Speakers included Frank Field MP, Chair of the Modern Slavery Bill Evidence Review and Professor John Oldfield, Director of the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation.

On the day of the draft Modern Slavery Bill’s second reading in parliament, and with pressure mounting on the Government to make vital amendments before it is passed, representatives of the media, the third sector, CSR, the Church, the United Nations, the bar and academia gathered to discuss Britain’s achievements in the fight against slavery then and now.

Session 1: The First British Abolitionist Movement

Abolitionism, Oldfield explained, brought Britain together in a mass extra-parliamentary moral uprising for the first time in its history. The challenge they faced was huge. Slavery was a fact of life in 18th-century Britain. The abolitionists had to recalibrate not just the law but the moral fibre of the nation. Yet individuals with a vested interest in the slave trade made up Britain’s oligarchic political structures.

The abolitionists therefore relied on petitions to pressure parliament. They built “monster petitions” the size of tree trunks, which they carried into parliament on the shoulders of ten people, illustrating the weight of public opinion they brought with them.  

This sea-change in public opinion spread to every sphere of society. Josiah Wedgwood's “Kneeling Slave” image with the slogan “Am I Not a Man and a Brother?” became a must-have item for the fashion-conscious, and the plan of the Brookes slave ship, illustrating the cramped conditions of slaves in transit, circulated widely as one of the slave trade’s horror stories. 

Answering questions from Cristina Odone, Director of Communications at the Legatum Institute, on women’s role in the movement, Oldfield explained that women were crucial to the anti-consumption campaign that forced British business to its knees. They boycotted slave-made Caribbean goods in favour of sugar and coffee from the East Indies.

Mike Dottridge, a human rights adviser to the United Nations, drew parallels between the entrenched business interests that abolitionists had to fight in the 19th century and the powerful corporate lobby in British politics today. 

Parosha Chandran, a human rights barrister at 1 Pump Court Chambers, voiced concerns about the re-enslavement of freed victims. Asked whether an adaptation of the 19th-century apprenticeship scheme could break the cycle, Oldfield explained that the idea was itself a failure. The abolitionists failed to ensure that former slaves were aware of their rights under the scheme, leading to further exploitation and, ultimately, the abolition of apprenticeships in 1838. 

Revd Rachel Carnegie, Director of the Anglican Alliance, asked about the role of religion in Britain’s first abolitionist movement. Oldfield explained that non-mainstream Christian denominations, such as the Quakers, used abolitionism as a way to unite. The eventual effect of that unison and activism in support of abolitionism had a powerful effect on British civil society. 

Session 2: Slavery as a Continuing Feature of the Global Marketplace

Nick Grono began the session with an introduction to his work as CEO of the Freedom Fund, a philanthropic initiative designed to bring financial resources and strategic focus to the international fight against modern slavery. 

At 29.8 million, the number of people believed to be held in modern forms of slavery around the world amounts to more than double the total number taken out of Africa during the entire transatlantic slave trade.

Last year, the Government’s call for a new Modern Slavery Bill met with resounding approval from international monitors and activists. Yet, months later, controversial omissions remain. The draft Bill does not include a specific offence for the exploitation of children, or a requisite for corporations to report on slavery in their supply chains.

With the draft currently under the scrutiny of the House of Commons Public Bill Committee, the conditions on which Britain will make its long-awaited return to the forefront of abolitionism have never been more uncertain, prompting wide-spread debate on the issues at stake.

Joining the discussion straight from the second reading of the Modern Slavery Bill in Parliament, Frank Field MP advocated the need to “call a spade a spade”. Referring to the problem as “modern slavery” rather than “human trafficking”, he argued, allows the debate to develop in a more targeted and coherent fashion, because “trafficking” is associated with the commercial and impersonal.

Once “slavery” is the term around which the debate is centred, Field continued, it is important not just to report on the issue, but also to systematically update and substantiate research in the area, and to provide a clear direction for positive action and engagement.

As an example, Field cited the power of the Commonwealth. Many of the supply chains tainted by slavery pass through former Commonwealth territory, he explained. Therefore the anti-slavery cause has the potential to reunite the Commonwealth countries behind a clearly-defined moral agenda, in a manner reminiscent of their successes in the abolition of apartheid. This, Field claimed, could give the British Commonwealth a totally new lease of life.

Lucy Maule, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Social Justice, furthered Field’s emphasis on the importance of terminology, and referred to her experience with the all-too-common confusion between immigration and slavery offences. Clearly delineating the two would be beneficial in targeting the latter, she claimed.

Prabha Kotiswaran, Senior Lecturer in law at King’s College London, supported the exportation of the Modern Slavery Bill to Commonwealth countries, but warned that often human-trafficking in countries like India is internal, and therefore a revision of domestic labour laws would perhaps be more productive than the imposition of international criminal laws.

Jonathan Pugh-Smith, Legal Counsel for Bregal Investments, reaffirmed the value of a solid justice enforcement mechanism, to increase the legal risks faced by human traffickers, to the point at which they outweigh the financial rewards.

Field stressed the value of encouraging former slaves to come forward and speak about their experience publically. Doing so would bring to life an otherwise often abstract issue whose atrocities are difficult to imagine, he argued.

The success of the first abolitionist movement, Field claimed, was dependent on the powerful civil society in Britain at the time. Correspondence societies wrote letters en masse to Members of Parliament, demanding their support for the abolitionist cause. The Church, Field argued, is the one institution in Britain with the political and popular wherewithal to replicate this today.

Sian Hansen, CEO of the Legatum Institute, provided the seminar’s closing remarks, commenting on the success of the event and its relationship with the Institute’s mission to promote prosperity, responsibility and freedom.

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About the Roads to Freedom Series

As part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, this series offers a progress report on the idea of freedom. The history of the developed west has been shaped by the increased degree of freedom exercised by individuals who have been able to escape the constraints that prevailed in the past. Previous generations have been stifled by prejudice and poverty, by class hierarchies, state repression and determined obscurantism. By the 1990s, and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many considered that the advance of an agenda which recognised the legitimacy of free markets and the morality of individual liberty was well nigh inevitable. But in the past two generations advocates of freedom have also been confronted by significant obstacles. The speakers in this series will draw conclusions from the study of the past while also seeking to find ways of removing the obstacles to freedom’s progress.