The British university sector has recently endured numerous regrettable American imports, from “safe spaces” and the campus culture wars to bans on non-woke food. Now we have been blessed with a new gift: the reparations debate.
Glasgow University has announced that it will pay £20 million in reparations to compensate for its links to the transatlantic slave trade. Following a lengthy investigation, the university found that it had benefited financially from Scottish slave traders by up to £200 million (in today’s money).
To atone for its past sins, Glasgow will spend its reparations money on . . . itself. It has pledged to use the millions to fund a joint research center with the University of the West Indies. Defending the decision, Glasgow said it was a “bold, moral, historic step” of “restorative justice.”
It is certainly a historic step; Glasgow is the first British educational institution to make this kind of pledge. But bold? Moral? Restorative? This decision fails on all three counts.
It is little more than a virtue-signaling endeavor, puffed up with the language of social justice, designed to attract positive media attention. Financially compensating a victim for criminal damage is a moral and just thing to do, but Glasgow is choosing to reward itself. It is dressing up self-funding as an atonement for its past sins. This is insulting, not moral.
Still, in many ways, I sympathize with the university and understand why it has chosen to start the center. Any institution that intends to make amends for historical crimes is bound to swiftly discover that it has no victims to support, because the transatlantic slave trade ended over two centuries ago. Glasgow cannot enact “restorative justice” because the souls it has harmed through its links to slavery have long departed.
The reparations campaign suggests that people alive today, such as black students in Scotland, are somehow still being victimized by historic sins; that the effects of that evil crime have been passed on to people living in conditions beyond the wildest dreams of slaves. It is a detestable notion. We need to learn from past offenses, not denigrate the suffering of slaves by pretending that their trauma is still “felt” by people living in comparative luxury today.
Graham Campbell, a Scottish National Party councilor and supporter of Glasgow’s decision, said: “Our mutual recognition of the appalling consequences of that past — an indictment of Scottish inhumanity over centuries towards enslaved Africans — are the justifications that are at the root of the modern-day racism that we fight now.”
He described the university’s reparations as “a necessary first step in the fight against institutionalized racism and discrimination in Scotland.”
What will it take before we can confidently say that the appalling consequences of the past have ceased to continue? Campbell’s statement suggests that ethnic minorities in Scotland are so burdened by historic slavery that they cannot take control of their lives without financial support. Far from promoting social justice, this line of thought is patronizing and misanthropic and could create a racist double standard.
Moreover, if there are modern victims, then the reparations argument hints that there are modern perpetrators, too. If the suffering of slavery is inherited, then so must the guilt and sense of responsibility felt by Glaswegian university administrators. This is an equally silly notion. Yes, they were abhorrent acts, but they were the sins of our ancestors, not modern Scots.
The decision is a farce, and, in keeping with the fine standards of the British higher-education sector, that only means that it is bound to be replicated by other institutions.
Cambridge University is investigating its own links to slavery, and an Oxford college has created a new academic post to examine how it helped support the British empire. The outcome of these introspective exercises in academic self-flagellation can be confidently predicted: “We were awful, we are so guilty, our institutions are disgusting.” One can only hope that they are shrewder than Glasgow and do not announce that they will spend their guilt-ridden money on themselves.