Posted on May 1, 2023

Slavery: Rishi Sunak Rejects Call to Apologise and Pay Reparations

Joshua Nevett, BBC, April 26, 2023

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dismissed a call for the government to apologise and pay reparations for the UK’s historic role in slavery.

Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy asked if he would make a “full and meaningful apology” and “commit to reparatory justice”.

The PM said “no”, adding “trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward”.

The UK government has never formally apologised for its role in the trade.

Laura Trevelyan, former BBC journalist and reparations campaigner, said she welcomed Mr Sunak’s “commitment to understanding Britain’s history and not running away from it”.

The Atlantic slave trade saw millions of Africans enslaved and forced to work, especially on plantations in the Caribbean and Americas, for centuries from about 1500.

The British government and the monarchy were prominent participants in the trade, alongside other European nations.

Britain also had a key role in ending the trade through Parliament’s passage of a law to abolish slavery in 1833.

This year, Caribbean leaders, activists and the descendants of slave owners have been putting the UK government under increasing pressure to engage with the reparations movement.

Reparations are broadly recognised as compensation given for something that was deemed wrong or unfair, and can take the many forms.

Tony Blair has previously expressed “deep sorrow” for slavery when he was prime minister in 2006, but was criticised by reparations campaigners for not going further.

In 2007, he was asked why he had previously stopped short of apologising for the UK’s role in the trade during a news conference with Ghana’s then-President John Kufuor.

“Well actually I have said it: We are sorry. And I say it again now,” Mr Blair said.

Reparations challenge

Ms Ribeiro-Addy brought up the UK’s historic role in slavery during a session of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons.

She said during his last appearance at PMQs, the late Labour MP Bernie Grant had “asked for an apology to the people of African descent, living and dead, for our country’s role in slavery and colonialism”.

Ms Ribeiro-Addy asked Mr Sunak if “he will do what Bernie Grant asked all those years ago”.

“No, Mr Speaker,” Mr Sunak said. “What I think our focus should now be is, of course, understanding our history and all its parts, not running away from it, but right now making sure we have a society that’s inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds.

“That’s something that we on this side of the House are committed to doing and we’ll continue to deliver. But trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward and is not something we’ll focus our energies on.”

This week, the descendants of some of the UK’s wealthiest slave owners launched an activist movement, urging the government to apologise for slavery and offer reparative justice.

One of the group’s founders is former TV presenter Laura Trevelyan, who recently quit the BBC to become a full-time slavery reparations campaigner.

Ms Trevelyan, who has apologised for her ancestors’ slave owning past in Grenada, said slavery is “a brutal part of Britain’s history which has left a painful legacy in the Caribbean and in Britain”.

“Since 2014, Caribbean nations have been asking the former colonial powers to engage in discussions based on their 10-point reparations plans,” she said.

“I hope that Britain’s government will not cede the Caribbean to China’s influence, and will begin to repair the damage of the past by answering CARICOM’s call for talks.”