Sunak refuses to apologise for UK role in historical slavery when challenged

He was answering MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions when challenged on the issue by Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy.

Ben Hatton
Wednesday 26 April 2023 13:52 BST
A £2 commemorative coin marking the abolition of the slave trade (Geoff Caddick/PA)
A £2 commemorative coin marking the abolition of the slave trade (Geoff Caddick/PA)

The Prime Minister refused to apologise for the UK’s role in historical slavery and colonialism, and rejected a call to commit to reparations when challenged in the Commons.

Rishi Sunak said he was committed to ensuring the UK is an “inclusive and tolerant” society, and said trying to “unpick our history is not the right way forward”.

He was answering MPs at Prime Minister’s Questions when challenged on the issue by Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Streatham).

She said: “This month marks 23 years since the passing of the late, great, Bernie Grant, a former member of this House, and the founder of the UK reparations movement in the UK.

“In his last Prime Minister’s Questions before his death he asked for an apology to the people of African descent living and dead for our country’s role in slavery and colonialism.

“But since then, prime ministers and heads of state have only ever expressed sorrow or deep regret.

“These are not sentiments that are befitting one of the greatest atrocities in human history.

“There has been no acknowledgement of the wealth that has been amassed or the fact that our country took out the largest loan it ever has to pay off the slave owners, and not the enslaved.”

She asked: “Will he do what Bernie Grant asked all those years ago, what I have asked, and what countless others have asked since, and offer a full and meaningful apology for our country’s role in slavery and colonialism, and commit to reparatory justice?”

Mr Sunak said: “No. What I think our focus should now be on doing is, of course, understanding our history and all its parts, not running away from it, but right now making sure that we have a society which is inclusive and tolerant of people from all backgrounds.

“That’s something that we on this side of the House are committed to doing and will continue to deliver, but trying to unpick our history is not the right way forward, and it’s not something that we will focus our energies on.”

A Labour spokesman said Ms Ribeiro-Addy’s call for reparations was not party policy.

The spokesman said “she is right to highlight the appalling history of the slave trade” but “on the specific point of reparations, the point that she was making is not Labour Party policy”.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported that a group called Heirs Of Slaver, made up of descendents of some notable British slave owners, launched a campaign to seek “apology, dialogue, reconciliation and reparative justice” and “support campaigns for institutional and national reparative justice” for the transatlantic slave trade.

Tony Blair, when he was prime minister and challenged and challenged over whether he was prepared to say sorry for the slave trade, said: “I have said we are sorry and I say it again.”

Mr Blair was speaking in 2007 as the government prepared to mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade.

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