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Coalitions of Conscience

11 July 2014

By Dr. Graham Giles MBE, LCID Executive Committee

Labour Affiliates can punch above their weight on matters of moral responsibility by standing together, not least on the future aid budget.   Christians on the Left are providing resources to help local church groups up and down the country to become more active in local and national politics.  Labour Campaign for International Development has launched its door-step guide to give PPCs a really positive narrative about the values of British aid.  In his ‘CotL’ blog Rev Graham Hunter reminded that our historic heroes built coalitions of conscience to speak up for the interests of the downtrodden, marginalised and powerless.   We seek, he wrote, ‘to build a broad coalition to campaign for the goals of historic Christian Socialism, namely, equality, justice, the fight against poverty, and the battle for human dignity’.  On this LCID and CotL stand shoulder to shoulder.

I took two hours out recently to watch the movie “Belle”.  Dido Belle was the 18th  Century illegitimate mixed-race daughter of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield’s nephew Admiral Sir John Lindsay and an African slave Maria Belle. Set at a time of legal significance when a court case is heard on what became known as the Zong massacre.  Children, women and men were thrown overboard from a slave ship and the owner filed with his insurance company for ‘cargo’ losses. Lord Mansfield ruled on this case in England’s Court of King’s Bench in a decision which contributed to the abolition of slavery in the British Colonies.  After the first trial, freed slave Olaudah Equiano brought news of the massacre to the attention of anti-slavery campaigners, who worked unsuccessfully to have the ship’s crew prosecuted for murder.

An 1839 book on coalitions of conscience that achieved the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, included an account of the Zong killings.  This influenced the artist Turner, who displayed a painting The Slave Shipat the Royal Academy 1840 summer exhibition.  Turner depicted a vessel from which slaves had been thrown into the sea to be devoured by sharks. Details in the painting, such as shackles worn by the slaves, were influenced by illustrations in the book.  Guilded frames in English galleries contain uncomfortable truths.  Johann Zoffany’s portrait of Dido Belle with her white cousin Lady Elizabeth, and Turner’s ‘The Slave Ship both demonstrate that progress in social behaviour and international convention have not been easy voyages for Britain.  The fight goes on, not least to stem the tide of human trafficking, racial intolerance and social isolationism.

Dido Belle was obliged to dine alone in a mansion to avoid offending guests at the Earl’s table.  We still need vocal alliances for social justice, to challenge conscience, humble hubris, and energise international economic ethics.  Nationalism and white-supremacy are not quite silent yet.  An English Boadicea was caught on the evening news declaring ‘they should remember who puts food on their tables’. Our political messengers cannot preserve public favour by means of ambiguity.  International Development is a hot issue it’s not a hot potato.  Overseas aid and enlightened internationalism require coherent collaboration between Labour movement affiliates to guarantee that our leaders do not stand silently by.  Boat people and victims of exploitation in 2014 need our British better conscience to behave generously.  When good people remain tight-lipped evil euphemisms triumph.

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