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Gary Younge
We must be honest about our past to be truly hopeful about our future

There is a strange kind of liberation that comes with knowing that your days in office are literally numbered. Journalists spend a decade trying to finish you off and then, just when it looks as if they might be successful, they feed you to the historians.

So in this year when we commemorate the 200th anniversary of parliament passing the bill to end trading in enslaved Africans using British ships, I've come to Cardiff to make history. In this beautiful city, with one of the oldest black communities in Britain, which was the site of one of the country's first race riots, and where abolitionists and slave traders both thrived, I have come to apologise for our role in the slave trade.

This is not a personal apology but a political one. It has nothing to do with individual guilt and everything to do with collective responsibility. I wasn't personally involved in the slave trade - none of us were. But all of us - British, African, American, black, white and Indian - live with its legacy. I apologise for our nation and our parliament. I offer the apology unreservedly and unequivocally. I utter it with no lawyerly caveats or tepid reservation. I am sorry. I say it not to pander to any particular community but because unless we can distinguish right from wrong in the past, there is little hope of us righting wrongs in the present. Slavery was wrong. Apologising for the role we played in it is right.

The apology is important. I hope it resolves any suggestion of moral indifference to our involvement in the traffic of human beings that so economically enriched and ethically impoverished this country. But, in a way, apologising is the easy part. Apologies are only meaningful if you vow to change the behaviour that made them necessary in the first place. And that is what I want to concentrate on today. New Labour was elected on a modernising agenda. We don't live in the past. But we do learn from it. And we stand at a particular moment in our national history when it behoves us to reflect on what we have been, so we might imagine what we might yet become.

This anniversary reveals two crucial truths about us as a country that can help us on our way. First, like all nations and peoples, we have done things in which we can take no pride. There is a peculiar taboo on this point that must be broken for all our sakes. So let's turn our backs on political correctness and deliver some hard truths. Our history is littered with appalling episodes that we must acknowledge, of which we should be ashamed, and for which we must then take responsibility. Slavery and colonialism did not just lead to the exploitation, humiliation, maiming and murder of millions. The intolerance, bigotry and indifference to human suffering they entailed crippled us, morally, as a people.

Second, in passing that bill 200 years ago, parliament showed that as a people we have achieved many things of which we can rightly be proud. Our history bears witness to moments when ordinary working people have risen above narrow-minded prejudice, turned their backs on hate-mongers and fought for equality and human rights; moments at which we've taken a long hard look at our differences and decided that we are all more alike than we are unalike. Moments when we fought not just on the beaches and in the fields, but on the estates, in workplaces and local councils, to preserve what is great about this country and eradicate what is rotten.

For those great things - free speech, democracy, equality and tolerance - aren't essentially British. They are essentially human. There is nowhere in the world where you cannot find people fighting for them; and there is nowhere in the world, including Britain, where they are not under constant attack.

Indeed, often in our history our parliament, and occasionally our people, have been on the wrong side of that struggle. But always there have been brave men and women, at times all too few, prepared to keep the flame of justice and humanism burning so that others may some day carry the torch. It is them we must thank for the fact that we have one of the most racially integrated nations on the planet, where for the most part people from all over the world coexist but rarely collide. That didn't happen by accident. It happened because people fought for it.

At times it has been a tough battle. It would be strange if it hadn't. We have had periods of great pain and turbulence when black, white and brown have felt excluded and turned, not to solving the problems, but on each other. There are still too many black men and women in prison and not enough in boardrooms; there are still too many Bangladeshis and Pakistanis in poor housing and not enough in the Commons; there are still too many white boys roaming the streets and not enough revising for their GCSEs.

As a government we cannot change what's in people's hearts. But, as we showed 200 years ago, we can change what is in our laws. In so doing, we can provide people with hope and play a role in improving their lives. So we must be tough on bigotry but also tough on the causes of bigotry. We have to face the likes of the British National party head-on and tell them that their racism has no place in this country. But we must also be aware of why a growing number follow them. Poor housing, poor education, low prospects, high unemployment, desperation, ignorance and fear all fertilise the soil on which fascism grows.

Similarly, we have to face down the jihadists and their hateful campaign of terror. They advance no cause with which we will have any truck. Their anti-semitic, homophobic, anti-woman, anti-democratic, anti-western agenda is an abomination. But once again we must also be aware of why a growing number follow them.

All inquiry points to the fact that the war in Iraq has contributed significantly to this disaffection, and for that I take my share of responsibility. There will be some people I will never convince about why I thought it was necessary to support the US in this venture. But I would like to think there is at least one thing on which all right-minded people can agree: that you don't save civilians in Iraq by bombing civilians in London.

So let's use this anniversary to take a long hard look in the mirror at both the best and the worst not just of what we have done, but what we can do. We have a long way to go. There are still too many black and Asian people who flinch at the national anthem and the union flag even though they were born here. There are still too many white people who flinch at the prospect of a black or Asian neighbour.

But we have come a long way. Take a look at your CD racks, bookshelves and sports teams; look at your local hospital, restaurants and local transport. Look at your parliament, television and theatre. Compare it not to 200 years ago but even to 20 years ago, and see how tightly every aspect of our lives are interdependent and interwoven.

My apology does not open old wounds, it helps lay the groundwork for a new beginning. Only once we are honest about our past can we be truly hopeful about our future.

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