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.

Gavin Williamson: Skills, jobs and freedom. My priorities for this week’s Queen’s Speech – and the year ahead.

14 May

Gavin Williamson is Secretary of State for Education, and is MP for South Staffordshire.

The election results last week demonstrated that today’s Conservative party commands support across the length and breadth of the nation. Whether it was in Devon, Dudley or Durham, the voters who first put their faith in the Prime Minister in 2019 resoundingly confirmed that the Conservatives are they party they trust to deliver results, to create opportunity and to stand up for Britain.

And with the first part of our mandate delivered – to Get Brexit Done – attention is rightly turning to our commitment and determination to level up the nation.

The Education Bills that her Majesty announced in the Queen’s Speech are at the living, beating heart of that agenda. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will deliver fundamental reforms to our college and university system, making it as easy to study a vocational course, at any age, as it is to go to university.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will put an end once and for all to the chilling effect of cancel culture in universities.

And alongside this legislation, we will be continuing to drive improvement in our schools, completing the revolution begun in 2010. We are supporting all schools to join strong multi-academy trusts, embedding a consistent culture on discipline and behaviour, and working with the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, to develop an ambitious, long-term plan for recovery – on top of the more than £2 billion we have already invested for this purpose.

At the heart of our reforms is the new Skills Bill. Ever since I became Education Secretary, my mantra has been Further Education, Further Education, Further Education.

For too long in this country, technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to university. It’s left our economy short of the vital technical skills they need, our employers dependent on importing labour and too many of our citizens left behind by a culture that values academic qualifications above all else.

Our new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will change that, giving everyone the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime – at their local college, or at university. This is levelling up in action, and it will turbocharge our economy by getting people back into jobs and Britain working again.

In addition to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Bill contains measures to strengthen our great further education colleges, the engines of opportunity that lie at the centre of our towns. New legislation will put employers at the heart of our skills reforms, joining forces with further education colleges to ensure young people can be confident they are taking high-quality, work-relevant courses that will get them the good jobs they deserve.

We are going to make sure there is a better balance between the skills that local employers want from their workforce and those that are being taught by colleges so that young people have a valuable and top-quality alternative to university.

Rather than encourage people to leave home to find a rewarding career, we intend to empower them to find fulfilling and rewarding work wherever they live, invigorating communities and driving economic growth, up and down the country.

It is a natural progression to the ground-breaking reforms we have already been rolling out, such as our T level and apprenticeship programmes, and which will deliver the skilled individuals to boost the post-pandemic economy and bring down unemployment.

And finally, the Bill will strengthen the ability of the Office for Students to crack down on low quality courses, delivering on our manifesto commitment. Our universities, which have played such a vital role in developing the vaccines and treatments to beat Covid-19, must be a fundamental part of levelling up through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt – and our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology.

Whether in the Tory shires or the Red Wall, the people of Britain have more in common than not. They want good jobs, better living standards and to own their own home. They want to know that they can trust their local school to give their children a good education, that their streets at safe at night, they can get a GP appointment when they need one. And, fundamentally, they want a society that offers a fair deal, where hard work pays off and the talented can get ahead, whatever their background.

And, as they demonstrated in 2016, and again in 2019, they believe in Britain. They know that while we may not always be perfect, this country has historically been a force for good in the world, and continues to be one of the best, fairest and most tolerant places to live and work.

The citizens of this country care deeply about injustice, rightly abhor racism, and increasingly recognise that love is love – but they have little patience with the increasingly intolerant and puritanical strand of the far left, which seems to be perpetually ashamed of our flag, our nation and our history. They have no truck with nonsense such as the denigration of Churchill, the ‘cancelling’ of our great naval heroes such as Drake and Nelson, or the renaming of buildings named after David Hume, a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the reforming Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who amongst other things implemented universal primary education for our children.

Our universities have a long and proud history of being spaces in which differing views or beliefs can be expressed without fear of censure, in recent years this has come under threat. There are increasing concerns of a chilling effect, with students and academics who dare to disagree with the campus consensus facing abuse, intimidation and even threats of investigation, dismissal or expulsion.

While the majority of academics and students believe in free speech, too many universities have allowed a small minority of activists to determine what can and cannot be said, for example by making law-abiding student societies pay security costs to invite mainstream speakers, rather than standing up to those willing to threaten violence to shut down speech.

I wrote a year ago that if universities didn’t protect free speech, the Government would. That is why we have introduced our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, delivering on our manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities. The Bill will strengthen existing duties on universities to promote free speech, extend these duties to students’ unions and establishing a director in the Office for Students to protect and promote these rights – including levying fines where necessary.

The programme of reforms my Department is implementing delivers for citizens across our electoral coalition. It rewards the new voters who have put their faith in us for the first time, trusting us to deliver the opportunity, prosperity and better lives that Labour has so sadly failed to provide for them. And it reassures our traditional voters that the torch of liberty, democracy and freedom burns as brightly within the Conservative party today as it ever did. As the Prime Minister has said, we are going to unite and level up our nation, and education is at the core of that mission.

Rupert Myers: Let Prince Philip become Plinth Philip

12 Apr

Rupert Myers is a barrister and writer.

The death of the Duke of Edinburgh has been felt around the world. An inspiration for us all to do more, his death invites reflection and the celebration of a great man. A dutiful public servant who filled his unforgiving minutes with distance run for Queen and country, the Duke of Edinburgh was a fixture in all of our lives.

With his wit, style, and work ethic he epitomised the greatest generation, of which he was a leading man. For this reason, we must honour him suitably, and to do that we need to shake things up. It’s time for the experiments in public art on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square to end, and replaced instead with a statue of the Duke.

A keen sailor who went from being one of the youngest first lieutenants in the Royal Navy at just 21, to his appointment as Lord High Admiral a decade ago, Prince Philip would be at home in a square named after Britain’s most famous naval success – plinth pals with General Sir Charles James Napier, Major General Sir Henry Havelock and George IV. Forever placing him next to Horatio Nelson would be a fitting tribute for a man who played his part in World War Two at sea and witnessed the surrender of the Japanese.

Some might cry out that London would lose the contemporary artworks that are displayed on the fourth plinth. Beyond Rachel Whiteread’s beguiling ‘Monument’ – an upside down transparent resin copy of the plinth itself – and Antony Gormley’s ‘One & Other’, which saw 2400 members of the public each spend an hour on the plinth, the other installations have been highly missable. London is awash with brilliant spaces for the display of contemporary art, and Sir John Mortimer’s recommendation of the fourth plinth as the home for a rolling programme of temporary artworks has long since gone stale.

Many on the internet would be enraged by the erection of a statue to the Duke of Edinburgh in such a prominent location. “The country has reached its quota for statues of racist, old white men” as one person replied when I floated the suggestion on Twitter.

These people couldn’t be more wrong. Philippos Andreou reached this country as a Greek Orthodox child refugee in a cot made from a fruit box. He became the longest-serving consort in the most successful reign of any monarch, and helped shepherd our country through war, peace, and monumental change.

To judge him on the colour of his skin, or on a few terrible comments in the course of a lifetime of service may be the sort of lazy, reductive thinking we have come to expect from social media, but it does an utter disservice to his life. Try getting through 22,219 solo engagements at which you are expected to be entertaining and interesting, surrounded by the world’s press, without saying a few things you might regret.

The Duke took on exile, poverty, his mother’s schizophrenia, and personal tragedy, yet not only served as consort to the Queen but founded an award scheme that helped millions of young people find meaning, purpose, and discover the benefit of the great outdoors.

If he isn’t the sort of person we should be erecting statues to, then it’s time to do away with statues. So long as we put them up to anyone, we will be putting them up to brilliant people who lived flawed and imperfect lives whose records don’t regularly conform to the changing standards of modern life, as even a cursory glance at the lives of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, or Martin Luther King can confirm. Statues don’t have to represent an endorsement of everything contained within a life, but merely the greater balance of it.

Some claim that the fourth plinth is being saved for the Queen, but our longest serving monarch will – many years from now – be surely deserving of a square and a column all of her own. Right now, we must agree on a fitting tribute to her husband. He was a funny, curious, flawed man. He should be honoured in a place that befits his naval service and the high regard in which he is held by the public.

Let’s put the Duke of Edinburgh with the people – in the middle of things; not with the politicians in Parliament Square, constantly surrounded by unwashed campaigners with megaphones, but in the most iconic square in our great capital city, where he will be cherished by visitors from around the world for centuries to come. It’s time for Plinth Philip.