The bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in Britain is an occasion for celebration and renewed commitment. It reminds us of the heroic efforts of William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson in revolutionising public opinion, and of the Royal Navy in enforcing the legislation passed by Parliament in 1807.
Their achievement was no less than to challenge what had been standard practice for centuries, whether in ancient Rome, modern Europe, Africa, America or Asia. But we must also acknowledge that millions of people are still subject to modern forms of slavery - human trafficking, forced, bonded, indentured and child labour - and pledge to work for their release.
A resolution put this week to the General Synod of the Church of England made that pledge but had nothing to say about the reformers. What is worse, it was hijacked by an amendment that asserted the Church's complicity in the slave trade and offered an apology to the descendants of its victims. Following an intervention in its favour by Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who spoke of sharing "the shame and sinfulness of our predecessors", the amended text was passed nem con.
Instead of using the bicentenary to celebrate one of this country's greatest achievements, the established Church has chosen to beat its breast in vicarious guilt for the sins of previous generations. In the matter of the slave trade, Britain was peculiar in merit, not in guilt. By emphasising the crime of slavery rather than the victory of abolition, the Synod has shown itself inward-looking and sanctimonious.
Still, one has come to expect little better from a body that combines hypocrisy in handling its own internal contradictions with faulty judgment on more distant matters, be it the past or foreign policy.
Indeed. And let us not forget the Arab slave trade, discussed by Hugh Fitzgerald here.
"In the matter of the slave trade, Britain was peculiar in merit, not in guilt." This is true of the slave trade as it is true in so many other areas, not least the principle of the rule of law. As Lawrence Mead argues in his article Why Anglos Lead:
The British passed the rule of law, like capitalism, on to their colonies, and it was the most precious of their gifts. In America, political and economic competition can look like a free-for-all, but it is undergirded by a formidable legal order. Enterprise is free yet regulated to limit collusion and other abuses. Most people pay their taxes and obey the law. A civic ethos suffuses the regime. Abuses and corruption occur, but they are exposed and redressed, as in the recent Enron scandal. American judges and juries are not for sale, which is why drug kingpins fear extradition to the United States. Equal opportunity, based on an elaborate education system, is generous. The whole system rests on a commitment to public impartiality that America imbibed, like mother's milk, from its British forebears.
Why are we so reluctant to take credit for what we have got right? Self-deprecation is a traditional English characteristic, but it only works when others admire us, not when they take it at face value. They say that a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the trombone but doesn't. However, occasionally a little trumpet blowing would not go amiss. The bicentenary of the abolition of slavery is one such occasion.