Make them pay! Hardly a day goes past without some demand for reparations. Loud is the clamour for justice, while those who, though in favour of justice, are not sure whether in this particular case it is attainable, are thrown into disarray, and need time to study the details and marshal their thoughts before making their response.
In this early phase, specious agitators, speaking in anguished tones on behalf of the downtrodden of the earth, can seize the initiative and instigate a moral panic which sweeps away all prudential considerations.
We saw this after the murder of George Floyd, when Black Lives Matter carried all before it and messages of sympathy and solidarity appeared in windows across the land, for who could fail to support that heartfelt outburst of moral indignation?
And we see something similar in the early stages of any demand for reparations. Let the Russians after invading Ukraine, the Germans after invading Belgium and France, the slave-owners after shackling their fellow human beings, make recompense for the abominable suffering they have inflicted.
A few days ago, The Daily Telegraph reported that ministers in Barbados are calling on Richard Drax, Conservative MP for South Dorset, to “atone for the deeds of his forefathers”, for he owns the sugar plantation which his family founded on that island in the seventeenth century and ran with slave labour, a Drax of that period having studied in Brazil how to conduct such an enterprise.
The Drax Hall estate is an extraordinary and well-documented survival, more than worthy of the attention of historians, which it has indeed received. But it is also a tempting target for the island’s Government, led by Mia Mottley, since 2008 leader of the Barbados Labour Party and since 2018 Prime Minister, under whom the island has become a republic. According to the Telegraph,
“The question of how to deal with the Drax estate is being discussed at the highest levels in Cabinet; Barbados would prefer Mr Drax gave up the estate but does not rule out a court case or a change in the legislation. David Comissiong, Ambassador to the Caribbean Community and Deputy Chairman of Barbados’s National Commission on Reparations, said: ‘I think ultimately the British royal family will have to answer a reparations claim. We have not reached there yet but I am sure it is coming.
“‘We cannot say the Drax family is involved and not also say the British royal family as an institution was also very much involved. And while the British monarch was our head of state it would have been very difficult to pursue a reparations claim when the head of that institution is your head of state.
“’Now we are a republic it makes it easier to see the British royal family as just another family like the Drax family. The Royals were heavenly involved in slavery. You only need to look at the Royal Africa Company which was the world’s greatest slave trading company. It was established during the reign of King Charles II and was run by James II.'”
While still Prince of Wales, King Charles acknowledged during a visit to Ghana the “appalling atrocity of the slave trade, and the unimaginable suffering it caused”.
He added that while “Britain can be proud that it later led the way in the abolition of this shameful trade, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the abject horror of slavery is never forgotten”.
But what of the demand for reparations? Parliament voted in 1807 to abolish the slave trade, and in 1833 to end slavery itself throughout the British Empire.
Slave owners received large sums in compensation: a compromise with which the abolitionists were unhappy, but which they recognised as necessary in order to attain their great aim of ending slavery itself.
For over a century from 1807, the Royal Navy enforced the ban. After a long and deep-felt national debate there had been a complete change of policy. Slavery had existed in many different cultures and parts of the globe since ancient times, and Britain now led the way in recognising it to be vile and paying the cost of eradicating it.
This was a more valuable service to humanity, and above all to the slaves of that period, than a tardy payment of reparations 200 years later to their remote descendants.
No sums of money, great or small, can now in the slightest degree alleviate the sufferings of the millions of Africans who were sold into slavery.
Looked at in this light, the belated anxiety by various institutions to discover how they may have profited from the slave trade, and to make a display of penitence, look like so much humbug.
When Pontius Pilate washed his hands, he had just sent an innocent man to be crucified. These latter-day hand-washers pretend, perhaps even believe, they are under a moral obligation to cleanse themselves from crimes they did not commit, by making gestures which can be of no use to the victims of those crimes.
In some cases, the end effect is to stir up hatred against those held responsible, whether rightly or wrongly, for acts committed centuries ago, and against their family – spouse and children.
Any acts of benevolence this family may have performed are ignored. They belong to the wrong class, so according to the vulgar, sub-Marxist assumptions of their opponents they deserve to be flogged.
Under the guise of righting an ancient wrong, a new one is committed. Liberals proclaim their belief in the rehabilitation of offenders: that a second chance should be given to malefactors.
But here they are, denouncing people who have done nothing whatever, on the basis that their ancestors may have done something, though nobody knows what.
In 2019, when Cambridge University announced its inquiry into how it had benefited from the slave trade, some people said at once how contemptible an exercise this was:
“Trevor Phillips, formerly chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, whose ancestors were transported from Africa to British Guiana and Barbados, dismisses it as ‘virtue signalling on steroids’, urging the university ‘to change the future rather than attempt to rewrite the past’ and to concentrate on contemporary racial discrimination.”
But most of us kept quiet: I don’t recall writing or saying a single word on this topic. I hoped it would all blow over.
Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, did not keep quiet. He wrote a piece for The Times about why the inquiry was a great mistake, continued his researches into the history of the British Empire, and in February will bring out a book which is the fruit of those researches, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
When I spoke to him this week, he said the British Empire had involved “some gross injustices, but other endeavours that should command our admiration”.
Those who denounce it as an unmitigated evil are “narcissistic”, the effect of their work is “to undermine the West and confidence in the West”, and he wonders “whether they think of the consequences of undermining confidence” while Putin and Xi are at work.
In his view, we are witnessing “the aggressive exploitation by a minority of zealous activists of the propensity to feel guilty of a larger majority”.
But Biggar is not gloomy. He says the answer to simplistic readings of history is to study it: “I’m encouraged by the fact that the truth is on our side.”
And whatever delusions the leaders of our universities may suffer from, he thinks the public, especially the older part of it, is sceptical about the claims of “woke” warriors, which organisations such as History Reclaimed, Restore Trust and The Free Speech Union have in recent years been set up to oppose:
“Over time the nakedness of the Woke emperor is going to be exposed increasingly. They over-reach themselves so absurdly. To claim Churchill is the equivalent of Hitler is manifestly absurd.”
Arguments about reparations often start well before the conflicts to which they relate are over. President Woodrow Wilson, who in April 1917 took the United States into the First World War, declared in February 1918 that the eventual peace treaty should contain “no annexations, no contributions, no punitive damages”.
The Germans, who in November 1918 admitted they were beaten, hoped he meant this, while the French, led by Georges Clemenceau, were implacably determined to make the Germans pay.
Wilson, whose first career had been as a university teacher, had a great capacity for making high-flown declarations of liberal principle, as when he said America was waging war in order to make the world “safe for democracy”.
He was greeted as a saviour when he arrived in Paris at the end of 1918 to negotiate the peace, but found himself out of his depth as he struggled to translate his noble ideals into the practical provisions needed in the peace treaties.
The President persuaded himself that as long as he got the League of Nations, it did not really matter if the Treaty of Versailles (illustrated at the top of this article) imposed punitive and indeed totally unrealistic reparations on Germany, which was also forced to admit its guilt for starting the war.
How wrong he was. When he got home he found he could not even persuade Congress to ratify the Treaty and join the League. The Germans had been forced to sign the Treaty, but felt deeply resentful. The seeds of another conflict had already been sown.
Last weekend, Dominic Lawson wrote a thoughtful piece for The Sunday Times in which he argued that the Russians should be made to pay reparations to the Ukrainians for the terrible damage caused by the invasion of that country, including not only the destruction of infrastructure but atrocities such as murder, rape and forced deportations.
Lawson contended that this can be done by handing over to Ukraine the $350 billion of Russian assets frozen by the West soon after the invasion.
He admitted that international law “makes state assets, such as Russian ones, immune to confiscation”, and also that China, one of the world’s largest holders of US Treasury bonds, would be shocked to find these could in certain circumstances be expropriated.
One has to concede that just as there was a strong moral case for making Germany pay for the terrible damage it had inflicted on France from 1914-1918, so there is a strong moral case for making Russia pay.
But against that must be set the desirability of reaching, as at the Congress of Vienna in 1815, a peace which the main players regard as reasonably fair, and which therefore has a chance of enduring. Embittering the Russians and enraging the Chinese might not be the best way to go about that.
“Make them pay!” is a simple and attractive slogan, but moralists intent on forcing the payment of reparations seldom pause to consider that property rights should not lightly be set aside, and that making a lasting peace requires a willingness to compromise.