There's an article in yesterday's Observer which reports a statement Tony Blair is going to make this week..... Under this government, all reporting seems to be of things that people are going to say. Maybe so that, if the response is negative, they can pull out and claim that they never actually said it. Sometimes I wonder whether they ever do say it, or whether it's just the reporting that matters. Anyway - this statement, billed as "historic", is on the subject of the slave trade. While it isn't an apology as such, it comes very much into the realm of apology culture.
What the Prime Minister will (at some point) say is this: "Personally I believe the bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was - how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and" (wait for it) "to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today."
Isn't this just apology culture at its worst? At its most glib, its most smug, its most self-satisfied? When Blair actually has done something stupid or wrong (like invading Iraq), he tends to say "I accept full responsibility", and then do nothing at all, when resignation would seem the obvious next step. In this case, he can't really be blamed for something that happened in history - and that makes the apology even more pointless. It simply has the effect of letting the present off the hook at the expense of the past. And the reality is that the present is well and truly on this particular hook. According to Anti-Slavery International there are more slaves in the world today than there have ever been before. About 27 million. And those are just the old-fashioned kind: the ones who are paid for. Never mind the children forced into being child soldiers; the victims of sex trafficking; the bonded labourers whose work keeps our food prices artificially low; the workers in sweat-shops who earn less than a dollar a day. "Different and better times"? I don't think so. Just times in which it's less easy for the West to see the appalling inequalities which it permits, encourages and perpetuates.
If the bi-centenary (of which our next project is very much a part) is to have any meaning at all, then it has to be about re-visiting the reality of modern slavery, and the legacy of the triangular trade period, in the contemporary world. It is true that the legal battle was won 200 years ago - so it is all the more terrifying that a practice on which a global moral consensus has been reached should remain so prevalent and should underpin so much of our global economy.