If we can’t speak honestly about Britain’s links to slavery, we turn our backs on change

British politics has an unusual obsession with Britain’s past. In some sense this should not be remarkable: the writing of history takes place in the present, and the story any nation tells about itself is therefore always a political one. But in Britain, it is only ever that: contemporary debates about British history are distinguished by their lack of historical content. Instead, they are merely a new way of posing an old question: does Britain need to change, or is it great the way it is?

This is why attempts to revise and update conventional accounts of British history are so fiercely and reflexively rejected. Britain’s past, or a glorious version of it, is so central to maintaining the status quo that to question our history is to invite dramatic charges of vandalism and erasure – from those who seem to believe the past is like an antique vase that might be shattered if too many people lay their hands on it.

Our own prime minister has made taking on “lefty woke culture that wants to cancel our history” one of his main election pledges. Before him, Boris Johnson objected to the tearing down of the Edward Colston statue, and claimed that we can’t just “go around seeking retrospectively to change our history or to edit it”.

This is not a serious way to talk about history; it’s not even an honest attempt to understand how historians work. But it’s not meant to be. It is meant to shut down conversations about the past – and its larger purpose is to constrict the definition of British identity, and to make it impossible for “new” voices to contribute to that definition. If we cannot speak about Britain’s past, and the violations within it, we cannot speak about Britain’s present and the violations that persist in it now, and therefore can make no case to reshape it.

The campaign to “protect our history”, in other words, is about protecting the past from historians – and protecting the present from dangerous new ideas about how we got here. Because when an organisation like the Guardian researches its own historical links to transatlantic slavery – and then apologises and embarks on a substantial project of restorative justice – the newspaper is not primarily presenting a different past, but its ambition for a different present. Those who are threatened by this exercise are not worried about facing our history; they don’t want to face a future in which assumptions about how this country “earned” its wealth are challenged, and interventions are made to rebalance the inequalities of class and race that were generated in the making of that wealth.

This work is released into a climate that is hostile to that sort of change, and so will be subjected to the silly sparring that is designed to reduce these attempts to “wokeness’’ and thus trivialise and dismiss them. There have already been sniggers about how the Guardian will surely “cancel itself” and “shut down” over its links to slavery.

If I was this scared, I would also make corny jokes like these. Because time really is beginning to run out for those who are scared of a modern, increasingly diverse and informed Britain. The circus of laughs and gags is a desperate attempt to divert us from the serious stuff that is growing harder and harder to ignore. If a country has owned, traded in, and profited from slavery and colonialism, it cannot escape or outrun the legacies of these foundational exploitations. Britain is shaped, in all forms, physical, political and demographic, by its past. This a fact, not an argument.

Its race relations are a product of colonised populations moving to the seat of an empire that made them slaves, subjects and soldiers. The status of the descendants of these exploited and invaded people remains blighted by racism, institutional prejudice, and the sort of questioning of their right to Britishness that results in unlawful deportation and can strip them of citizenship.

Britain’s involvement in the slave trade, and its economic links to slave economies – and indeed the Guardian’s own connection to it, benefiting and profiteering from the labour of the enslaved – tilted the ground in favour of the white owners of capital, and away from the enslaved people and their descendants, whose labour helped create that capital. That fundamental fact explains much of why Britain, and the Guardian itself, looks how it does today. To profit from that exploitation and not acknowledge it is somehow to sanction and continue it by other means.

In this realisation, the Guardian is joining others who are taking this history seriously, and investing time and energy in this research. Wealthy aristocratic families are independently paying reparations and making apologies for owning enslaved people. Individual writers and thinkers whose families benefited from enslavement are publishing accounts of their ancestors’ brutality on Caribbean sugar plantations. And innumerable historians and academic institutions have braved censure and abuse in order to expand and enormously enrich our knowledge of Britain’s colonial past, and our understanding of how that past has shaped the political failure and social unrest of our present.

Related: Lest we remember: how Britain buried its history of slavery | Gary Younge

Those who fear history like to present these disparate parties as a menacing blob of wokery – but their projects and aspirations are, in fact, far more uncertain and experimental than the pantomime roles they are given in public discourse. Whether it’s the payment of reparations, investments in journalistic accounts of the impact of enslavement, or apologies, these are deliberative efforts where there is often disagreement. There will be conflict between generations and Black participants with different views or experiences of colonialism and enslavement, and frustrations about the ambition of such projects that will always seem still too small. Reparative justice efforts are trying to divine a way rather than dictate one.

Why does this matter? Well, because it’s morally right to make amends for stealing people’s lives and their labour. But it also matters because those who perpetrated such abuses were versions of us in different circumstances. Nobody actually thinks that the people of today are responsible for what happened two centuries ago – but we can be guilty of refusing to learn about it and from it. The people in our past were not uniquely evil, but they went along with an evil system that created two classes of human beings and allowed one to enslave the other.

The value of figuring out how that happened is an investment in our own self-awareness, in the understanding that simply having progressive politics – the very purpose of the Guardian’s establishment – does not exempt us from bad choices. We can still have blind spots, the sort that conceive of solidarity as something that only applies to people who share our class, experiences, skin colour and culture. Manchester’s cotton traders were unlikely to have ever set foot in the plantations, but they knew. Today, people, some of them distant and invisible to us, are suffering from the impact of our affluent lifestyles; people who endure obscene working conditions and zero-hours contracts to provide our goods and services; and those who suffer from the impact of the climate crisis as a result of industrial countries’ practices. Not to mention those who are casualties of our foreign policy but are not welcome at our borders unless fleeing European wars. There is no mystery in how people with good politics did bad deeds in the past.

In that sense, what restorative justice entails is not two versions of the past, but two versions of the future. In one, Britain is bewildered by its changing nature, riven by its inequalities, racial and economic, and childishly blowing raspberries every time someone mentions slavery, colonialism, or empire. In the other, Britain is beginning to understand that it’s time to grow up. I know which one I’d rather be a part of.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

  • The Guardian’s founders and transatlantic slavery: what should it mean? Join the Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, the historian Prof David Olusoga, the lead researcher Dr Cassandra Gooptar, and the Cotton Capital editor, Maya Wolfe-Robinson, for a special event as they discuss the Guardian’s two-year investigation into its founders’ links to the cotton trade and enslaved people. Chaired by the Guardian journalist Joseph Harker. Register here to join tonight at 7pm BST (2pm EDT)