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Reparations: How can Britain Resolve its Racist Past?

Monarchy. To some, it is a beacon of hope and prosperity – a fairy-tale institution that brings in tourists and reminds us of our glorious past. To others, including myself, it is a reminder that Britain was built on the idea that some people are superior to others purely by merit of their birth. 

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were aiming to push the first perception of the royals in their recent tour of the Caribbean – rolling out the full fairy-tale offensive to promote the royal family among Caribbean nations that retain the Queen as their Head of State. 

But the Caribbean people themselves had different ideas. As they landed, William and Kate were met with protests demanding reparations for slavery, and an apology for Britain’s role in it. Even the British media, who so often applauded William and Kate when attacking Meghan Markle, called the royals tone deaf for the trip. But the key question being asked is whether we should pay reparations to the people whose ancestors were enslaved by the British empire. For me, there is only one answer – yes. 

Britain is to a large extent responsible for one of the greatest human rights violations in world history. Colonisation and slavery destroyed the lives of billions of people, creating a world system in which people of colour continue to be treated as less than paler members of the human race. Having created a worse world for these people, we have no moral right to say no to the call for reparations. 

To those who would now argue we should not pay for the sins of our fathers, I have two things to point out. The first is that, having finally outlawed slavery, the British government had no problem compensating slave holders for the loss of their “property”. In fact, the UK was still paying off the debt it took out to pay these reparations until 2015. Somehow, we’re happy to spend taxpayer money paying compensation to those who owned slaves, but we have an issue with paying reparations for the slaves themselves. This is morally indefensible. 

Secondly, it needs to be said that we do not live in a society completely blameless when it comes to slavery and colonisation. Though it may no longer be legal to enslave people, and many of the former colonies are now free, the UK population continues to benefit from these institutions. Our development, our economy, and our general influence in the world is all based on stolen resources, land, and people. Even in Bath, the Georgian buildings that played a key role in making the city a UNESCO World Heritage site were built on profits from the slave trade. And if we continue to benefit from slavery and do nothing to improve the lives of those disadvantaged by it, then we continue to be at fault. 

Somehow, we’re happy to spend taxpayer money paying compensation to those who owned slaves, but we have an issue with paying reparations for the slaves themselves. This is morally indefensible. 

Yasmin Vince

However, I do have two issues – or, more accurately, fears – when it comes to reparations. Racist voices are some of the loudest in the UK – illustrated most plainly by the treatment of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka after the Euros final, and the media’s response to Ukrainian refugees compared to those from the Middle East. Bearing this in mind, I can only imagine the racist voices getting louder and more violent should we introduce a policy that would obligate us to pay our debts to majority non-white nations. This is not necessarily a reason to refuse reparations, but a concern nonetheless. 

Secondly, according to Indian economist Utsa Putnaik, Britain owes the countries that formed British India $45 trillion in compensation for stolen resources. This is without looking at compensation for causing a famine in what is now Bangladesh, or any of the other atrocities committed in the former colonies. Reparations for slavery would be even more. 

This isn’t a one-off payment; it is something we would have to commit to long term and at the expense of other sectors. And historically, our government has chosen to pay its debts by taking money away from public services, such as income-related benefits, which Bangladeshi and Black households are more likely to rely on. Those that are already struggling are likely to be hit the hardest both economically and socially. And many people of colour would likely find themselves dealing with economic hardship alongside rising racism. 

But reparations do not have to be purely financial. Perhaps a better way forward for Britain is a freely given, comprehensive aid package for former colonies, and states with populations descended from slaves. This could (and should) include, for example, free exportation of medicines, free emergency aid in times of crisis, and support and amplification of their voice at international conferences. 

This is only a half-step in the right direction and comes from the purely selfish point of view of a British, White-Bangladeshi woman who has no desire to feel even more unsafe in her own country. Had I ever lived in Bangladesh, or a Caribbean country, I may feel different. I do think reparations are the moral way forward, but for the British people, especially the non-white British population, it may not be practical.

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