemoration. But I think none the less to deal with the sort of historical rather than the myths that live on, the right thing is to go back to the truth. In this event in Hull with the Prime Minister of Barbados, I said when I gave him his medal that it's truly humbling that the son of slaves, who is Prime Minister of a country in the Caribbean should come and talk to British people in Hull about slavery. We need to get it out of the cupboard, someone was telling me in London that there's still abuse amongst African people and people of Caribbean origin, that when they have a row or something, the Africans will say to the Caribbean, 'go on slave.' And the Caribbean will say to the African, 'get back in your tree' and that kind of thing. It lives on in the kind of abuse and that needs bringing out, denouncing and discussing and overcoming.

RW: So it's definitely a history for all?

CS: It should be, but not everybody will listen and not everybody will fully learn.

LS: In many exhibitions and indeed public debate about 1807, talk about the legacies of the slave trade, racism, of course, is as it rightly should be is discussed, another legacy which seems to me which comes out of the slave trade is an enormous amount of wealth which does not seem to be talked about, can I have your comments on that?

CS: Well, In Glasgow, Liverpool , Bristol, less in London I think, there is some of that debate, some of the massive buildings that were symbols of the wealth that flowed. In Glasgow its museum was funded by someone who made a fortune out of tobacco plantations using slaves. And then of course there is the thesis from Williams that British industrial revolution was built on that wealth. And that is contested I know, because Portugal and so on didn't have that industrial revolution, but I'm sure lots of the accumulations of capital was one of the factors. It is a consequence of slavery but my understanding is again, not complete, that in Glasgow, Liverpool, Bristol there has been such a debate and talk about having museums and commemorations and so on, that there's some acknowledgement of the wealth that flowed particularly to those cities who were directly involved. I think more broadly in society there's less acknowledgement of that.

LS: My last question, I want to ask you should white Britain feel guilty?

CS: I think accrued guilt, I think it's like racism awareness training, I think it's pernicious and ridiculous. You know, 'all white people are guilty and you can never escape it.' That naturally entrenches a sense that racism is unavoidable and of course there's 8 million people of Irish descent living here. Most of our cities probably have amounting to a majority population that were colonised by Britain so a simple, 'white guilt black hard done by' is too crude. It's simplistic, misleading and divisive too. But I think an acknowledgement of the evil and the wealth that flowed and the position that Britain's now in, and Africa's now in and the Caribbean is now in, and some of the privilege of people who live in Britain which flows on some of that wealth that was built and went on to create economic plenty that should be acknowledged and faced up to. But I think simple white guilt, black hard done to, is too crude.

RW: Just in terms of compensation, and the legacies of slavery in racism and discrimination, do you think that there might be a case for compensation going towards communities.

CS: But I think that has to be according to need. Well certainly in Birmingham which is going to be minority white in a few years, and no majority anyone else. There's poverty in the Afro-Caribbean community and particularly problems of educational achievements of African Caribbean boys and so on, but also in the Bangladeshi community, and also the Kashmiri community and white working class boys are not doing well in education either, so, it would be invidious to say we've got to compensate this one community, it's got to be everyone gets a chance for more justice otherwise that would be wrong, just the unfairness of it would be terribly divisive.

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