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Reform Magazine | October 29, 2020

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Editorial: The complacent stand condemned

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Sometimes, seeing your children in action can take you back to your younger days. What mine did last week took me back to the 18th century.

The story of the abolition of the slave trade and of slavery itself in the British Empire has a varied cast. There are famous figures like William Wilberforce who, from a position of power and privilege, devoted decades to fighting the great evil. There were those, less celebrated today, like the flamboyant MP Banastre Tarleton, who passionately denied there was anything wrong with slave trading.

There were those like Olaudah Equiano who broadcast their own story of enduring slavery. There were those like John Newton who told their story of trafficking people.

There were those like Sam Sharpe who risked everything to rise up against the powers who oppressed them. There are those like John Smith of the London Missionary Society who risked the wrath of the establishment to preach to enslaved people. There were those who boycotted sugar and signed petitions and went to meetings. There were those who had every opportunity but did nothing.

From 200 years later, it all seems spectacularly clear. The slave trade was the greatest evil in existence. Those in Britain who defended it were very badly wrong; those who fought it were right. Britain’s economy had thrived on slavery, so those who were comfortably off and turned a blind eye to it should have done better. Those who used their privileged position to campaign were stepping up to their moral duty. Those who made great sacrifices in the struggle against slavery were heroes.

What my firstborn did to remind me of all this was to join the high school strikes in February and March, marching to demand action on climate change. For him, it all seems spectacularly clear. My generation is irreversibly breaking the world that we will pass on to his, shuffling towards worldwide catastrophe. It is the great evil. The fighters are right; the complacent stand condemned.

I find it easier to see shades to grey. What you have to realise is that people like me just have so much stuff to do. You can’t fight every battle. It’s hard to believe something so big can change. I have other responsibilities.

But now I have heard Firstborn talk about his protest, and his disgusted judgement on our society has been powerfully amplified for me by reading Reform’s news pages and letters on the subject this month. It occurs to me that history will not be so understanding as I am. Am I seizing the opportunities I have been given to fight this great evil? Or am I one of this generation’s complacent multitude, who felt concern and put stuff in the right bin, but who had the chance to do something that mattered more, and didn’t? The answer to that question is starting to seem spectacularly clear. I wonder what I’ll do about it.

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This article was published in the April 2019 edition of Reform

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