STEPHEN GLOVER: The Guardian wants to drag us into its pit of shame
STEPHEN GLOVER: Imagine the mortification at the citadel of woke! But The Guardian wants to drag us all into its pit of shame
Those who doubt whether God has a sense of humour might like to think again in view of The Guardian’s connections with slavery.
For the newspaper is probably more sensitive about racism than any other on earth. Its concerns are often appropriate. But it is also liable to discern racists even where none exist.
It turns out that John Edward Taylor, the journalist and cotton merchant who founded The Guardian in 1821, had ‘links to slavery’, according to the paper’s apologia which went online yesterday afternoon. So also did ‘at least nine of his 11 backers’.
Imagine the mortification at the citadel of woke as investigations proceeded during recent months. How could this have happened? How could The Guardian, of all newspapers, be connected in any way with the evil of slavery?
Our response should be more measured. I believe The Guardian is agonising more than it needs to, and is guilty of virtue-signalling as it beats its own breast while pledging £10 million in compensation. I also think the ‘restorative justice’ championed by the paper is likely to be socially destructive.
The Guardian is probably more sensitive about racism than any other on earth. Its concerns are often appropriate. But it is also liable to discern racists even where none exist (Pictured: The Guardian’s head office in north London)
In the first place, John Edward Taylor’s connections to slavery, as described by the newspaper, were somewhat tangential. He wasn’t involved in the slave trade in the manner of Edward Colston, the merchant whose statue was toppled into Bristol harbour by a mob in 2020 — an action applauded by The Guardian.
The slave trade was abolished in the British Empire in 1807; and slavery brought to an end in 1833. Taylor’s sin, as the newspaper sees it, was to import cotton from the south of the United States, where slavery was, most regrettably, still thriving.
In its statement yesterday, The Guardian referred to ‘the part [the newspaper] and its founders had in this crime against humanity’. People will have to decide for themselves whether it is exaggerating the moral deficiencies of its founder.
For if Taylor was responsible for a crime against humanity, so too were countless thousands, if not millions, of people. Much of the wealth of our great northern cities such as Manchester was built on the cotton trade.
Factories, parks, chapels, pubs, houses and much more were constructed out of the enormous riches produced by the textile industry. Taylor was very far indeed from being the only sinner, if that is what he was.
Must all these buildings be torn down, or at the very least have plaques attached to them attesting to their infamy? Are the millions of descendants of those involved in the cotton trade in whatever shape or form to be demonised?
That, I strongly suspect, is the hope of academics from The Institute for the Study of Slavery and similar bodies that have investigated John Edward Taylor on behalf of The Guardian. We are all assumed to be guilty — and, in one way or another, we must all be made to pay for our ancestors’ alleged transgressions, even if they were not involved in the slave trade.
This appears to be the implication of a number of academics, such as the historian David Olusoga, who has been holding The Guardian’s hand as it endured its self-inspired punishment beating.
I don’t think we are all guilty. We can’t be held morally responsible for the acts of people who lived long before we were born and acted without the remotest collusion from ourselves. That is the pit of shame into which The Guardian and others would lead us.
It turns out that John Edward Taylor, the journalist and cotton merchant who founded The Guardian in 1821, had ‘links to slavery’, according to the paper’s apologia which went online yesterday afternoon
The suggestion is that, as most of us are concealed racists — which I do not at all believe — we must shoulder responsibility for racism in the past.
Naturally, if The Guardian wants to give away £10 million as a sign of its collective remorse, it is free to do so, though one can’t help observing that it is a small slice of its £1.3 billion war chest, derived from other publishing ventures since disposed of.
Not a great financial sacrifice, then, though a very public one. All the same, some of the dozens of the newspaper’s staff who have been made redundant in recent years may feel justifiably aggrieved that money can be found to pay for the sins of forebears but not to keep them in employment.
In a similar way, poorly paid clergy and their spouses can reasonably look incredulously at the Church of England, which recently found £100 million to ‘address past wrongs’ after it emerged that some of its wealth can be traced back to the slave trade. Why not focus on the here and now?
This is the essence of my complaint. ‘Restorative justice’ is a misnomer. The sins of the past can’t be undone or reversed in the slightest degree. Its victims are long since dead. What we can profitably do is build a better, and a more just, future.
To be fair to The Guardian, it is to some degree trying to do that. It plans to support projects in the Gullah Geechee region in South Carolina and in Jamaica over the next decade, and to invest in journalism designed to help black communities in the UK, U.S. and the Caribbean.
If admittedly tiny sums of money really do benefit a few deprived people — and make the folk at The Guardian’s board table feel more virtuous — we can hardly criticise the newspaper for its efforts.
The same point can be made about BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan. She and her family have recently travelled to the Caribbean island of Grenada to publicly apologise for their ancestors’ ownership of more than 1,000 slaves. They have promised £100,000 in reparations. It may do some good.
But I repeat: the sins of the past can’t be assuaged by what we do today, whether or not we are trying to attract attention to our virtue. Perhaps the urge to try to repair former iniquities illustrates the secularism of our age. It was up to God — so it was once believed — to judge the evil that men do.
Of course, if we are looking for evil, there are more recent examples than slavery. The Nazis murdered six million Jews within living memory, some of whose relatives are still alive. Nazi Germany caused incalculable damage. So did Imperial Japan. Thousands of Allied servicemen died in Japanese camps.
Do we demand reparations for these recent outrages, which necessarily cast a more vivid shadow over our times even than slavery and the slave trade, so much farther back in history?
Or do we look to the future and try to free ourselves from the tyranny of the past? I believe that is what we should do. It is futile and unproductive — and ultimately divisive — to obsess about the sins of those who died 200 years ago.
The Guardian may feel a little better about itself this morning. It may believe it has come to terms with its past — though of course it hasn’t changed it one whit; and in its case the past really wasn’t quite as bad as it thinks it was.
The ill-judged cause of restorative justice will lead us down a bleak path towards endless recrimination. Nearly all of us will end up in the dock, charged with racist offences for which we don’t bear the slightest responsibility and can never begin to undo.
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