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There’s no point apologising on behalf of the dead

William Gladstone: a great reformer

William Gladstone was “probably our greatest reforming prime minister”, says Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail. In 1870, he made schooling compulsory for children up to 13, one of the “most far-reaching measures in British history”. Great man though he was, Gladstone had the misfortune to have a father, John, who was one of the most prominent slave owners in the British Empire. An 1823 revolt by slaves on one of his sugar plantations in British Guyana saw 250 people killed and 51 more sentenced to death; his “brutal suppression” of rebels shocked even his contemporaries.

As a young MP, William was loyal to his father, arguing for compensation for slave owners. But by 1850 Gladstone was describing the practice as “the foulest crime that taints the history of mankind”. It’s with this in mind that six Gladstone descendants have apologised for the sins of their forebear John and paid £100,000 in “reparations”. But I can’t help thinking the growing trend for payouts like these could become “dangerous”. It’s perfectly understandable to want to “apologise on behalf of dead people”, but we can’t. The victims of these heinous crimes are long gone – no token payment will ever “reverse the injustices meted out to them”. And if money is going to be dished out to the descendants of victims, what about those enslaved by Arabs and Africans rather than Europeans, or the thousands of British POWs left to die in “barbaric” Japanese camps during World War Two? We’d be better off concerning ourselves with the “bad things happening now”, rather than attempting to undo the sins of the past.