David Davis: The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. Our history is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe.

17 Feb

David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.

This week, David Lammy, wrote to the Government asking for a pardon of 70 slave rebel leaders involved in the 1823 Demerara rebellion.

Lammy is right and his call is a sensible one. As he highlights, these were some of the pioneers of the continuing abolition movement. And their actions helped pave the way for the final abolition of slavery in the British Empire 10 years later.

But our history with slavery is a lot more nuanced than many would have you believe. And when matters such as this are raised, it is important we take a closer look at our real history.

Undoubtedly, Britain played a terrible part in the 17th and 18th-century history of slavery. Millions of human souls were captured and traded. Hundreds of thousands died in the terrible Atlantic crossing, and hundreds of thousands more died in the cruel and oppressive conditions when they arrived in the Caribbean and the Americas. It was an evil trade.

Britain was not alone in this evil pursuit. Every European nation with a maritime presence took part, as well as several African kingdoms that sold human beings to the European slavers. Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands were particularly prominent. That does not exonerate Britain from its guilt in this matter. As the biggest maritime power, we were the second biggest offender.

But Britain did something that nobody else did, something that was astonishing in its motivation and in its eventually dramatic effect.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act on March 25, 1807 was, perhaps, the most under underappreciated moment in our history. This was the first legislative step by Parliament to abolish slavery and the first major success of the abolitionist movement.

The Act was both the ending of a decades-long struggle and the beginning of a sweeping political and societal change.

Its passage was the celebrated achievement of the leadership of inspirational figures such as Ignatius Sancho (the first African in Britain to receive an obituary), Olaudah Equiano, Thomas Clarkson, and of course, William Wilberforce. But it also recognised the almost 400,000 people who had signed petitions calling for change.

At the end of February the book Capitalism and Slavery by Eric Williams – the first Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago – will be published in the UK for the first time.

In it Williams asserts that not only was Britain’s role in the slave trade driven by wealth creation, so too was our role in its abolition. As it happens I think that this argument is nonsense. The Clapham sect, who drove the demand for reform, were driven by religious and moral fervor on slavery and on other social reforms. The 400,000 petitioners were not petitioning for profit. The brave sailors who volunteered for dangerous service to defeat the trade were hardly driven by a the interests of the capitalists of the day. Indeed they were sued by them!

Abolition is a landmark moment in our history. It transformed the world.

For thousands of years, humanity had been characterised by the enslavement of one people by another. Over 550 years ago, Europeans began the transatlantic slave trade.

While Britain was not the worst practitioner of this evil, we must acknowledge our part; we can no more re-write history than those who tear down statues. Over the course of 150 years, British ships purchased an estimated three-and-a-half million Africans. Almost three million survived the “middle passage” and were sold into slavery in the Americas.

But as British society developed amid the Enlightenment, more people thought slavery was anathema to modern understandings of liberty.

Change was needed.

Under the leadership of Wilberforce and others, in 1807 the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act passed by a massive majority of 283 votes to 16.

This was a monumental moment that realised the triumph of political will and mass protest. And in what Britain did next, it spawned a heroic moral endeavour that has never been matched.

Today’s critics conveniently forget this in their version of history.

The cost to Britain in abolishing the slave trade was huge.

Prior to the Act, British ships had carried 52 per cent of all transported slaves, and British colonies – dependent on slave labour – produced 55 per cent of the world’s sugar. Britain conducted more trade with the West Indies than anywhere else.

After abolition, British sugar production fell by 25 per cent, while rival economies more than doubled. In global terms, Britain’s share fell from 55 per cent in 1805 to 15 per cent by 1850. This cost Britain two per cent of GDP annually from 1808 to 1867.

This was a massive financial cost. The British Parliament knew this, and yet they persisted regardless – because it was the right thing to do.

It was the most costly overseas ethical intervention in history. We should be very proud of it.

And yet, Williams claimed, in his book in 1938, that slavery was abolished in much of the empire out of economic self-interest and not as a result of extensive campaigning over the course of decades.

Whilst the role of Britain in the slave trade is well known, the role of the Royal Navy in correcting that injustice is barely mentioned in the discussion of our legacy.

Founded in 1808, the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy had the singular purpose of stopping transatlantic slave ships. For over 60 years, the force patrolled international waters, captured 1,600 slaver ships and rescued 150,000 slaves.

It was the first chapter in the British Navy’s history against the international slave trade. It was an astonishing tale of derring-do and heroism, of great deeds done solely for the purpose of destroying a great evil.

It was done at great personal cost to many of the sailors involved. The death rate from action and disease was the highest in the Navy, at about six per cent per annum. Two hundred men died from disease in 1829 alone.

It was an astonishing period, with the ongoing battle between the Royal Navy and the slave traders marked by an arms race between frigates and fast clippers, and then paddle steamers. There were stories of prolonged pursuits and sea fights, of rescues of slaves thrown overboard, and of individual heroism worthy of Nelson’s successors.

Naval officers and seamen returned year after year to the fight, risking death from yellow fever, malaria, hepatitis, and the violence of battles with everybody from slaver ships to the soldiers of the African slaver kingdoms.

Because their own ships were not fast enough to catch the Baltimore clippers, naval captains sometimes bought captured slave boats with their own money and converted them for action. The most famous of these was the clipper Henriquetta, captured, bought, and renamed the Black Joke. Armed with a single 18 pounder and five marines, time after time she captured slave ships and pirates that outran the conventional naval vessels. All told she captured at least ten ships, including a 14 gun slaving vessel that was twice her size, after a 31 hour chase and battle.

Naval captains used their military power to destroy the “slave factories” along the African coast, sometimes with the prior approval of the British government, sometimes not. One of them ended up facing a law suit brought by slaver interests in the London courts for these actions. But the battle went on.

Often it seemed like a futile and hopeless contest, rather similar to today’s “war on drugs”, with almost no hope of success. But neither the Navy, nor successive British governments of all colours, ever gave up

The West Africa Squadron’s task was made more important because other colonial powers continued their slave trade. France permitted slave trading until 1826 and Portugal continued to trade slaves with Brazil until 1851. The British government used the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, financial pressures and treaties to coerce other European powers to give up part or all of their slave trading activities.

The relentless work of the squadron peaked in the mid-19th century. And eventually it succeeded, with the Atlantic slave trade being stamped out in 1867.

This does not absolve Britain of our role in a global tragedy, but it provides a broader lens with which to view history. It was a unique action that our country, and only our country, can be proud of.

The idea that Wilberforce et al pioneered abolition out of a desire to enhance Britain’s economic position only does them, and the hundreds of thousands of fellow campaigners a disservice. Abolitionists were not popular. Careers were put on the line in the passing of the Act, not to mention the lives of thousands of sailors that were laid down enacting it.

Today, we are at serious risk of distorting history beyond all recognition. This is the real risk of the saga of the Colston statue in Bristol.

But instead of tearing down our history, we need a proper, reasoned and mature debate about it and the legacy it imparts on our society.

As it stands, that is impossible with those who violently tear down statues and seek to dismiss opponents through character assassination.

There are some who believe that our history is a litany of abuses – that is nonsense. Our history has its dark times, but in the round it is a long one, full of episodes of high principle, creativity, bravery, and genius.

Of course, we have a duty to teach the full history of our country – the peaks and the troughs.

But we are doing our children a disservice by not celebrating that which we should rightly be proud of. We need to inspire our children with principled heroes such as Equiano and Wilberforce, Sancho and Clarkson, and heroic naval commanders like Collier and Denman.

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 was a transformational moment in British history and it changed the history of the world for the better, for ever.

That is worth remembering, regardless of what others may say. Perhaps the proper response to the Colston statue episode is to make March 25, the anniversary of the Abolition Act, an annual holiday: Anti Slavery Day, perhaps. That date can also serve as a celebration of the pardoning of leading abolitionists.

And while we are at it, why not replace the statues of Colston and his like with statues of the heroic naval captains whose courage helped bring slavery to an end across much of the globe.

Ben Obese-Jecty: To tackle serious youth violence effectively, London needs a more robust strategy

27 Apr

Ben Obese-Jecty is a former British Army Infantry Officer and stood as the candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in the 2019 General Election.

On 19th January, Anas Mezenner was walking home when he was involved in an altercation that led to him being stabbed. He died in hospital seven hours later. Five boys were charged with his murder, all of whom were aged between 14 and 18. This is not an isolated incident within Tottenham. On 17th February, a taxi driver was found fatally stabbed in his car. Six boys were charged with his murder, all of whom were under 18 at the time of the incident, three of whom were 15 years old. On 8th March, Nikolay Pandev was stabbed to death. Two boys aged 15 and 17 were charged with his murder.

There have been four murders in Tottenham this year. Of the 14 subsequently charged, 13 were children when the murders occurred. It is ironic that the local MP, David Lammy, has been silent regarding the issue of serious youth violence within his constituency despite the fact that he is the Shadow Justice Secretary.

The figures around serious youth violence should alarm anyone and particularly those who are parents to teenage boys who are as often the victim as they are the perpetrator. Within Haringey, three-quarters of victims are aged between 15 and 19. As of last year, Haringey was the second worst London Borough for knife crime offences. On 17th March, an Opinium poll on the Mayoral election asked participants what Police should have as their main priority over the next 12 months. 56 per cent of respondents listed knife crime as the main priority.

With the forthcoming London Mayoral Election, Londoners have the opportunity to make their vote heard. Sadiq Khan has shown that he will be quick to blame any correlation between his tenure and the rise in serious youth violence upon austerity. As he showed in the BBC debate, he is keener to highlight Shaun Bailey’s role as Youth and Police Adviser nearly a decade ago, than shoulder responsibility for any of the decisions taken whilst he has been at the helm. The manifesto for his mayoral campaign is 102 pages long and yet contains only two references to knife crime; there are twice as many references to racism.

Rival candidates have done little more to address the issue. The Liberal Democrats’ replacement candidate, Luisa Porritt, and the Green Party’s repeat candidate, Sian Berry, have both avoided any serious discussion of crime, the latter obliquely referring to it as “Safety”; Porritt focussing on the rebranding of the police as a “Service” rather than a “Force”. It is not the nomenclature of the Met that young men in London are wary of.

Despite his blend of truculence and grandstanding, Sadiq Khan is still a shrewd and astute politician. He knows he cannot afford to expose his heel, Achilles-like, whilst cloaked in the armour of identity politics, and so exploits the benefits of incumbency, pointing to the establishment of the Violence Reduction Unit and the recruitment of 1,300 additional officers as successes without the need to articulate whether they have been effective. The fact remains that knife crime has risen steadily under Khan’s tenure, with offences in the prior three years up to 2020 higher than under any previous Mayor.

The topic of serious youth violence and how best to tackle it is Shaun Bailey’s area of expertise. If you have ever heard him speak about the topic it is clear that he is a man who cares deeply about the issue, the improvement of outcomes for those vulnerable to it, and the impact upon families blighted by it.

Whilst this is a topic that all candidates intend to address at some level, what more could be done beyond the measures intended to resonate across all demographics?

Investment in youth services alone is unlikely to be enough. Research has shown that the majority of knife related offences involving young people occur between 3pm-6pm in the few hours after school. Re-establishing youth services will be key to reducing the likelihood of vulnerable children finding themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, for young people, predominantly boys, mired in a milieu of such toxicity that they feel compelled to carry an offensive weapon in the belief that it makes them safe, access to table-tennis and DJ equipment is unlikely to provide reassurances that any potential threat has dissipated. There is a deeper-seated issue as to why such altercations continue to occur; not every child involved is a member of a gang or involved in county lines trafficking. There is a critical need for robust public discussion around how to detoxify the environment which makes carrying a knife permissible.

Cultural issues must be addressed. If the media, national newspapers amongst them, continues to cynically valorise the most detrimental aspects of black culture and celebrate criminality via musicians who are directly and indirectly involved in some of the local rivalries and fatal violence that occurs, we will continue to give impressionable youngsters the greenlight that this is acceptable behaviour. The high-profile afforded by the media to the discussion of race could be far better employed discussing serious youth violence. But nobody is making their name publishing books about knife crime.

Additionally, the viral nature of social media illustrates the ease with which children otherwise on the fringe can become immersed and embroiled within a world where simply sharing your location can make you a target in an escalating contretemps. Social media companies must be held to account and forced to take firmer action on content that could be easily overlooked by those not familiar with the argot. Perceived slights can quickly become the catalyst for fatal confrontation.

The surrounding narrative of the issue must be more closely controlled. Opposition politicians gaslight communities by suggesting that young black men are victims of institutional racism due to disproportionate representation in the youth criminal justice system, but ignore the over-representation of young black men amongst the statistics of both victims and perpetrators of violent crime. As such, we are unlikely to stop families from suffering the heartbreak of losing their sons, either to prison or worse. The recent launch of the Hard Calls Saves Lives campaign, focused on the heart-breaking phonecalls that mothers have made following the violent deaths of their sons, is an example of how the voices of those impacted by such tragic events can resonate far more than those of any politician. The influence of strong characters, be they family members, teachers or local leaders, should not be underestimated. If David Lammy is as influential in Tottenham as his election results suggest, perhaps he should use his platform as Shadow Justice Secretary to prioritise addressing the issue blighting his own constituency and beyond.

Whatever the outcome of May’s election, London’s next Mayor will need a robust plan to combat an issue which continues to needlessly claim too many young lives across the capital. Any solution proposed will need to be far bolder, far more holistic, and far better resourced, than the ineffective piecemeal strategy currently in place.

Iain Dale: The Government’s race review had some positive findings. So why are ministers avoiding the media rounds?

2 Apr

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

The report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has certainly caused a lot of comment over the last 48 hours. Much of it has been ill-informed twaddle.

The number of people who castigated and slammed it within minutes of its release can’t possibly have read all of its 258 pages. They just jerked their knees in the time-honoured fashion.

Basically, the criticism was based on the fact that Boris Johnson had commissioned it, ergo it must be biased, useless or bad, or all three.

What its critics couldn’t stand is that it actually had some positive things to say about race relations in this country. And you know what? Those positive conclusions were based on fact.

Take educational achievement, for example. The report compared GCSE achievement for the different ethnic groups and found that all of them surpassed the achievements of white kids, with the one exception of children of black Caribbean backgrounds. Black Africans achieved higher exam grades, as did kids from Indian or Bangladeshi heritage.

The pay gap between white and ethnic minority employees has shrunk to just 2.3 per cent, and for the under 30s there is no gap at all. Now can someone please tell me why these two facts shouldn’t have been pointed out?

Race relations have come along way in the last twenty years in Britain. Can other countries say the same? America? France? I don’t think so. But it doesn’t suit the victim mentality of the Left to admit this. It suits their agenda to portray a Britain at war with itself over race.

The Left tried to keep the working classes in their place, almost as a client state of the Left. Margaret Thatcher exposed that and we’re now at a point where 47 per cent of working-class Brits vote Tory, and only 35 per cent vote Labour. The challenge for the Right is to break through among British Asians and in the Black vote. The opportunity is there, but the Left will fight it tooth and nail.

On the other side of the coin – you know I liked to be balanced – there is still a long way to go before many black or brown Britons feel they will get a fair crack of the whip, and the report rightly makes this clear. Equality in educational achievement may be a positive sign, but it’s still the case that black Caribbean kids are much more likely to be excluded from the classroom.

And in the workplace there is still a long way to go. Too many people feel they have to anglicise their names to get a fair crack of the whip.

You can’t ignore the evidence that you’re more likely to get a job interview if you’re called Michael Bookham, than if your name is Ndaboningi Nwoykoye or Mohammed Abdullah. All the surveys into this phenomenon show us that there is a conscious or subconscious bias present in many of our recruitment practices.

Look at the way we are policed. The same phenomenon is there in the policing and justice systems. Just examine the statistics and it becomes self-evident. To deny it is to deny that racism exists, whether it is institutional or not.

Britain as a country is not institutionally racist. Like in every other country, we have racists among us, and no doubt always will have. But the report was right to say that the UK is not institutionally rigged against ethnic minorities.

Indeed, the Commission members – all 12 of whom are from ethnic minorities, and people of stature in their own fields – were courageous to point that out, given they must have known that the Left would come for them.

I was disappointed that Lord Simon Woolley, the long-time campaigner for more black participation in the democratic system, called the report, or the authors of the report, “disingenuous”. Disagree with a report’s conclusions all you like, but it’s almost tantamount to accusing the commission’s members of being dishonest or having been bought off.

Over the last few years there have been no fewer than nine commissions or reports into different aspects of racial equality in this country. Most of them have sat on shelves gathering dust.

David Lammy complains that the 35 recommendations contained in his report into the criminal justice system have not been implemented. The Government say most of them have or are in the process of being implemented. And never the twain shall meet.

There are 24 conclusions and recommendations contained in this latest report. Admittedly most of them are fairly innocuous and minor, and to that extent I think it hasn’t been particularly brave.

But then again, Downing Street hasn’t been very brave either. It should have had ministers out on the airwaves on Wednesday, most especially Kemi Badenoch, the Equalities Minister.

If they think they’ve got a good story to tell, for God’s sake tell it. We put in a bid for her for my evening show on Wednesday. We got a straight “no” from Number 10 (as usual) on the basis that no one was doing media on it. Why the hell not?

If you commission a report you surely ought to be able to put up a minister to comment on its conclusions, especially as they were so benign. I say again, if the Government won’t talk about or explain its position, who the hell do they is going to do it for them?

The comms approach at Number 10 could be dubbed an Ostrich strategy. Stick your head in the sand and just make it all go away.

I had thought that when Dominic Cummings departed the stage, things would change. But they haven’t. Hey ho. Not my problem.