Wera Hobhouse, Wendy Chamberlain and Christine Jardine on Black History Month

This week, Wera Hobhouse, as Lib Dem Equalities spokesperson, too part in the Black History Month debate in the House of Commons. Watch her speech here:

Christine Jardine also made an intervention, talking about the history of the streets in Glasgow.

On that very point, we have talked before about how in so many communities in this country there are statues, streets and so on that are named after slave owners and colonialists. People like me who come from Glasgow are immensely proud that Nelson Mandela Place is named after Nelson Mandela, but we are completely unaware of the history of the names of the other streets around it. That is the sort of thing we need to attack when we look at education and black history.

Wendy Chamberlain also highlighted the unpleasant history of the streets where she grew up.

The full text of Wera’s and Wendy’s speeches is below.

The debate had one particularly remarkable part where Conservative MP Bim Afolami was basically saying that he had not experienced any problems. Labour MP Tulip Siddiq pointed out that he’d gone to Eton, before acknowledging and recognising her own privileged middle class background. She highlighted the importance of taking an intersectional approach.

I have listened to many interesting and good contributions, but also some that I have found slightly disappointing. I sometimes wonder whether people have quite got it yet. It is important that we have many more debates like this one, until every last person really gets it. I am not black so I do not pretend to understand what it is like to have grown up as a black person. It is therefore very important for me to hear many, many stories of people who have a different skin colour from my own, rather than having a ready opinion of what I think those people should feel like. But there we go; we need to discuss this further.

Earlier this year, the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement pushed the issue of racial injustice to the forefront of our attention. Discrimination and social injustice go hand in hand. Our society is full of discrimination, be it on sex and gender, physical or mental disability, age, religion ​or income, but discrimination based on race and ethnicity continues to be the most stubborn and most politically abused. The new and growing culture war, the toxic debates about immigration over the last 10 years and the associated increase in racial hate crimes have all added to the horrible sense that we have recently gone backwards, rather than forwards.

The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer were remarkable in their global response. Painful as it was, this created a huge learning opportunity for many of us, including me. I believe in respectful dialogue between real people. I have been listening to and speaking with members of the black community in my constituency of Bath. I have heard eye-opening and moving stories from residents who have faced systemic racism for their entire lives in our city. Yes, of course there are individual exceptions, but let us listen to the majority experience of people who grow up in black communities.

The city of Bath prides itself on being open and welcoming, so I have to admit that I was shocked, surprised and ashamed by a small but vociferous minority leading an ugly backlash against a necessary and positive wake-up call. We must face up to the continuing structural racial inequalities in Britain today. We need to reject and dismantle the culture war that is being actively promoted in our society. It robs our country of humanity and compassion, and will be the death of a tolerant and liberal society, and we need actively to call it out and fight against it.

Many people remain extremely defensive about racism. It can be difficult and painful, but we must try to look at it from the perspective of others—of those who have been touched by it. The only people who can speak credibly about racism are those who have experienced it at first hand. Their lived experience is real; no one can take that away from them. Not everyone in our black community supports the idea of Black History Month. It can run the risk of becoming a superficial tick-box exercise without any tangible outcomes. We cannot condone a selective view and teaching of our nation’s history—one that leaves some people out and negates and invalidates their experience. Including more rather than less in our history books can only be enriching. It means not that we eradicate history, but that we add to it to get a fuller picture of what life is and has been for more than just the white majority.

For as long as it takes our country to confront the totality of our history, including the parts that we are disturbed and ashamed about, such as slavery, Black History Month has a place in our calendars and in our consciousness. It serves as a prompt and as a reminder to focus our attention, to listen, to discuss, to learn, to reflect, to change and to measure whether we actually make any progress in eradicating racial discrimination. As I have said, I was slightly disturbed by some of the exchanges about who has done better or who has done worst, rather than recognising that we all can and must do better. There is no place for complacency here. Behind every statistic of racial injustice is a human life—a real person.

Last week, I visited Fairfield House in Bath: a place of local, national and global significance. It was the residence of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie while he was in exile for five years before and during the second world war. The house serves as a focal point for the local black community. Elders gather every Friday ​for lunch. It represents a fascinating chapter of black history and should be a source of great pride for all of us in our city, and yet it is actually quite hidden.

Our country is on a journey towards racial equality. I hope that this year will be a milestone in our shared commitment to going forward and to making genuine progress.

Wendy Chamberlain also took part in the debate, talking about the history of the streets where she grew up:

I was born and brought up in Greenock, the main town of the constituency of Inverclyde. As a child it was just my home town. My main memory of the school trips to the local James Watt Museum was walking a friend, eyes closed, past the snarling stuffed bear, and certainly little of our colonial history. I never thought twice about the names of some of the streets I walked down—Jamaica Street, Antigua Street, Virginia Street—or what some of the merchants who built some of the larger houses in the town might have traded in.

Hidden in plain sight was another history of the place where I was growing up, because Greenock, like other ports, sadly played its part in the Atlantic slave trade. It was a port where traders carrying goods like iron and guns would depart to west Africa. These goods would be traded for enslaved people who were then transported to the Americas and sold in exchange for goods like sugar. As a child, the only sugar I was aware of in relation to Greenock was the Tate & Lyle refinery, and the wreck of the sugar boat MV Captayannis in the Firth of Clyde —the water was supposed to taste sweet round about it. That sugar was transported to the refineries of Greenock, and the warehouse, the Sugar Shed, still stands to this day.​

That sugar, and the rum and tobacco, made some incredibly wealthy, but that wealth was not just kept in the pockets of the traders and their families: it is important that we acknowledge that it enriched all Scots and all parts of the UK. This was recently highlighted by the excellent blog and Twitter account, @WeirdScotland. Much of the philanthropy of the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland, a lot of which admirably focused on promoting access to education, which we have talked about a lot today, was in fact funded by the slave trade. For example, the Royal Academy in Tain, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), was opened in 1813 by Hugh Rose Ross of Glastullich, a slaver funded by £175,000, in today’s money, from donors in the Caribbean.

It is not just our places or our institutions but our people who have deep-rooted connections to the slave trade. The most famous Greenockian other than Victor Meldrew is James Watt. His father was a slave trader. While Watt did eventually argue for abolition, there is no doubt that he benefited from his father’s wealth, and sold steam engines to plantations in the Caribbean. I highlight Shaun Kavanagh’s excellent piece on Greenock’s role in the slave trade, where he says:

“In Greenock, we live in the shadow of slavery every day.”

How many people walk along the streets of Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere and fail to connect the dots—to realise the wealth realised via the slave trade?

Even Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, in dire financial straits, accepted a job as part of a team of white overseers on a plantation in Jamaica. As Clark McGinn has outlined, being a bookkeeper was as much about managing the assets as the numbers. Burns would have had a daily interface with the truth of slavery, from assisting in purchases through to recording punishments and deaths—and an ambitious young man might seek advancement by volunteering to be more hands on. The publication of Burns’s poems, to instant acclaim, prevented his emigration and that future, but his story demonstrates how slavery permeated every part of Scottish life at that time.

We have to do so much more to educate ourselves about the horrors of the past, not least when, as has been demonstrated during the pandemic, the legacy of the unequal treatment of colour is still very much with us to this day. This year, Black Lives Matter has had a huge impact. In my semi-rural constituency of North East Fife, it has been the issue that my team and I have received the most correspondence about. I received many emails and letters on the murder of George Floyd, on the tragic death of Belly Mujinga and the campaign for justice for her, and on ensuring that black history is taught in our schools.

I have written to the Scottish Government about making sure that our curriculum is inclusive. I am concerned that potentially the diverse approach of the curriculum for excellence means that for some we will not be teaching that curriculum. Like others in this debate, I absolutely support the work of the Black Curriculum campaign and say that we do need a commitment that every child learns at school about Britain’s role in the slave trade.​

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21 Comments

  • Gerald Stewart 25th Oct '20 - 7:38pm

    Save us from critical race theory!

  • jayne Mansfield 25th Oct '20 - 8:14pm

    @ Gerald Stewart,
    Why?

  • Gerald Stewart 25th Oct '20 - 8:40pm

    I’ve been on and observed a number of race awareness and race sensitivity training programmes based on critical race theory, let’s just say I have seen some serious damage done by some very evangelical type training facilitators. Perhaps the trainers were incompetent but,for example, starting a course with a comment, all white people are racist and if you don’t agree that is evidence of your racism, no challenge to the course content was allowed, does not lead to an eager embrace of the course. I have since heard from exponents that this isn’t or then again is? a central tennant of the theory.
    it seems to vary according to who you ask and what point they are trying to make. So, my opinion, qustionable theory often being taught poorly as fact in what appeared to me to be more a kind of attempt at political indoctrination is going to generate far more heat than light. As it appears to be doing. One of my favourite lines from the course was, white culture only gives rights and equality to black people if it is to the benefit of white culture, take this to the logical end point and the only reason white people may not be racist is because it benefits them.

  • Richard Underhill 25th Oct '20 - 8:42pm

    LEWIS Hamilton is the greatest!!

  • Richard Underhill 25th Oct '20 - 8:47pm

    Play the National Anthem
    Lewis is the greatest.
    Back him on Black Lives Matter

  • “In Greenock, we live in the shadow of slavery every day.”
    How many people walk along the streets of Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere and fail to connect the dots—to realise the wealth realised via the slave trade? … Perhaps they have studied Economics and/or Accountancy and therefore realise that any gains from slave trading have by now diminished to an insignificant percentage of the UK’s wealth due to the passage of time since,during which wealth gains were NOT from slavery.

  • Nonconformistradical 26th Oct '20 - 8:44am

    @Mark Seaman
    “Perhaps they have studied Economics and/or Accountancy and therefore realise that any gains from slave trading have by now diminished to an insignificant percentage of the UK’s wealth due to the passage of time since,during which wealth gains were NOT from slavery.”

    It seems to me that across the planet, including the UK (e.g. BooHoo allegations) some wealth gains are still being made through a modern form of slavery – exploitation of human beings via low wages, poor working conditions etc. in order to sell as many goods as possible as cheaply as possible, irrespective of the impact on the environment or whether those goods are really needed – with the gains going largely into the pockets of the few.

  • jayne Mansfield 26th Oct '20 - 9:19am

    @ Chris Cory,
    I am unsure why we should be shielded from a theory. As adults are we not able to weigh up and critique different perspectives? I remember when the Open University social science courses were allegedly attempting to brainwash adults with fully developed brains and years of ‘real world experience’, converting them to marxism because marxism was one of several perspectives on their courses.

    The term ‘intersectional ‘ was used in the opening article. I was interested in what Gerald Stewart’s understanding of critical race theory was. I cannot criticise his ‘ lived experience’, but mine has all too often people of colour telling me theirs. It has all too often been that whatever sections of society one belongs to the , those of a different colour have a different experience to those who are white.

    I don’t think it unreasonable to want to find out more. Unfortunately I never had the opportunity to attend one of your courses, so what I hear of a critical race theory comes all too often from those who interpret critical race theory as an attempt to invert a system where white, heterosexual straight men have their power replaced by black, gay women. ( yes really). Could it not be the case that people of colour simply want systems and institutions to treat them fairly, equally and with respect, and that so called ‘race’ is embedded in the way these were constructed and therefore need to be challenged?

    As someone who from young adulthood has known of children, devoid of any theoretical framework, trying to scrub themselves white at a pathetically young age, I would be quite happy to be called a useful idiot. I would take it as a badge of honour.

    I was more interested in the responses of others to the article, but there I have risen to the challenge and responded, despite the fact that I don’t think this is the place for an in depth discussion on the subject.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Oct '20 - 9:25am

    The first President of the USA was a slave owner, but in those days there was a law that provided for an escape from chattel slavery over a period of time, but George Washington would take the slaves across state lines into an adjacent state in order to deny the slaves their legal rights and bring them back across state lines to continue to enforce their status as chattel slaves.
    No morals, no shame. Their is a city named after him in which there is a building built by slaves (No Shame) and there is a state on the Pacific (peaceful) coast of the same name, next to Oregon.
    In the UK there are members of the House of Lords whose ancestors owned slaves. The
    New Labour government promised to abolish all the hereditary peerages but failed to do so, although their Leader in in the House of Lords repeatedly promised that they would to the continuing shame of their Prime Ministers Tony Blair of the Ugly Rumours, and Gordon Brown, willing to declare himself a socialist om US tv, although he did not say which US socialist party he supported.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Oct '20 - 9:38am

    Jayne,
    Would you mind being called “Paleface”? or “Pinko-grey”?

  • Richard Underhill 26th Oct '20 - 9:41am

    If you holiday in the Med does your skin go brown?

  • “We need to reject and dismantle the culture war that is being actively promoted in our society. ”

    You can’t just unilaterally reject a war though. It’s an intensely privileged position to say that you are just going to pretend it isn’t happening when it is happening to people in marginalised communities every day.

  • @Mark, I[‘m afraid you have missed the point if you think that the financial gains from slavery have now diminished to become an irrelevance. The investments made with wealth from the slave trade are still giving us a collective advantage today. It’s well worth reading the @WeirdScotland twitter thread Wendy mentions, as it provides many examples of how Scottish education was boosted thanks to that money. Education which underpinned a great deal of progress which brought further wealth, and opportunities in the years since.

    Many Scots like to brag about how much we’ve always valued education, and that our systems are the envy of the world. But those systems were given a great big boost by the profits of the slave trade.

    It’s the same across the whole of the UK and every other country that gained wealth through empire. This doesn’t mean we need to be ashamed of ourselves, or feel guilty because we took advantage of those educational opportunities. But it gives us a much better perspective of both our own success and the struggles of others when we acknowledge that we did get a bit of help along the way.

    I take the point that there are still many very poor people in countries where our collective wealth was enhanced by the profits of slavery, but encouraging schools to give a more holistic education does not require us to abandon plans to end homelessness. If anything, a better understanding of our own history and why our country is still much wealthier than others will transfer to a better understanding of personal privilege, which is important to helping the most vulnerable people in the UK too.

  • jayne Mansfield 26th Oct '20 - 11:18am

    @ Richard Underhill,
    No Richard, being the colour of the dominant population and also experiencing the deferment of being a minority white woman in countries where I was not the dominant colour ( or race), as it is sometimes referred to, because far too many had internalised the notion that made me superior, I have the confidence to laugh at being called such names.

    I am not a believer is white guilt, one cannot blame people for something that was not of their making or choosing, but I believe that there is validity to the argument that slavery gave us a good start economically as far as the industrial revolution was concerned and we still enjoy the consequences.

    @ Fiona,
    I agree.

  • Have Wera, Wendy and Christine started to campaign for the removal of all statues and portraits of W.E. Gladstone from the National Liberal Club ?

    Back in the good old days before M.P.’s were paid I understand the ‘People’s William’ financed his political career (and Hawarden Castle) with some of the inheritance from his father, Sir John Gladstone

    After the abolition of slavery Gladstone senior made eleven different claims for UK Government compensation. He owned 2,508 slaves in British Guiana and Jamaica and received a ÂŁ106,769 payment at the time (worth ÂŁ10.2 million in 2020 based on inflation, and ÂŁ544.5 million in 2020 based on share of GDP). Gladstone’s claim was the single largest of any recipient made by the Slave Compensation Commission and he had the largest number of slaves.

    Sadly, it didn’t end there. After the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, Sir John Gladstone expelled most African workers from his estates and imported large numbers of indebted Indian indentured-servants, through false promises of providing them schools and medical attention. However, upon arrival they were paid no wages, the repayment of their debts being deemed sufficient, and worked under conditions that continued to resemble slavery in everything except name.

    Nice work if you can get it.

  • Camden Lib Dems’ Book Club is reading “Black and British: A Forgotten History” by David Olusoga at the moment. The history I was taught tended to look at those who adopted and commercialised chattel slavery and then (eventually) abolished it. (The masters were compensated, the slaves didn’t get a penny.) Then I learned the legal history of it – of how the English courts came to be complicit in enforcing contracts of sale and purchase of human beings as if they were goods or livestock, until eventually the sheer incoherence of it all, as well as the moral swamp they were sucked into, was too much for the judiciary and they declared it incompatible with the common law of England. Now I’m trying to look at it all again, from the point of view of Black people themselves. How can we understand the present if we don’t understand the past? I’m also learning something about what it’s like to be Black and British now – belonging in Britain and yet constantly treated by others as not belonging. Like Wera, as she said of herself in her speech, I do not pretend to understand what it is like to have grown up as a Black person. But listening to people is helping, a bit. And books. I’m acquiring a small library of books around this topic. It took me too long to get to this point.

  • Gerald Stewart 26th Oct '20 - 6:09pm

    Jane Mansfield, so to answer your question what do I know of critical race theory, since observing various training programmes based on the theory, I have made a point of reading some of the original ideas by Bell and Delgardo and of speaking to people who teach the theory at a higher level.
    The concern I have, and it seems to be shared by a number of informed people that there has been a recent trend in twisting the theory a little to fit the political ideology of various movements, not least amongst them Black Lives Matter. Further what used to be equal opportunities, diversity and inclusivity training that might be core training for staff in most private and public organisations seems to be increasingly replaced by race sensitivity training based on CRT ideas. However my lived experience and those of the majority of others I have spoken to, is this is often delivered in an extremely aggressive and intolerant way.Combine this with unconscious bias training, which is again not without serious criticism of it’s own and I have to wonder whether the overall endpoint that we reach will be that which was being aimed for or something much darker and unforeseen.
    For those white people who want to understand black people’s lived experience of racism, elements of CRT say you can’t, ever, because you are not black.

  • Gerald Stewart 26th Oct '20 - 6:54pm

    Apologies to the source, no r in Delgado!

  • Gerald Stewart 26th Oct '20 - 10:31pm

    Chris Cory thank you for your response.
    Jane Mansfield, as adults can we not weigh up and critique different perspectives? One might hope so, but, firstly that comment itself arguably comes from a position of privilege
    There is an element of CRT that suggests that science, objectivity and reason are all parts of the white dominant culture and seeks to dominate the black culture of knowing, story telling and oral history. See where the theory can be taken, in the wrong hands? To critique it is to compound your racism, not that I agree with that, which to some would make me a self declared racist.

  • Gerald Stewart 26th Oct '20 - 11:29pm

    I won’t accept white guilt or white fragility either, I forget who posted some time ago, something like, I will not apologise for sins of those long dead, but I will apologise to those alive today for modern slavery and the fact that governments of all colours are too scared to do anything about it.
    Apologies if I have quoted you incorrectly.

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