Shedding the image of apathy


Universe Column May 15h 2005

by David Alton

During the election campaign numerous politicians complained about public apathy and about public cynicism. This weekend they need to take a long look in the mirror and at their failure to seriously engage with the electorate. One example is their failure to hold open public meetings. They say people “aren’t interested” and “won’t come.”

But this simply isn’t true.

They won’t come if all they are going to get is a series of sound bites or infantile yah-boo political speeches.

By coincidence, while the election campaign was underway, I chaired a public lecture in Liverpool.  Far from there being apathy, hundreds of people came to hear the Director Anti Slavery International, Mary Cuneen. They heard a first class address on the history of slavery and present day forms of slavery. After the speech there were intelligent and well-informed questions and answers.

The meeting was held in Liverpool’s Roscoe Hall, just yards from where this early nineteenth century campaigner for human rights was born and buried.

2007 will be the 200th anniversary of the ending of slavery within the United Kingdom.   Two dark shadows hang over the history of Liverpool: the Irish Famine and the Slave Trade: and the contemporary lessons to be learnt from these experiences still need to be learnt.

In 2000 Liverpool issued the first public apology, finally acknowledging its shameful role as the epicentre of the European slave trade. On behalf of the City I presented that statement in West Africa.

The City Council’s resolution stated that “…it is time the City gave expression to its sense of remorse over the effects that the slave trade had on countless millions of people and on the culture of the continent of Africa, the Caribbean and the USA. The Council will co-ordinate the use of all its powers to foster better race relations, greater equality of opportunities and even greater diversity so that the City is itself a celebration of multi-culturalism.” That public declaration helped draw a line on that dark chapter of the city’s history and open a way forward.

Estimates of the numbers of Africans sold into slavery vary but over nearly four centuries about 12 million people were forcibly transported into bondage.

In his Journal of a slave-trader, John Newton – the Liverpool sea captain who later renounced the trade and ended up composing the hymn Amazing Grace – wrote:  “I have no sufficient data to warrant calculation but I suppose not less than one hundred thousand slaves are exported annually from all parts of Africa, and that more than one half of these are exported in English ships.”

Among the degrading rituals forced upon captured slaves they were taken in the dark to the Tree Of Forgetfulness. Men would be made to walk around it nine times, a woman seven times. It was believed that this would strip them of their memory – that they would lose their identity, forget their origins, their families and their country.  This forced amnesia was the final assault on a person’s humanity.

At nearby Zomai sick, disabled or elderly people were picked out and thrown into a common grave. Some were buried alive. Today, the memorial of Zoungbodji marks this place of holocaust.

And what link does all this have with the way we conduct politics in Britain?

As the Liverpool meeting heard about what happened in the past and what is happening now – trafficking of women and children, debt bondage, confiscation of food and sleep – and the fate of people like the Morecambe Bay cockle pickers – I couldn’t help reflecting that if our politicians had used the election campaign to genuinely debate these sort of issues – instead of trying to out bid one another through the disgraceful scape-goating of vulnerable asylum seekers and immigrants – many more people would have participated in Thursday’s elections. Politics, in other words, must be made relevant, must be conducted seriously, and must engage directly with people.  The people will think it’s worth taking part.

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