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Where is our Wilberforce?

Where is our Wilberforce?

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“A society is judged by how it deals with the least of its members.” So said Andrew Wallis, Chairman on the Centre for Social Justice’s Modern Slavery Review and CEO of the charity Unseen at the launch of the CSJ’s major report on modern day slavery this week. It Happens Here gives case study after case study of the “most faceless, voiceless, helpless people that we have in the country”, being exploited, abused and enslaved right under our noses.

Yet the tone of the event was remarkably hopeful. “We have it within our power to get rid of this new slavery as surely as we did the old,” journalist Fraser Nelson declared.  Kevin Bales, co-founder of Free the Slaves went further. “Slavery is standing on the edge of its own extinction,” he told the packed room at the National Liberal Club, “and we can tip it over”.

Unlike previous anti-slavery movements which have focussed on introducing piecemeal legislation to outlaw specific areas of slavery, Bales explained, this report represents a “sound, thought-through” strategy to eliminate slavery from the world – perhaps in as little as 25 to 30 years.

Is this merely wishful thinking from a bunch of ivory-tower academics who are out of touch with the real world? I don’t think so. The report contains a comprehensive list of recommendations aimed at tackling every aspect of the issue at every level, from Parliament to the police, border agencies to businesses, and social services to slavery survivors.

Yes, you read that right. The report’s recommendations do not stop when all the slaves are released. Rehabilitation, healing and often reconciliation with families are also huge needs. During research for the report, the CSJ heard that children who have been trafficked

“are often so terrified and ‘brainwashed’ by their trafficker that [after being rescued and taken into care] they will leave at the first possible opportunity and return to their abuser. In one case described to the CSJ, a boy who had been trafficked into the UK disappeared on a visit to the dentist: he had climbed out of the window in a desperate attempt to return to his abuser.”

It is vital to identify specially trained foster-carers to take these children in, and for specialised counselling and therapeutic care to help them overcome the trauma they have undergone.

The task is huge. It is estimated that “there are more slaves today than were seized from Africa in four centuries of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.” But as Wilberforce and his friends knew, the size of the task cannot be the deciding factor in whether or not to tackle it. They took on the slave trade and won in their day, but their day has passed and now it is ours. As Kevin Bales stressed, “People will die if reforms are not made. People are dying. It’s not good enough to pat yourself on the back for something that happened over 200 years ago. It’s time to get the job finished.”

Frank Field MP was the last panellist to speak, and affirmed the sense of optimism in the room, saying that this report could be a turning point in history, but also acknowledging that a great report alone cannot make the necessary changes. “It’s a great day, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work to get this onto the statute books,” he said, “Where is our Wilberforce?”

Where is he or she? Well, if Fraser Nelson’s point earlier in the event is anything to go by, he or she is busy looking the other way. Quoting Rabbi Lionel Blue, Nelson suggested that we are often guilty of ‘moral longsightedness’, which is “the ability to get angry and outraged about injustices happening far away and long ago, while remaining blind to that [sic] under our noses.”

We get very worked up about horsemeat entering the supply chain, but remain almost entirely unmoved by stories of people treated like pieces of meat. We care more about the welfare of dogs, badgers and chickens than we do about the thousands of men, women and children kept in forced labour in cramped, unsanitary conditions with no hope of escape.

It is also because, as Nelson admitted in the Q&A, slavery doesn’t sell papers. The stories might be moving when you hear them, but you don’t want to go out of your way to discover them, or to share them with your friends. Why? Because it might affect your lifestyle, your choices, your budget. It might affect your conscience. We’re all for freedom, but if securing someone else’s means curbing our own, it takes an extraordinary man or woman not to turn away.

People who stand up for unpopular causes face ridicule, opposition and vitriol. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury may be heroes now, but their causes cost them dearly, both socially and financially. The Wilberforces and Shaftesburys of today are among us, but they’re busy staring off into the distance, hoping that if they don’t look at the problem, it won’t exist, and they won’t feel compelled to act.

A task this great, this momentous, will take courageous leadership. It will demand not one but a number of new Wilberforces ready and willing to devote their lives to the cause. As Christian Guy, Director of the CSJ, put it at the beginning of the event, “Whoever you are, there’s something you can do.”

Guest blogger Jennie Pollock is a freelance writer and editor. She blogs at and tweets as @missjenniep

Image by Believe Creative from available under this Creative Commons Licence.

Posted 12 March 2013


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