Letters - 18 & 25 December 2020

From Wracked with guilt to Gift Aid

Wracked with guilt

I finished Meeting for Sufferings on Zoom on Saturday 5 December wracked with guilt. When listening to the moving presentation by Britain Yearly Meeting’s Edwina Peart on Friends and racism and the subsequent discussion, I realised that we Friends could and should have made much more of the link between racism and Brexit, and so might have helped to counteract ludicrously dishonest claims of the Brexiteers.   

If we had faced up to our generational failings, admitted our guilt and used our influential position in the media (perhaps not as great as we would like to think but still considerable) to publicise its implications, the current process of leaving the EU, so shaming, I think, to the UK and damaging to the poorest in society for generations to come, might have been different.

I remember hearing the argument put forward by Brexiteers, not effectively gainsaid by anyone, that the world, especially former colonies, would be falling over themselves to buy our goods. This unreal suggestion was anchored in the fallacies that every child absorbed when growing up in the UK, at its core being white supremacist racism and the belief we were loved across the world – not least by former colonies.

I briefly worked in a steelworks in ‘steel sales’, the climax of which was personally selling 4,000 tons of steel railway track to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). But there was no selling involved – colonial railways always used Cumbrian-made rail track. Not any more. India and Sri Lanka make their own or get it from China or Japan, which are 10,000 miles closer.

Colonial history protected UK industry for too long while non-colonial countries focused on making goods of quality and value.

Not facing up to this reality has had tragic consequences. I believe it misled thousands of voters about the reality of UK history and the fault lines in its supposed future outwith the EU.

Robert Straughton

Our racist history

I was saddened at Meeting for Sufferings that we did not respond to the call to apologise for our involvement in the slave trade.

Earlier this year I was horrified to learn that it was 2015 before the British taxpayer finally came out from under the debt of paying recompense to the slave owners for freeing their slaves! Not, as one might have expected, to pay the enslaved people.

This means that our legal and financial systems have been upholding the principle that humans could be property for over 200 years after slavery was supposedly abolished. It is the secrecy we still allow in Britain about sources of income and taxes paid that enabled such an abhorrent action to continue. 

One Friend at Sufferings said that he could not join with an apology for Quakers’ historic involvement in slavery, because he could apologise only for something for which he was personally responsible. But we could – and we should – say ‘I am sorry that this ever happened, and that it happened within a society to which I am heir; I acknowledge that I still benefit greatly from this historic injustice. I will now work to understand the truth about its extent and depth, to recognise how much it is still embedded in my norms, and to eradicate its pervasive influence personally and in wider society’. And mean it. And act on it.     
Frances Voelcker

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