Two hundred years ago this month an act was passed to abolish the British slave trade and celebrations will be taking place to mark the part played by William Wilberforce – as well as highlighting the many parallels with today.
Wilberforce was an unlikely reformer. Born to a wealthy family, he chose to spend his time socialising and playing cards. He fancied being an MP and was elected for a rotten borough by bribing voters. His turning point came when he was converted to evangelical Christianity in 1785. He sought a purpose for his life and took up the cause of opposing the slave trade and slavery. But of course the credit for abolishing the trade does not rest with Wilberforce alone. Long before his involvement there was agitation. Glasgow was a centre for those who profited from the slave trade and, appropriately, Scotland was also a centre for opposition. At least five abolition societies were in existence, numerous towns sent petitions to parliament and many churches spoke out against the evil. Similar opposition occurred all over Britain.
Wilberforce became its political leader. Year in, year out, he brought the issue before the Commons. He wrote, campaigned and undermined the argument that black people were an inferior species who should be enslaved. He insisted that they were “true” people and, as he put it, created by and of equal standing before God.
He was savagely attacked. Opponents charged him with wanting to ruin British trade and of fermenting revolt. The radical, William Cobbett, fumed that he wanted to free slaves while suppressing British labourers. It is true that Wilberforce backed legislation to limit certain publications and meetings during the wars against France. But Cobbett omitted to point out that Wilberforce supported many measures to help those in poverty. When in March, 1807, the Commons voted for abolition, members united to hail Wilberforce. The next step was to end slavery but his health deteriorated and he left the Commons. He refused a peerage for he wanted reform for its own sake not in order to get honours. He lived just long enough to know that slavery itself was abolished in 1833.
Yet today slavery still exists in the form of forced labour in some countries. Women are trafficked into the UK against their will. The treatment of asylum seekers awaiting decisions on their applications involves a denial of basic rights that has something in common with the withholding of humane treatment from slaves. They are not allowed to work, are often in low standard housing, and receive minimal benefits. They are then made to report, perhaps weekly, to officials who could well bundle the families off to prison-like conditions before forcing them on to a plane. Their applications are often rejected despite the probability that they will return to danger, persecution, prison, torture, death.
Some failed asylum seekers go on the run. They have no shelter, no money, no medical care, no rights. The government wants to starve them into going back but they prefer destitution to persecution. They remind me of black slaves brought to Britain in the 18th century who, when their owners decided to send them back to the plantations, ran away and were sheltered by neighbours and churches. Today, the churches are the leading protectors of destitute asylum seekers.
Asylum seekers lack a political leader, a modern day Wilberforce. To point out, in Wilberforce fashion, that present policies entail regarding asylum seekers as less human than the rest of the population would invoke the ire of other MPs and the right-wing press.
But progress at a legislative level seems unlikely without a change of understanding and heart within the Commons. Wilberforce was the MP for the slaves. Keir Hardie was called the member for the unemployed. Will there ever be an MP for asylum seekers?
Bob Holman is an author and voluntary neighbourhood worker in Glasgow