Should the British government apologise for the slave trade? First of all, whom should they apologies to? Anyone who’s suffered because of the slave trade; but they are all dead. Are they, though? Couldn’t it be that people still suffer to this day as a consequence of it? If so, those people deserve an apology. Furthermore, don’t people whose ancestry has suffered from the slave trade deserve an apology? They do if, and only if, what happened to their ancestors bothers them to this day – and in some cases it will.
Now the difficult question: why should the British government apologise for the slave trade? Because the British government recognises the slave trade as abhorrent. It does. And because the British government was involved in the slave trade; by, in the very least, allowing it. But certainly, one will want to say, this British government was not involved. Indeed, no member of this government was involved. And no one who voted for this government was involved. It was too long ago. So, there is no responsibility, just on the ground that they did not do it.
Two problems with this: first of all, if we have recognised, as we have, that anyone alive today, who suffers today as a result of the slave trade, deserves an apology, then should we not recognise that anyone alive today, who profits today as a result of the slave trade, should issue that apology? We probably should; and it is probably the case that there are people, today, still profiting from the slave trade – someone whose family got really rich through the slave trade, and who is still enjoying the wealth to this day. But even accepting this, it does not mean that the British government should apologise for them. That, surely, would be their individual responsibility if anyone’s, and so it should be themselves, and not the government, to issue an apology.
The second problem is more fundamental: isn’t the British government an historic continuity, such that there is only one thing, the institution by the name of “British government”, through history? If that was so, then Blair’s government, today’s British government, is directly responsible for the slave trade, on the ground that it was the agent who perpetrated the crime, if one accepts, as we should, that ‘The British government was involved in the slave trade”. In this proposition, ‘British government’ identifies an institution which is still in existence, in the shape of Blair’s government, rather than a set of people long dead that used to constitute those British governments that were involved with the slave trade.
That way, we would be treating the institution of the British government through history just in the way in which we treat a single person through their life. If, in my youth, I had committed a crime, then, today, I would still be responsible for that crime, because it was the same person who committed that crime, namely me. And the same argument would apply to the institution British government. And the fact that today that institution is constituted by Blair and his ministers, while hundreds of years ago it was constituted by someone else, would count as much as the fact that today I am constituted by a set of cells, while at the time of the crime committed in my youth I was constituted by an all-together different set of cells. And, just as in my case, the continuity, the fact that it is the same person, me, at both times, is guaranteed by some sort of identity, consciousness, and past, so with the institution of the British government there would be a sort of identity, consciousness, and past that would guarantee that we are still talking about the same thing.
But how could there be a continuity, if this government would never dare to allow such monstrosity, while the government of the time did? It doesn’t matter; because the fact that, in my old age, I have become the sort of citizen which would never commit the crime I committed in my youth, does not mean that I am no longer responsible for that crime. So, if the analogy stands, then Blair’s government is indeed directly responsible for the slave trade, just as it is responsible for everything that any British government has ever done, good or bad. But can we praise, for example, the Blair’s government with having won WWII? It sounds weird. Can we praise Blair’s government with universal suffrage? Weird, again. And even weirder it would be to praise or blame a government for policies it doesn’t agree with that were implemented by a previous government;
So this argument for the identity of all governments over time under the institution of the ‘British government’ does have some counter-intuitive consequences. But, let us remember it, if we don’t accept this argument, then it isn’t at all clear why should Blair’s government apologies for the slave trade. One might propose that identity through continuity is not necessary, and that it is sufficient to claim that Blair’s government is, today, the representative of previous British governments. More so, it could be supposed, than any other institution around. And so that it should apologies on behalf of those which it represents, namely previous British governments. But would that be enough? Would it be enough if Blair said that the British government apologies for what other British governments have done in the past? Maybe so; and still better than just saying how horrific the slave trade was. Indeed, it seems that any rational human being ought to think that the slave trade was horrendous, and that any rational human being ought to feel sorry for those involved. But it looks as though it would not be enough that the British government said that; because that’s short of an apology, and the relation between this British government with previous ones is tighter than the relation between any human being today and those human beings that were involved with the slave trade.
One final thing: if one was to dismiss those arguments, there would still be wrong reasons for not apologising: such as temporal relativism.