After the statues – what next ? A Liberal way forward

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I have been sharing my experiences as a black Briton with my white friends. It has shown me that we need to educate our country on our past. We must develop our history curriculum and widen the outlook of our galleries and museums.

While it took a century to move from landowners voting to universal suffrage, in our digital age, change should be much swifter. We are an evolutionary not a revolutionary country. The Colston statue incident has shown us how the failure of democratic action results in the use of force.

As Liberals and Democrats, we should be proud that our country is all colours and religions and of no faith at all. The question is, how do we explain to all Britons how we got here? As Gary Younge pointed out in The Guardian, America’s sins are on show as they happened within her borders. In Britain’s case they happened mainly abroad, however the template was made in Ireland. Colonial Ireland with its plantations and dehumanising of the native population was a model that we exported to America. Discrimination is a legacy of a Christian nation justifying inhumane treatment with the pseudo science of race classification.

We should not be scared of embracing the nuance of history. As a first generation Briton, my own antecedents are from Ghana. My Asante ancestors saw slavery as another form of trade and a way of removing dissent from their empire. They leased land for slave forts to the Portuguese, Danish, Dutch and British in turn. They lost their empire through conquest. We should all know this side of the slave trade story. Yet people from the Gold Coast volunteered in World War 2 to fight for Britain. African soldiers received a third of white soldiers pay, Asian soldiers half. The Attlee government’s failure to pay their pensions turbo-charged the independence movement.

From Mughal India being the richest place in the world before the East India Company and the Raj, to the debt incurred paying compensation to slave owners finally being paid off in 2015, we all need to know this. While we laud Wilberforce, we don’t celebrate Ignatius Sancho, and we should. We can celebrate Churchill, the progressive Liberal cabinet minister or war leader and still denounce his white supremacy typical of his Victorian upbringing. We can delight in the collections of the British or Victoria and Albert Museums and still recognise they are built on the spoils of Empire.

Our politics would be healthier if our immigration debate was more honest. The Windrush passengers were citizens of one part of Empire travelling to another, they were not immigrants at all! Better educated Home Office officials would know this.

Riots driven by race are not simply a US phenomenon but occurred in major port cities after the First World War. While we associate apartheid with South Africa, we operated a colour bar in Bristol. The Queen’s great-grandson is a descendant of the founder of the Royal African Company and the slaves they traded. Liberal Democrats should not be ashamed to say, abandon Black History Month. Take it out of a silo and place it front and centre into a better curriculum that covers our history, warts and all.

* John Armah is a Liberal Democrat member and a digital transformation consultant based in London

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  • Richard Underhill 12th Jun '20 - 7:50pm

    John Armah | Fri 12th June 2020 – 7:06 pm
    The first motion at the federal conference of the Liberal Democrats was against slavery. There were passionate speeches. I believe it was carried unanimously. Someone at HQ should be able to say. children working for free in brick fields in India were covered in the debate. There is legislation in the UK against modern slavery, which is being enforced.

  • Joyce Onstad 13th Jun '20 - 12:56am

    Great piece. I agree we should drop Black History Month and take it out of a silo. Race issues are too often ghettoised but should be integrated in the mainstream. We need an objective curriculum that covers not just empire but also the dehumanisation of colonialism.

  • Thank you for writing this.

    I’m really pleased that someone has taken the time to write a positive piece. There has been plenty of focus on statues when few if any have been making specific suggestions on specific areas of change.

    It is really good that you chose to do so. I hope others will follow your lead in picking out specifics and proposing specific responses. Certainly improvements in understanding of history are always worth identifying.

  • Peter Hirst 13th Jun '20 - 1:18pm

    The issue is believing race is a determinant of anything other than the colour of your skin. We all tend to project our fears onto outward objects. Once we realise that what unites all of mankind is far greater than what divides us, our beliefs, emotions and behaviour changes to reflect that.

  • Thanks for your comments.

    I think as Liberal Democrats , we need to come up with practical solutions. This is becoming a polarised issue and it needn’t. Our history is complicated, life is nuanced but understanding our past rather than viewing it through a rose tinted prism should help eliminate the spectre of discrimination. We need to ensure this engaged generation registers to vote and we reconcile our differences through democratic means.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 13th Jun '20 - 3:49pm

    This is truly the best piece on this subject I have read. John we need to talk, you are my brother!

    I work on these issues in the social and cultural fields and rarely find such philosophical sense.

    Please see my links, articles by me at where the long title ustinov Prejudice Awareness Forum, says what we do, and my own musical adaptatation of the anti slavery novel, am trying to get off the ground.

    I think, as a British patriot whose father was Italian, mother partly Irish, my wife an American with a of post war refugee parent who was a youthful immigrant to the Us,
    I feel we need more broad and varied attitudes, less, pun intended, black and white views!

  • William Wallace 13th Jun '20 - 4:12pm

    When I read history at Cambridge University at the beginning of the 1960s, the only two courses which did not focus on British – well, mainly English – or European history were on American history and ‘the expansion of Europe’: the history of European empires, in effect. Many of the leading Brexiters have not managed to move much beyond that, including the rosy view of the civilising impact of the British Empire. I recall one senior Conservative assuring me that India would welcome a closer relationship with Britain, because of our proud shared history… So we need a re-examination of ‘our national story’.

  • Had a similar experience in the mid sixties at London, William. Looked at the UCL History web pages just now and things have moved on, thank goodness, though that doesn’t seem to be the case with the tabloid newspapers and the Tory Party.

    At school (Bradford G.S.) in the late fifties, , it was the same…… apart from one English master, a Jewish refugee from Europe, who got me reading the Guardian instead of the Yorkshire Post…….. in primary school it was full of Clive of India and Wolfe of Quebec…… and Hereward the Wake !!

    I think Johnson A.B. de P. (Eton College, 1977-80) has never gone beyond this, although the College was right on one thing, “School reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness”. Not much changed there, and where is he ?

  • Clive Sneddon 16th Jun '20 - 9:21pm

    Thank you John Armah for an excellent op-ed. Your reference to the Asante rang a bell with me from having read a book on Medieval Africa 1250-1800, which leaves me thinking that what we need is a history of slavery, setting out when people first started owning others as chattels, like their animals, or more precisely when we first have evidence of the practice. It is still on-going, and labelling it modern slavery does not make it different. We also need a separate history of racism, another world wide phenomenon, like establishing colonies and empires and committing genocide; I have seen Trajan’s column described as his glorification of his genocide of the Dacians. What needs to be taught is the social forces and beliefs that drive all these actions, so that we are all equipped to understand what is going on and why, and hence make it easier to change the world.

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