I will not feel guilty about what my forbears may have done - Brian Monteith

Have you ever felt ashamed of, or angry or hateful towards someone because they come from Bristol or Liverpool or Glasgow?

I have no doubt that all readers of this column will deplore and condemn slavery, but do you blame people from cities that are claimed to have been built on the profits of slavery?

I don’t mean blaming the ordinary working people of the past who happened to have jobs or incomes from, say, the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations (although they did not enjoy the electoral franchise at that time and could not do anything about it had they wanted to). No, I mean do you blame people alive now who happen to be from these cities and other places like them?

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Essentially, if you buy into this ideology of group collective guilt, the only people who can have the finger pointed at them as responsible for slavery and requiring to apologise are the modern day descendants of British people from the 18th and early 19th centuries. This is clearly too difficult when protesting to distil into a catchy slogan or hashtag so the sweeping generalisation is settled for – white people are to blame.

I could go on pointing out all the many inconsistencies and contradictions in this approach of apportioning collective guilt regarding slavery (or similar wrongs), suffice it to say I do not feel at all guilty about what my forbears may or may not have done. I happen to have been born in Edinburgh at a time when the British Empire was already an anachronism and being unwound – and all the generations of my family I have ever known never had any connection with it.

Should we, do we, blame the current generations of Germans for the crimes of Hitler, or now liberated Russians for those of Stalin? Do past invaders of our islands merit blame? I am not being flippant when I ask should we seek to blame Scandinavians for the Viking hordes or Italians for the Romans? Of course not, it would be absurd.

So where does the culpability for history end?

For me the answer to all this collective blame is repeatedly to say no, but from some of the attitudes I read, hear and view I sometimes feel like a minority. Historical accuracy is sacrificed and can turn truth on its head (such as ignoring Henry Dundas’s record of opposing slavery) and scant attention is given to those in targeted groups that actually opposed a reviled act (a majority of Germans voted for parties other than the Nazis).

It is a dangerous delusion to blame groups of colour, religion, sex or class when we are, in truth, all individuals with different and quite often conflicting motivations for voting a certain way or advocating a certain policy.

Moreover, the accepted narrative can be wrong. Who is to blame for the Windrush scandal? The Conservative government has been daubed with the collective group guilt – yet was it not a Labour government that destroyed the landing cards which robbed people of their evidential proof of a right to stay, and Labour Minister Alan Johnston who first suggested creating a “hostile Environment” for migrants? And why always blame politicians? Has the Home Office really been fit for purpose over the last few decades?

We have to reject the idea of group collective guilt, for that approach leads us to division – often bitter and violent– and creates a perverse incentive to find new groups within groups to divide us even more.

Often the actions that move us emotionally and inspire us are when we see people from different groups – supposedly meant to be at war – helping each other after recognising their individual humanity. Likewise, when a bomb goes off police officers and paramedics run directly into the area of danger, possibly confronting a terrorist or not knowing if a further explosion might happen. Does anyone seriously stop to think what their colour is, what their religion is or what their sex, class or gender is?

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We witnessed in London a photograph of a “black” demonstrator who, seeing a “white” man carried him to safety – such people do not first ask which group? Such people recognise a fellow human being in distress. We need far more people to call out the folly of group collective guilt as the divisive inescapable trap that it is.

Politicians must give leadership – in particular ministers of Justice, who have a responsibility for everyone in society, should of all people recognise citizens are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, rather than demonising some groups ahead of others in a manner that encourages greater polarisation and militancy.

Or do some of our politicians seek to live of such division? It was Nicola Sturgeon who said in George Square last year that, “The Scotland we seek is open, welcoming and inclusive – and no Tory is ever going to be allowed to change that.”

Forgetting the heavy irony it was Tories who opposed the Union in 1707, we should beware of casting group blame on Tories or nationalists alike.

Creating groups to hate for their supposed past actions in history or “othering” groups as not one of “us” – be they white or black, Jewish or Muslim, English or Irish – unionist or nationalist – is all part of the descent into hell.

Our politicians must be ready to heal our divisions – not be responsible for them.

Brian Monteith is Editor of ThinkScotland.org



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