This week UK Prime Minister David Cameron went on a trip to Jamaica, and didn’t apologise for slavery. He couldn’t apologise because that might open the path for legal action by any country that has a claim to reparations. The UK has been on the recieving end of historic claims for a while; give the Falklands back to Argentina; forgive criminalised homosexuals like Turing and Wilde; give the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
We’re not the only ones. When the EU was attempting to claw back its loans to Greece, the understandably upset Greece demanded unpaid war reparations from Germany. In almost every case, the answer is the same; the nation of the present cannot be responsible for the actions of the nation of the past.
In many cases, this is because the UK cannot afford to set a precedent. If it starts giving things back, making amends, then more claimants will come a-knocking. The power dynamic is also a relevant point. Greece is never going to persuade Germany to just give money back, and the same is true of Jamaica and the UK. For all that we’re no longer the same empire that benefited from slavery, we are definitely in a position to ignore demands like this.
But there’s also the problem of just how much time has passed. There’s no way to wind back the clock on history. Jamaican culture has been irrevocably changed by slavery. If reparations were made, then the native Caribs would be justified in demanding that all those of African descent went back to Africa. And that is plainly ridiculous.
Yes, our antecedents were well out of order. But there are better ways to repay the situation. Possibly not by building a prison and shipping their criminals back them, but still…