Saying sorry is so cheap

THERE are many reasons why it might be a good thing to redistribute the world's wealth. Saying “sorry” for slavery isn't one of them.Making the poorest countries, and the poorest people, better able to feed and clothe themselves would obviously be a good thing.

THERE are many reasons why it might be a good thing to redistribute the world's wealth. Saying “sorry” for slavery isn't one of them.

Making the poorest countries, and the poorest people, better able to feed and clothe themselves would obviously be a good thing.

If that means the richest countries, and the richest people, get a little poorer - well, I think that would be desirable too. Even though, looking at it globally, I am undoubtedly among the fortunate, relatively wealthy ones. Almost all of us in Britain are.

A more equitable distribution of human resources would not only be fairer. It would almost certainly make the world a safer place for all of us.

Much (though by no means all) of the world's most devastating poverty is in Africa. So that might be a good place to start the re-balancing act.

Perhaps this is why certain politicians, and leading churchmen, have been talking lately about the white West paying “reparations” to the black South for slavery.

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Of course it may just be that they've noticed - as I'm sure you have - that it's 200 years since Britain abolished slavery.

The bicentenary has brought out the inevitable rash of books and at least one film. So historical slavery is suddenly topical, a good touchy-feely subject we can use to make us feel good about ourselves (by feeling bad about our ancestors).

Once the anniversary and the hand-wringing have been forgotten, no substantial sums of money will change hands. And that's quite right too.

Slavery was an abomination, a horror, a systematic inflicting of inhumanity. The very concept of one person owning another is wrong, and much ghastly brutality was committed in the pursuit of it.

But there's nothing we can do now to change history. Nothing anyone can do to lessen the unjust suffering of people who died centuries ago.

And nothing we can do to punish the perpetrators.

Taking on our ancestors' guilt may be fashionable, but it's deeply illogical.

When you get right down to it, who should be paying what to whom?

There's a strong tendency to depict slavery as simply something that was done to black people by white people.

That's not just simplistic, it's wrong - and, dare I say it, more than a trifle racist.

It's certainly true that much (by no means all) of Britain's boom in prosperity in the 18th century was founded on slavery.

So was much of the early prosperity of America - until a lot later than it was here.

But slavery is a lot older than that. In the whole history of the African slave trade, north European involvement is merely a late episode.

Most traders in African slaves were themselves African. It was a well-established Arab tradition long before the British got interested.

In classical antiquity, there were black slaves in Rome - and white slaves in Africa. There were also white slaves in Rome and black ones in Africa, probably in vastly greater numbers.

The chances are that if we were able to trace our family trees back far enough, we would nearly all find that we had both slaves and slave-owners among our ancestors.

So which part of me owes how much to which other part of me?

If we are to go down the road of visiting the sins of the fathers upon the sons and the grandsons' grandsons, just how far should we go?

Should I claim compensation from Russia for the murder of my great-uncle by Stalin?

How many different countries should every Jew lay a claim against? Germany may be the worst and most obvious, but it's not the only one by a long way.

If the USA is to pay for its slave-owning past, who should it make the cheque out to? The poor countries of west Africa, or its own slave-descended black population?

And what about Brazil? Its economy was almost entirely built on slavery - but it's not exactly among the rich elite now.

What we should be considering is putting right today's injustices and inequalities, not making empty gestures towards the past.

If we want to do something about slavery, we should be looking at where it's happening now.

We should be considering countries such as Mauritania and Sudan, where the slaving tradition survives.

And at the vile trafficking in people that brings prostitutes from poorer countries to richer ones, cockle-pickers from life in China to death in Morecambe Bay.

MY first flight in a glider was a sublime experience.

It was a summer's evening in the Vale of York, many years ago. An instructor and I rode a rising air current up an escarpment of the North York Moors to make a series of long, sweeping turns over the glowing countryside.

It left me hankering to fly again, and this week I did.

Earlier in the year and the day, and over the very different landscape of north Essex and south Suffolk, the visibility was poorer, the twists and turns to find the rising thermals much tighter and steeper.

Worse, my older eyes found it difficult to adjust between looking out and trying to focus on the unfamiliar instrument panel, and the effort made me thoroughly queasy.

So, many thanks to instructor Vivien and the kind and charming volunteers at the Essex and Suffolk Gliding Club at Wormingford airfield.

In retrospect, it was a most interesting experience - and in retrospect is where I think I'll leave it.

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