Slaving away at a moral case for the Union

It’s been a frustrating few days, I’ve been offline due to computer problems.  To give myself something to do I started on building the new model tram layout I’ve got planned, only to discover that the extremely expensive track system was missing some parts and other bits don’t work.  So after a protracted period of hassle I’ve ended up with a much shorter and simpler layout than I paid for – now I know how Edinburgh felt.  But at least the computer is working again, although the tram track is still giving grief.

A week ago, Daily Mail and former Record journalist Chris Deerin published an extended piece of trolling in which he set out what he risibly described as the moral duty for Scots to vote no in the referendum, as in his view the United Kingdom is a greater force for good in the world than the Fairy Godmother.  The UK is the Magic Kingdom where happy little munchkins gaily skip to zero hours contracts jobs and nothing bad ever happens.

Naturally folk didn’t respond well to the implication that voting for independence is an immoral act, on a par with exposing yer wullie in public, although Deerin was blind to the irony that his list of things that are Great about Britain boiled down to exposing Westminster’s wullie in public.  But he still managed to find time to publish a follow up article in which he complained that horrible cybernats were being nasty to him for exposing his many idiocies.

The entire episode has already been roundly mocked, but I thought it might be useful to examine Deerin’s “moral duty” a bit more closely.  After all, it’s only possible to arrive at a fair assessment of the UK’s morality footprint if we also consider the occasions when the UK trod morality face down in the mud.

Let’s look at just one of the reasons why Deerin thinks voting for Scottish independence is just the same as flashing yer nads.  Does it stand up or is Deerin a flaccid flasher?

The UK, he tells us, led the way in the abolition of the slave trade.  It’s a topic that has been under discussion recently, with the success of the movie 12 Years a Slave – touted by the UK media as an example of how it took a British movie to get the Americans to face up to their legacy of slavery.  In fact in an interview the director, Steve McQueen, the son of Caribbean migrants to the UK, stated that as far as he was concerned in making this movie he is not a “British director”, he’s a descendant of the enslaved not the enslavers.

The UK was very much one of the enslavers.  What Deerin didn’t say is that Britain also led the way in pursuing the slave trade.  The historian Professor David Richardson estimates that European nations transported 12 million Africans into slavery across the Atlantic.  British slave ships carried more than 3.4 million of them, almost 30% of the total.

Only Portugal, which began the slave trade 100 years prior to British involvement and continued 50 years after the UK had abolished the trade, took more Africans from their homes into a life of degredation and suffering.

Sadly, “the UK, it’s not quite as bad as Portugal” isn’t really the ringing moral endorsement Deerin was hoping for.  But it’s the best he’s going to get.

By the second half of the 18th century, the UK was leading the world in slavery – but not in the way Deerin meant.  In the 1760s an estimated 80,000 Africans were transported across the Atlantic annually, British ships carried more than half of them.  Most were destined for the sugar and tobacco plantations in the British colonies in the Caribbean.

Slavery made some people in the UK very wealthy. By the middle of the 18th century Britain was raking in £4 million pounds a year from the West Indian sugar and tobacco plantations.  (In today’s money that works out at close to £1 billion.)  During the same period, the entire combined international trade of the UK from other sources brought in only £1 million. Between 1750 and 1780, about 70% of the government’s total income came from taxes on goods from its colonies, meaning that slavery accounted for 56% of the annual income of the UK Exchequer.

The UK abolished British involvement in the slave trade in 1807, although slavery continued in British colonies until 1833.  But the British abolition of slavery was not motivated by moral concerns.

The vast funds the UK raised from the 18th century slave trade were invested in new opportunities as the Industrial Revolution got under way.  The Industrial Revolution and the financial centre of the City of London were kick started by the capital raised from slavery, and with the growth of factories and industrial production the economics of slavery became less profitable.

The new factories meant Britain had less need for slave produced goods.  Instead of an enslaved workforce, the UK economy began to benefit from mechanisation and vastly greater manufacturing efficiency with free labour which could be hired or fired as market needs demanded.  Unlike slaves, free workers did not have to be fed by their employers when there was little work for them to do.

After the USA became independent in 1776, Britain’s sugar plantations in the Caribbean went into economic decline as the USA could now buy sugar from French or Dutch plantations.  Revenues from Jamaica and the other Caribbean colonies dropped drastically.  It now became in Britain’s financial interests to act against slavery, since the economies of the UK’s European rivals were still dependent upon revenues from slave labour.

Although those individuals who led the campaign against the slave trade had the highest of motivations, their campaign was only successful because of changing economic circumstances.  From being the financial motor of the British economy, changing times and circumstances had gradually turned it into a threat to British financial interests.  Slavery was no longer profitable.  As ever with Westminster, it’s all about the money.  The only morality Westminster recognises is the morality of the pound note.

If you vote no in September on moral grounds, you are voting for the morality of money, the morality of the market, the morality that puts profit before people.  That’s a direction in which the UK’s moral compass has pointed unwaveringly, and continues to point to this day.  The UK doesn’t need slavery any more, it has zero hours contracts and workfare instead.

0 thoughts on “Slaving away at a moral case for the Union

  1. Another nice piece, with a few laughs thrown in, before getting down to the more sombre stuff.

    I would still have regard for those that fought long and hard to abolish slavery. They did it for altruistic reasons and not because it paid them to do so.

    A thoughtful piece looking back at a dark period in British history.

  2. I have not read the article by Deerin, and have no intention of polluting my mind by doing so, but it strikes me as strange that he should think that we have a duty to stay in Britain because of something that Britain did a couple of centuries ago. It seems that British nationalism looks backwards, to when (as they see it) Britain led the way in ending slavery, Britain’s empire brought civilization to much of the world, Britain led the fight against the Nazis, and so on. Of course, what the British nationalists see in the past is largely what they choose to see, with a Nelsonian blind eye being turned to the more sordid bits of history, such as Britain’s role in the slave trade that you describe, the deaths of Afrikaner women and children in British concentration camps in the Boer War, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre at Amritsar where hundreds of Indian civilians were gunned down on the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer (an act approved of by many in Britain), and so on. (Incidentally, having read a biography of that Great British hero Nelson, I consider him anything but admirable.)

    History is a most interesting subject, populated by some heroes and villains, but mostly by people who were a mixture of the two, and countries also have some things to be proud of, and others to be ashamed of. The referendum is not about the past; it is about Scotland’s future, but for this the unionists offer only scare stories. For anything resembling a positive case for the union, it seems they must turn to the past. The referendum cannot change the past, only the future.

  3. Missed you Paul, glad you weren’t wasting your time.

    Very good article, the UK moral compass is controlled by money always has been and always will be. We didn’t end slavery we transferred it to serfdom and dependency of our own peasants, thus the misery and squalor of the industrial revolution. Where money was king and people were expendable tools.

  4. I am not sure I entirely agree with your historical analysis (which seems to favour an economic interpretation) in respect of the abolition of slavery, unpicking the causality is mightily different; but I absolutely agree with you that whatever is the case, it is certainly not an example from which we can draw a moral lesson about our past, let alone about our future. Ideological explanations which assuage the national ego might well have a self-congratulatory appeal to Deerin and his ilk, it is the sort of myth that feeds the mass delusion that Britain is still a big world player, which it isn’t.

    The interesting thing as a historian is that a whole generation of historians are unpicking Britain’s imperial past and are coming to terms with its demise, and the endless stream of total failures along the way. Much of this has been driven by nationalist histories in former British colonies and dependencies as historians unrestricted by the intellectual straight jacket of Britishness have made wise judgements about the benefits (or not) of the period of British rule. The empire no longer looks so wonderful, and Britain is certainly not as ‘Great’ as it once seemed to be.

    The historical analysis is to some extent dovetailing with current political reality. Unionism and the current feudal relic of a political system is so hardwired into most Scots we can’t see around or beyond it. Once we leave we will understand this only too well, but sadly until then, the kind of old-fashioned clarion call that Deerin makes will still have some credence, intellectually bankrupt as it is. If only we could have BT people making a fool of themselves like this in a more prominent TV environment. Oh wait, we have Anas Sarwar for that….

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