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9.1 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): It is a pleasure to take part in this debate, and to follow many good speeches, particularly the opening speeches by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I am not nearly as much of an expert on the life of William Wilberforce as the right hon. Gentleman, but I want to pay my own small tribute.

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Although William Wilberforce was born in Hull, and was Member of Parliament for the city, he campaigned in Clapham and he spent most of his life in Battersea in my constituency. He had a large house—Broomwood house—on land that now occupies a whole ward of my constituency in the area known as “Between the commons”, which accommodates 800 houses. In those days, however, there was a single house, the site of which is commemorated by a plaque at 111, Broomwood road. The gardens, however, were far larger. On Friday, I shall visit a local school that is located where those gardens used to be, to talk to year 5 children about the history of slavery. I will be able to speak in local terms, because one can almost imagine William Wilberforce in the oval library in Broomwood house—sadly, it no longer exists—persuading many of the people with whom he campaigned and talking about tactics. That is where he plotted most of the campaign.

William Wilberforce is remembered in Battersea in the Wilberforce estate, which includes Wilberforce house, Clarkson house, which commemorates the great extra-parliamentary leader of the abolitionist movement, and Buxton house, which commemorates the later leader who achieved the abolition of slavery. Pitt and Burke houses commemorate Tories involved in the campaign, and Sheridan house commemorates a Whig involved in the campaign. It is a paradox that Wilberforce was a Tory. He was the son of merchants in Hull, but most of the Tories opposed his campaign to abolish the slave trade, and he had to rely on the Whigs for support. Having enlisted their support, he drew inspiration from Christians in the Clapham sect, which was centred on Holy Trinity church. He provided inspiration for Battersea’s early socialists, who were proud of the fact that he lived in the area. Battersea produced the first black mayor in this country—John Archer, who was the grandson of a Barbadian slave and became mayor of Battersea in 1912. The area also produced the first black Labour MP, Shapurji Saklatvala, some 10 years later. It is an area that is proud of its association with William Wilberforce and it has done its best to take forward the tradition that he established.

The Clapham sect was involved in far more than the anti-slavery campaign, although that dwarfs all the other issues on which it campaigned. It is interesting to know that members of the sect won their campaign to abolish bear baiting and bull baiting. They campaigned for village schools, with some success. They were the first prison visitors. They campaigned against pornographic books. Their campaign for smallpox vaccination had almost as much effect as their most famous campaign. Later they founded the colony of Sierra Leone, which became a home for freed slaves. William Wilberforce was their parliamentary leader and the towering figure in the anti-slavery campaign, but many other well known figures such as Thornton were members of the Clapham sect, who deserve to be remembered for their part in the great campaign.

As we have heard many times, the slave trade was abolished in 1807, but it took until 1833 before slavery itself was abolished. William Wilberforce died only three days after the abolition of slavery, but he had time to record his disgust at the fact that £20 million, which must have been a huge amount in those days, was paid in compensation to slave owners. That was the price that Parliament paid to get rid of slavery.

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From what I know of Wilberforce’s life—I have much more to read, I am sure—we could do with more politicians like him. As the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, he was a Back Bencher. It would be good to think that Back Benchers could achieve even a small part of what Wilberforce did, with no ministerial career behind him and no great weight of authority in the House, only his own passion and conviction. Rather than a politician, he was a campaigner of pure heart. He never demonised the slave traders themselves. Most of us, and certainly I, if I were involved in a campaign against the slave trade, would demonise the slave traders, but William Wilberforce said:

I cannot think of anything said in a greater spirit of selflessness. I very much hope that we can emulate Wilberforce’s contrition.

The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) spoke about all the things that the Prime Minister made apologies for, suggesting that that was becoming too politically correct, but he cannot have thought for a moment that it was some kind of political correctness to make an apology for the slave trade. We need only look back at the words of William Wilberforce to see that we should conduct the debate in the spirit of contrition for what is past and of determination to make sure that we in Parliament play our part in ending slavery for good.

9.9 pm

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): It is interesting to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who was quite parochial in his remarks about various personalities from his constituency who played their part in historic events years ago. I will be similarly parochial about the role that the city of Bristol, which I represent in Parliament, played in events 200 years ago. The hon. Gentleman mentioned one of my predecessors, Edmund Burke, who bravely spoke against slavery while being the Member for Bristol, which was one of the reasons why he had to flee the city in 1780 and not contest an election again in that particular seat.

The question of slavery is undoubtedly an emotive issue for present-day Bristolians, and its legacy has been much discussed in the city. Bristol was one of the country’s three principal slaving ports. Once the royal monopoly on slavery that restricted the slave trade to London was lifted in 1698, Bristol merchants entered into the slave trade with some enthusiasm, I have to acknowledge, although by the middle of the 18th century the city was overtaken by Liverpool as one of the principal slaving ports in the country. As well as the slave trade itself—in economic terms, it is a moot point as to how much prosperity the slave trade brought to the city, because many slaving voyages ended in a net loss—the city prospered from the trades associated with it, such as sugar, tobacco and brass.
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Many of the slave plantation owners in the West Indies had a direct link to Bristol and contributed much to the city’s wealth. Ironically, the compensation that they received once full emancipation took effect in 1838 contributed further to the city’s prosperity.

Contrary to what many people believe, very few slaves passed through the city of Bristol, although many became servants there. In north Bristol, in Henbury churchyard, there is the grave of Scipio Africanus, who is buried there. In the city centre, we commemorate one of the few known slaves apart from Scipio Africanus, who was known as Pero and was the slave of a West Indies plantation owner who lived in the Georgian House in the centre of my constituency.

St. Paul’s, in my constituency, has the one of the oldest communities of West Indian origin in the country. The legacy of slavery and the racism that is associated with it is a very hot topic in my constituency at the moment; indeed, it has been a big topic of discussion in the city for many decades. Some significant progress has been made. The hon. Member for Battersea said that the first black mayor was in his borough. Bristol can claim the first Afro-Caribbean lord mayor—Jim Williams, who was a Labour councillor and became lord mayor of Bristol in 1990. I was pleased to play my part in the election of the city’s first black Afro-Caribbean-origin lady councillor—Shirley Marshall—in my constituency in 2003.

The question of how to commemorate the events of 200 years ago has been the subject of much debate in the city. How do we balance a recognition of the shame of the city’s association with slavery, which is much referred to by people from outside the city, with a commemoration of the blow for civil rights and human dignity that this Parliament made in 1807? In fact, the city and people of Bristol played a role in both aspects.

In the mid-1990s, when I was a councillor for the city centre of Bristol, a couple of Labour councillors and I mounted a campaign to ensure that the city owned up to its rather shameful past as regards its association with the slave trade, because there was nothing to be seen in the city’s museums that reflected it. That led to an exhibition in the Georgian House, which has been open to the public for about a century and was owned by the Pinney family, who were big plantation owners in Nevis in the West Indies. That led to a larger exhibition in the Industrial museum, which will lead in turn to an exhibition later this year in the British Empire and Commonwealth museum next to Bristol Temple Meads station. The new city of Bristol museum, for which I have campaigned for about 15 years, will open in 2009, on the back of investment from the city council and the national lottery. It will have a permanent gallery showing the warts-and-all story of Bristol’s role in the slave trade.

Mr. Steen: Has the hon. Gentleman any idea of how much new slavery there is in Bristol? Has he any idea of how many women and children there are who have been trafficked? I am not in any way demeaning what he is saying, but slavery is not dead, and it is certainly pretty active in Bristol.

Stephen Williams: I am not sure whether slavery is pretty active in Bristol. I heard the hon. Gentleman’s speech and his earlier interventions on other Members,
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and I recognise his passionate commitment to raising the issue of human trafficking. He and other hon. Members have mentioned prostitution, and that is certainly an unfortunate feature of a major city such as the capital of the west of England. In my constituency, unfortunately, there are women of various nationalities who are there, either because of their drug dependency or no doubt because they have been trafficked into the area, to satisfy the quite awful needs of some men in the city of Bristol. That is a matter of shame for all of us, and a reminder of the lack of human dignity that some people have to face.

How Bristol should face up to the events of 200 years ago is a matter of great debate there. Some people wish to erase all memory of the city’s role in the slave trade by altering street names and the name of our concert hall, and by not allowing a shopping centre to make even a convoluted reference to merchants. The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who is no longer in his place, mentioned the role of Edward Colston in the city of Bristol, and that, too, is a topic for debate at the moment. I believe, however, that the way to deal with the past is not to erase it from our memory but to recognise it, debate it and interpret it wherever we find an association with the past that is linked to slavery, be it a statue, a hall or a shopping centre. Wherever we find a link, however tenuous, we should interpret it so that people can understand the issues of the past, deal with them and relate them to what is happening today.

The hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) mentioned the apology that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland had made on behalf of all of us in this regard. The question of an apology has also been a topic of debate in Bristol. I do not believe that the present generation of Bristolians or their elected representatives can apologise for the actions of people who were alive in the city 200 years ago. We cannot transfer guilt on to those people, particularly as only a minority of the citizens of that time participated in the slave trade or had a direct interest in the West Indies. Moreover, many ordinary Bristolians campaigned against the trade. It is better to recognise all facets of the trade and to understand our legacy. The city council has, none the less, debated the question of an apology and issued a statement of profound regret, which was in a tone similar to the one issued by the Prime Minister on behalf of the nation.

I want to talk briefly about the role of the city in the events of 200 years ago. As early as 1783, the Society of Friends in Bristol first mounted a campaign against the slave trade in which some Bristolians were engaged. On 27 June 1787, Thomas Clarkson first arrived in Bristol to gather the evidence that many hon. Members have referred to today. That evidence was subsequently used by Wilberforce in his parliamentary campaign. Clarkson’s 1808 two-volume account of his campaign was entitled “The History of the Rise, Progress and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave-Trade by the British Parliament”, which was rather a long title for a series of memoirs. In it, he noted that Bristolians were not at all proud of the trade that was taking place in the city. He said that

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In Bristol, aided by Mr. Thompson, the landlord of the “Seven Stars” pub, which still exists in the city centre, Thomas Clarkson was escorted around the public houses where seamen were recruited to go on slaving voyages. That formed the basis of the evidence that he gathered to campaign against the slave trade in the country, and which he fed to Wilberforce for his campaign in Parliament. The evidence of maltreatment of the seamen aroused almost as much moral outrage at the time as that of the maltreatment of the captives. There were tales of floggings, burnings with hot pitch, branding with tongs and throwing people overboard.

In 1787, a local committee was established in Bristol for the abolition of the slave trade, bringing together Quakers, Anglicans and dissenters, as well as leading public figures in the city. Clarkson then left to gather further evidence in Liverpool. In Bristol, the debate raged for the next 20 years between the abolitionists and the West Indian interests that wished to perpetuate the slave trade. I have to say that my parliamentary predecessors did not play a particularly distinguished role in 1807 in the passing of the Act that we are commemorating tonight. The 1830 election, however, was fought directly on the issue of the continuance of slavery, and competing Whig candidates—one for emancipation and one against—stood. Sadly, the forces of emancipation were defeated—though certainly not disgraced—by 3,378 votes to 2,843. Of course, that was on a very limited pre-1832 franchise. The Act to emancipate slaves became one of the first passed by the reformed House after 1832.

The abolition of the slave trade in 1807 is arguably the first blow for human rights by any national Parliament on behalf of the peoples of other countries. In opening the debate, the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the teaching of history in our schools, as did other Members. I have spoken on black history month a couple of times since being elected a Member of Parliament, and I share with the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler), who is not currently in her place, the hope that black history issues will be integral to the new history curriculum, and I am assured that that has been the case in Bristol schools for many years. I shall invite all the schools in my constituency to come and see the exhibition in Westminster Hall. Cabot school in St. Paul’s in my constituency has already had an exhibition and commemoration of present-day and historical black heroes.

There is much cynicism about politics, but 2007 provides an opportunity for us to remind people of the good that politics and Parliament can do, as well as to remind them of how much good can be achieved by those who campaign outside Parliament. When I studied history in school, I learned of the success of the Anti-Corn Law League compared with the failure of Chartism. I was not taught at the time of the success in 1807 of the campaign from outside Parliament to end the slave trade. On Sunday, in Bristol, as in Hull and Liverpool, there will be a service in the cathedral to commemorate the events of 200 years ago. Across the city, the bells will be rung, by contrast with when they were rung on the many occasions that Wilberforce’s attempts to abolish the slave trade were defeated. When those bells fall silent, all of us in Bristol will have an opportunity to have a period of quiet contemplation
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and reflection on the events that have taken place in the city’s past, and on how we face up to the legacy of slavery in today’s society.

9.24 pm

Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): It is a profound honour to wind up for the Opposition in a debate that has never failed, in any speech, to be interesting and informative. Members of the House have displayed terrific knowledge of and commitment to the issues. This is an especially proud moment for me as a council member of the Evangelical Alliance, which represents 1 million Christians in the UK, all of whom are immensely proud of the evangelical William Wilberforce.

Whatever our individual backgrounds, few of us, when we contemplated a parliamentary career, were unmindful of the history of this place. For whichever side of the House we were destined, we were moved by the thought of being physically connected, through our mere presence as Members, to some of the Acts and events that shaped the country’s destiny.

Among those Acts, the measure that we remember tonight takes its place as one of a series in the 19th century that would change us as a people and a society for ever, etching compassion for the victims of a new and harshly constituted urban environment into law for our towns and cities, workplaces, prisons and schools. However, the fact that the measure that we remember tonight holds a special place in our history recognises its reach beyond these shores and celebrates the character of the man most associated with it—William Wilberforce.

Before I speak about William Wilberforce and his achievements, let me acknowledge some key themes of the debate. I welcome most warmly the opening speeches by the Deputy Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). Both spoke with commitment. The Deputy Prime Minister spoke from deep knowledge of his constituency and of what Wilberforce means to him. My right hon. Friend gave a remarkable performance, even for him, demonstrating complete mastery of his special subject. Anyone who took him on about Wilberforce on “Mastermind” would come off second best. Two fine opening speeches were followed by a series of others.

Praise for William Wilberforce is not a zero sum game. It neither denigrates him to recognise that he was not alone in the quest to rid our country and the world of an evil trade, nor does it devalue the efforts of others to appreciate that his importance as the right man in the right place at the right time changed history faster than it might have been changed. We do not need to justify our opinions of Wilberforce and his role in the abolition movement by trying to defend him against charges that he never heard or by feeling aggrieved that others are not mentioned in the same breath when the roles of those most involved are discussed.

We have been right during the debate to pay tribute to those—known and unknown—who played a significant part in the abolitionist movement. They include: Thomas Clarkson, the choice of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Moss) for his eloquent eulogy; Hannah More;
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Granville Sharp; Olaudah Equiano; Ottabah Cugoano; John Newton; the Clapham sect; William Knibb, and Elizabeth Heyrick, who led the Leicester sugar revolt and appeared from time to time as a representative of the thousands of women in this country who supported the abolitionist movement. Thousands of nameless people responded to petitions and the work throughout the country. We also heard about the Maroons in Jamaica. All are valued and honoured in the House. We acknowledge that the culmination of William Wilberforce’s life and work could not have happened without the contributions of many others, for whom he was an outstanding focus and catalyst.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) made, even for her, a wonderful speech. It was considered, well rounded and not only displayed a knowledge of the miseries of slavery, which she conveyed, but made a thoughtful contribution on its legacy. We are in her debt and I hope that she chooses it as her speech of the week on Mr. Andrew Neil’s programme in a couple of days. She and the hon. Member for Brent, South (Ms Butler) spoke with a particular understanding, which—forgive me—I cannot reach, not only because of what they said and how they said it, but because of who they are and whom they represent. The fact that the House includes them and others who have their background is a great honour for us. They both conveyed that in a remarkable way, for which I thank them.

Both hon. Members referred to those who had joined William Wilberforce, as did the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), who spoke of those outside this place who contribute to democracy. It is a continuous theme of his life and work in the House—he is a bit of grit in the oyster, but always for the right reasons. He described some of the messiness involved—how the Royal Navy simultaneously patrolled the seas to stop the slave trade and took part in quelling the slave rebellions in the islands. Life is not consistent, and it is messy.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) gave an extraordinary contemporary account, drawing on his own relatives’ experience, of some of the problems to do with slavery that he had encountered. We are thrilled—but not surprised, knowing my right hon. Friend—that he was on the right side of the debate.

Our debate today is not a celebration—and it is certainly not a celebration of the end of slavery. Many colleagues have spoken knowledgeably and movingly about the tragedy that is modern-day slavery in all its many forms. It never went away. Slavery is not simply an act or a series of acts that physically enslave or control. Slavery begins in the mind. It is an act of oppression and domination springing from a perversion of the human spirit which, cruelly, can only value the freedom in one if it deals in the loss of freedom in another. That is why the slavers of today have simple common cause with those of yesteryear, and that is why, sadly, slavery crosses all human boundaries—race, faith, colour and nation. It is everywhere.

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