Leading article: The right time to apologise

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The Prime Minister's planned apology for the evils of slavery will inevitably disappoint and even anger as many people as it satisfies. On the one hand, that small band of historians who are bent on rehabilitating the Empire's memory in all its tawdry glory will complain about a politically correct "gesture", as well as about the left's relative silence on the subject of the African chiefs who collaborated in the trade when not slavers themselves.

A different clamour will emerge from the corner of those black activists who won't be satisfied with anything less than vast reparations being offered to tens of millions of slaves' descendants.

Tony Blair is damned if he apologises and damned if he doesn't. In other words, he should take no notice and get on with it. There is no more appropriate moment than now to address this dark and seamy side of Britain's history. Next year the country marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade - surely one of the most remarkable legislative reforms in British history in that it was driven primarily by moral and religious considerations rather than by fear of a baying mob outside Parliament or purely economic considerations.

Mr Blair's words on slavery, therefore, offer a chance for a mixture of reflections - on the ill-gotten gains of the slavers and the hellish suffering of millions of transported slaves to be sure - but also on the moral strength that enabled William Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists to bring a good cause to victory. If this event is a cause for some pride, as well as a great deal of shame, that is as it should be.

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