Cash Made Them Care

Why so much interest in history now? Because property was broken. That’s an uncomfortable fact. Lawful protest could be ignored, and it was.

What follows the destruction of property? People get broken. The rule of law which protects the worst of us also protects the best of us, Neil Oliver said on Talk Radio. And he’s right.

The liberal notion that reason can resolve this feels a little fantastic just at the moment. It seems optimistic to hope that the propertied and powerful will Do The Right Thing or that the radical and assertive will foresee the outcomes of their recklessness. Two sides have locked horns and seem intent on proving each other’s point.

Britain did abolish slave trade. In the war against Napoleon, France got its money from sugar estates and now Britain had other options. It wasn’t growing disgust towards slavery that did it. It was strategy.

Britain did delay the final abolition of slavery. That’s a fact too, and if Britain had not done so, slavery was entwined with every part of the economy and collapse would have followed. That’s a reality as well, like the bank bailout in 2008.

And what did Britain move on to? Becoming the world’s drug dealer — taking an ever larger share of the opium trade, through the East India Company and arm’s-length agents like Jardine and Matheson, until finally by gunboats and troops ‘unequal treaties’ were forced on China that ‘freed’ ports for Western use and took over Hong Kong.

What would we make of an academy or a college founded by a drug dealer? We would take the money, probably. We might put up his statue. We might clean up his image. And when some social tide turned, many of the activists ripping his statue down once more would have recreational drugs in their systems.

There’s no use saying people didn’t know this stuff or saying we need to see them in the context of their time. That’s special pleading, not historical context. People knew drugs destroyed human beings. That is why the Chinese did ban opium before Britain sent armed forces to make them take it back.

People knew slave trade was disgusting. That’s why people didn’t want to sail in ‘the Guinea trade’ and it’s why that euphemism was used. There were 275 years of ‘growing disgust’ between the start of direct Atlantic trade and Britain’s legal abolition.

People know about human trafficking in the drugs trade today, and in today’s vast pornography business, too.

For what it’s worth, when I see Milligan’s statue removed from West India Dock in London, I think of docker ancestors who also disappeared from the docks elsewhere. There are all sorts of vanished history, and no one in my family got a statue. And I don’t think it compares.

Massive changes in politics do not occur out of goodwill in a grand national debate and nor is activism an utterly open-minded and chivalric pursuit of truth. Considerably deeper honesty is needed here. Within 48 hours of Colston in Bristol, we have right-wingers lining up to speak well of imperialists and left-wingers scathingly approving lawless unrest. It must feel great to be so indignant after weeks of lockdown and the start of recession. It will only get worse as the right-wingers relativise the evils of slavery and the leftists absolutise the evils of their opponents and dumb statues.

Put the statues in museums, as Colston’s now will be. Put plaques up alongside Dundas, explain the arguments and facts for and against. Recognise that this is a line we are crossing. Rhetoric about the Levellers keeping radical thoughts alive was great, coming from Tony Benn as he sat in his Holland Park mansion before his next Miners’ Gala speaking engagement. And it was just as impressive from Charles James Fox, as he argued radical causes while the Reign of Terror kicked off in France and he lived off his private wealth.

And there were no doubt many people who were still enjoying it when it came to cracking heads, and actually did enjoy cracking heads, as Civil War or Peterloo in England, or the Killing Times and Tranent in Scotland, occurred, then seemed not to stop. Some of them were still enjoying it, very probably, when as Roundheads they deported their opponents to the Caribbean or when as deported Royalists they became the first slavers in Jamaica. And so it goes on, once it starts. But recognise this is a line we are crossing, and ask three wordy but serious questions:

1. What real differences are there between slavery, modern slavery, indentured labour, zero hours contracts — and what have you done for the working class in China who made your phone? They’re not black or white. So much for solidarity.

2. How quickly are you, in authority, going to listen the next time this ‘Grenville Towers disparity’ emerges — and do you, in the protests, really want public property to be treated as no one’s private property should be (because Dawn Butler suggested on ITV that this ‘makes a difference’)?

3. Lastly. All this time freedom of speech has been pursued through violent behaviour these last few days — what have you done to understand the crackdown in Hong Kong and China during the same few days? Did you even know? Do you think it may come to a place near you?

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Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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