A thread about Anne Widdicombe, Daniel Hannan, and the recklessly offensive analogising of slavery to Brexit.
Yesterday Anne Widdicombe, former Tory MP and recently elected member of the European Parliament (MEP) for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, compared Britain’s attempt to leave the EU to a slave uprising.
The crassness and stupidity of aligning the UK’s democratically sanctioned entry into the European Union (which most economists see as producing a big net benefit for Britain) with the violent enslavement of human beings should be obvious. Here's how MP @DavidLammy put it.
But Brexit-supporting Tory MEP Daniel Hannan took to Twitter today to defend Widdicombe’s remarks and double down on the slavery analogy. He did this while quote-tweeting Mr Lammy.
Let’s dig in to Hannan’s argument. First he tries to universalise slavery, implying that we all share its scars and debilitating effects. Yes, white people, you are the descendants of slaves too!
Then he insists that, since slavery was ubiquitous in world history, we shouldn’t be concerned with who started it but with who ended it — that means us, fellow Britons; take a bow!
Let’s take those claims in turn. In universalising slavery Hannan dismisses the vast and enduring effects of _racialised_ slavery in the Atlantic world. Forced labour wasn’t new; the equation of enslavement with race was, and it had a terrible and continuing legacy.
Even Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, recognised that Roman slavery (which wasn’t racial) was fundamentally different from American slavery (which was); and that the association of enslavement with skin colour presented new and uniquely dreadful problems for Atlantic societies.
As for the claim that, since _everyone_ was implicated in slavery, we should focus on the lead taken by the British in ending the institution, this completely ignores the central role of Britain in directing the Atlantic slave trade for nearly a century after 1713.
British investors, merchants, planters & captains were at the helm when the trade peaked in the second half of the 18th century. Our national wealth & institutions are deeply implicated in slavery. It's a nonsense to deny this or imply that abolition made Britain morally whole.
As for Britain’s crusading role in _ending_ the trade, first we should remember that the 1807 Slave Trade Act didn’t actually end slavery in the British empire; that continued for another three decades, and was ended partly through the agencies of enslaved people themselves.
We should also remember that emancipation in the Caribbean was compensated, but the UK government didn’t pay a penny to the people who had actually been enslaved. It chose instead to remunerate slave owners handsomely, entrenching inequality in post-emancipation societies.
This inconvenient detail often drops from 'patriotic' accounts of abolition; or, as with last year's calamitous tweet from HM Treasury, it's presented as a cause for celebration. We ALL paid to compensate slaveholders, huzzah! theguardian.com/commentisfree/…
Then there’s the broader imperial context of Britain’s campaign against the slave trade. Recent historians have explored the shift from plantation slavery to other forms of forced labour in Britain’s emerging world empire of the nineteenth century.
The story is complex, but as Christopher L. Brown, Lauren Benton, @RichardHuzzey, @JMartinezSLS, and a host of others have argued, antislavery became a delivery mechanism for new forms of British imperialism in the nineteenth century.
British statesmen and military commanders used antislavery to open new areas to British influence and control, and presented the supposed benevolence of Britain’s antislavery cause to justify imperial expansion in South Asia, East Asia and much of Africa.
British officials also ensured that ‘liberated Africans’ — slaves captured by Royal Navy ships after 1807 — were funnelled into new systems of coerced labour from Sierra Leone to Cape Town to the West Indies. Most were indentured for seven years or more; some never saw freedom.
A recent book by @pxscanlan on Sierra Leone is a must read here; also Jake Richards’s excellent article from last year on liberated Africans in the journal Past and Present.
I’m not dismissing the place of idealism in British antislavery; but serious historians acknowledge the huge ironies (and troubling continuities) in Britain’s shift from militantly proslavery exploitation of Black people to militantly antislavery exploitation of Black people.
Hannan likes to remind us that he got a double first in History from Oxford. He was there in the late 1980s, when the Faculty was overwhelmingly white and bracingly conservative, and when Jacob Rees-Mogg was still calling Charles I “the Martyr” in his weekly essays.
Things have moved on in the subsequent 30 years; the study of Atlantic slavery — the most extensive & dreadful iteration in history, nothing comes close — has been revolutionised. UK history students barely studied the Atlantic world (still less West/Central Africa) back then.
There’s plenty of room to debate interpretations of specifics; but Hannan’s doubling down on Widdicombe’s disgraceful analogising is, before anything else, really bad history. Aside from the tasteless politics of this, Hannan’s tweets are hostile to knowledge./
My wife is berating me for misspelling Anne Widdecombe's name: "If you watched Celebrity Big Brother you'd know how to spell it." Apologies to AW.