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Gladstone, the BBC and the contempt for national history

Gladstone, the BBC and the contempt for national history
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Written by Lawrence Goldman

In this article, first published in The Spectator on 26 August 2023, Lawrence Goldman, Executive Editor of History Reclaimed, defends the Victorian prime minister, William Gladstone, from erroneous claims concerning his involvement in slavery and focuses instead on his remarkable record as a political and social reformer.

A BBC news story this week about members of the Gladstone family visiting Guyana to apologise for their ancestral links to slavery in the Caribbean has all the historical errors and elisions we have become used to in reports and investigations on the subject of slavery. The authors do not appear to know the difference between parliament’s abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and its emancipation of slaves in the British empire in 1833, and they have William Gladstone giving his first Commons speech in 1831 when he was still an undergraduate in Oxford.

They join the National Portrait Gallery in their confusions. A new label beside Millais’s portrait of the Grand Old Man tells us that Gladstone was ‘initially opposed to abolishing the transatlantic slave trade’, which may have been difficult for him because abolition occurred two years before he was born.

Errors aside, the larger problem, captured in the photograph of William Gladstone that heads the BBC’s article, is the relevance of William to the story. It was his father, John, who owned slaves on several plantations that he had purchased in the early years of the nineteenth century, and who became a leading spokesman for the pro-slavery ‘West India Interest’.

By this time, the anti-slavery movement was well-established and the arguments against slavery were in constant circulation. John’s behaviour, and the conditions in which he kept his slaves, were rightly denounced at the time. But William is collateral damage, guilty by association, and held responsible for decisions and investments he did not make. In fact, William sat in parliaments, and was a member of governments that, after 1833, pursued the extirpation of slavery across the world with the vigour and commitment of true converts to the new secular faith of free labour.

That such a man, from such a background, could have led this country, is used as evidence in some unspecified way of the moral failings of a whole society. By association – and this may be the reason for the focus on a man who was four times prime minister – the Victorian establishment, and national history itself, are held in contempt. But the history of slavery is too sad and too important a subject to be used for these ulterior political ends.

This is not to criticise the Gladstone family for wanting to apologise and pay reparations if that brings them solace. It is their personal decision, and it could be respected if it remained ‘strictly personal’. (Though in passing, one notes that the £100,000 they are giving to the University of Guyana is dwarfed by the real value today of the £50,000 that William is estimated by his biographer, Colin Matthew, to have given to good causes in the course of his lifetime).

The problem comes with the family’s call on the UK government to begin ‘reparative justice’. William is held responsible because he inherited wealth from John. Everyone else is apparently responsible because Britain derived wealth from the West Indian slave plantations – though how much has been a matter of historical dispute for decades. And since we were governed by William, we are therefore caught in the mire with him. Note the elisions once again that characterise all these arguments. It is expected that everyone, the vast majority of whom have no links of any sort to slavery, should assume responsibility for John Gladstone’s inhumanity and profiteering. It is a process without an end, for there are many crimes in history for which reparations could be made.

Rather like the modern British taxation system, the Gladstones of today and the other former slaveholding families in the group Heirs of Slavery, would have us pay twice for their ancestors’ sins, once 200 years ago in compensation payments, and now today in ‘reparative justice’.  In 1834 John Gladstone received compensation from the exchequer for the freed slaves on his plantations of approximately £100,000, a huge sum. We are to pay again at the behest of the Gladstones, who made material profit from slavery while it existed and now make moral capital from remembrance and atonement for it. This was their business, in all meanings of that word, not ours.

It is entirely right that the history of Atlantic chattel slavery should be researched, studied and remembered. Some of us have spent careers teaching the subject. But it is also right to object to the use of that history – often its weaponization – in disputes designed to spread blame and to shame people for things they and their ancestors didn’t do and would never countenance. Far more people in this country opposed slavery after the 1780s, when the anti-slavery movement began, than owned slaves. And eventually, those numbers ensured that first the slave trade and then slavery itself were ended by popular pressure on parliament.

In his infamous maiden speech in the House of Commons in 1833, William Gladstone committed the youthful indiscretions of supporting his father and upholding the claim of slaveholders to financial compensation for their slaves. He was then 24 years old. He unlearnt his ‘stern, unbending’ Toryism in a career that took him ever leftwards in Victorian politics.

He was a pioneer of free trade. He created Britain’s mass media when he removed the duties on newspapers and journals in 1855. His governments created a compulsory system of elementary education. They were responsible for the first feminist reforms, for the legalisation of trade unions, and for the extension of the franchise in 1884 to millions of working men. Gladstone himself wrote the different bills after 1869 that he hoped would together liberate Ireland. He was never a friend to colonialism. He was the ‘People’s William’. As we wrangle over our supposed responsibilities for slavery, there is a danger that we forget all the rest of our history. Sadly, perhaps that is the plan.

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Lawrence Goldman