Britain should pay reparations for its colonial past

This topic guide is a companion to ‘Germany should pay reparations for its colonial past’


Although the issue of slave trade reparations has long been contentious, a new wave of the debate began in 2022. Since the death of Queen Elizabeth, there has been scrutiny of her reign and the legacy of the British Empire in general. Several former colonies are progressing plans to remove the British monarch as their head of state and calling for reparations themselves [Ref: The Atlantic]. Contributing to this new push for reparations was the endorsement of reparations policies in the 2020 US election by leading Democrats, including the then speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi [Ref: NYTimes], Senator Elizabeth Warren [Ref: Reuters] and vice-presidential candidate, Kamala Harris [Ref: Daily Mail].

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Social egg freezing empowers women


The issue of social egg freezing has increasingly appeared in the news over the past decade as technological advances, celebrity endorsement and corporate cooperation make the procedure more widely known and available. Friends star Jennifer Aniston made headlines in late 2022 for confessing that she wished she had been told to freeze her eggs when she was younger [Ref: Allure]. In the UK, the issue has received particular attention as campaigners successfully lobbied for the time limit on egg freezing to be increased from 10 years to 55 years [Ref: BioNews]. But the debate has been taking place worldwide. For example, a city in Japan is now covering part of the cost of the treatment to combat their low birth-rate [Ref: BBC News] and a woman in China is suing her government for denying her the right to freeze her eggs because she is single [Ref: New York Times].

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Skills Gap: too many people are going to university


Today, more than half of 18- to 30-year-olds go into higher education, reaching a famous target set by Tony Blair 20 years previously when he was prime minister [source: Independent]. The Tony Blair Institute (a think tank set up by Blair) has published a report arguing that this number should be even higher: 70 per cent by 2040. The authors argue that the government is wrong to emphasise ‘skills’ or technical education [source: Tony Blair Institute].

But others believe the numbers are too high, with too many doing poor-value degrees. According to Sir Peter Lampl, the founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, ‘there are too many kids going to university. Too many graduates come out with a lot of debt, and in many cases they come out with skills that the marketplace doesn’t want.’ Lampl argued that students would be ‘better served’ by doing an apprenticeship where ‘you earn while you learn, you come out with no debt and you come out with skills the marketplace wants’ [source: Daily Telegraph].

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Technological progress will not solve society’s environmental issues


Arguably, climate change, and the environmental problems that will occur as a result, are the most pressing issues that humankind faces. The outcome of the COP21 climate talks in Paris in 2015 was hailed as a momentous deal, in which countries pledged, among other things, to cap emissions, and seek to limit temperature rises to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and below the two degrees which many scientists believe would be disastrous for the planet [Ref: Guardian].

Yet as the COP26 talks in Glasgow in 2021 showed, declaring the ambition to cut emissions and actually doing so are two different things. According to analysis by Climate Action Tracker in the run-up to the talks, the cuts promised by the world’s nations are too small to prevent 1.5 degrees warming – and countries aren’t keeping those promises anyway. [Ref: Washington Post]

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The government should impose a duty of support for free speech in universities


In May 2021, the government introduced the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. The bill strengthens the legal duties on higher education providers in England to protect and promote freedom of speech and academic freedom [Ref: Department for Education]. The impetus for such measures is the belief that ‘cancel culture’ is undermining free speech within universities [Ref: inews]. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, said it is a basic human right ‘to be able to express ourselves freely and take part in rigorous debate’ [Ref: Rt Hon Gavin Williamson MP].

Universities and students’ unions will face strengthened legal duties to ‘take reasonably practicable steps’ to secure and to promote freedom of speech ‘within the law’ and academic freedom. A new ‘free speech champion’, Professor Arif Ahmed [Ref: BBC News], will actively ensure universities comply with their duties and investigate alleged breaches, with institutions liable to face fines of up to £500,000. Academics, visiting speakers and students will gain a legal right to seek financial compensation [Ref: Varsity].

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Tech companies should act to stop online misinformation


On 8 January 2021, Twitter permanently suspended the account of the former president, Donald J Trump. Although this final decision was provoked by Trump’s tweets before the riot at the Capitol building two days before, he had already been in trouble with social media companies for a variety of messages, particularly those loudly claiming unproven electoral fraud in the presidential election. (Ref: Washington Post)

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Meta (the parent company of Facebook) removed the Russian state-backed broadcaster RT from its platforms. (Ref: Independent). Posts from on Twitter, already labelled with the tag ‘Russia state-affiliated media’, were removed and replaced with a notice of ‘Account withheld’. (Ref: Twitter)

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Monuments to controversial historical figures should remain

Updated: March 2021


In June 2020, in a response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling by protestors of a statue of Edward Colston [Ref: BBC], the Mayor of London set up the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm [ref: Wikipedia]. The aim of this commission is to ensure London’s monuments, plaques and street names reflect the diversity of the city today [ref:]. Reviews of statues are being planned in other cities too, including Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle [Ref: Sky News]. Edinburgh City Council has convened a review group to look at public monuments, street or building names which have links to slavery and colonialism [Ref: Edinburgh Evening News].

The appointment of these commissions is the latest chapter in a long-running debate about historical monuments, with campaigns such as Rhodes Must Fall having argued for some time that such statues and public landmarks are more than just a symbol of past oppression – they represent the institutional racism which continues to exist today [Ref: BBC News].  ‘Protesters’, says one columnist, are ‘compelling entire nations to confront their present through a new understanding of their past’ [Ref: Guardian]. Some, however, worry that there is a tendency to ‘cleanse’ history of unsavoury – even appalling – elements. In the words of historian Mary Beard, ‘statues offer different challenges to our view of history … and remind us of our own fragility in the judgement of the future’ [Ref: TLS]. Others argue that history has now become ‘the most active front in a new culture war’ and that ‘actions are being taken widely and quickly in a way that does not reflect public opinion or growing concern over our treatment of the past’ [ref: Policy Exchange].

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The UK should reduce its foreign aid budget


The UK government is planning to reduce the amount it spends on foreign aid [Ref: UK Government]. Prior to the decision, the foreign aid budget stood at  0.7% of gross national income (GNI), the amount targeted by the UN [Ref: United Nations]. Following the announcement, including news that there would be cuts to aid sent to countries struggling with widespread hunger, such as Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia, a group of charities wrote to the prime minister urging a rethink, warning that ‘history will not judge this nation kindly if the government chooses to … destroy the UK’s global reputation as a country that steps up to help those most in need’ [Ref: BBC]. The plans have been defended by government officials as a necessary decision in light of ‘the seismic impact of the pandemic on the UK economy’ and that it has spent ‘more than £10 billion this year’ on good causes around the world [Ref: BBC].

The level of foreign aid has long been a controversial topic in British politics. For many, foreign aid is a moral imperative arising from the UK’s position as a rich country and its moral duties to help those worse off [Ref: Archbishop of Canterbury] – a duty that is doubly serious given the UK’s history of colonial exploitation and military intervention [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, many insist that foreign aid is a key source of ‘soft power’ for the UK and a way to ensure its international reputation and spread its values [Ref: The Conversation]. Nonetheless, others insist that ‘charity always begins at home’ [Ref: Express] and it is unacceptable that the UK spends money on relieving poverty abroad while homelessness and poverty exists in the UK [Ref: Guardian]. Likewise, they note that much foreign aid is given to relatively wealthy global economic powerhouses such as India and China [Ref: The Week]. In a time of economic crisis, such dubious expenses are said to be increasingly unaffordable.

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Universal basic income is not a solution to our social and economic problems


Government policies in response to the Covid-19 pandemic have reignited interest in the idea of a universal basic income (UBI). [Ref: France 24] The UK government has paid millions of workers 80 per cent of their wages when they are unable to work due to government-imposed restrictions. Yet this still left millions more people – particularly the self-employed – with little or no financial support. Proponents of UBI argue that this situation shows that governments can make resources available if it chooses to do so and that a universal payment to everyone would be fairer.

Campaigns for UBI have been frequent in recent years, but the idea has generally been rejected. In 2016, for example, Swiss voters rejected proposals for UBI in a referendum [Ref: Financial Times]. If passed, it would have seen all Swiss citizens receive a guaranteed yearly payment, regardless of their employment status. Parties opposed to UBI argued that it would damage the economy by removing people’s motivation to work, and incentivise excessive immigration. In the same year, the UK Government ruled out the scheme as unaffordable. [Ref: Independent].

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Vaccine passports benefit society

This topic guide builds on a thread of Twitter posts by Adam Wagner, a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers and Visiting Professor of Law at Goldsmiths University.

For the purposes of this debate, the term ‘vaccine passport’ means some form of immunity certificate, for use both domestically and for international travel.


Almost as soon as the pandemic struck in the UK and lockdown was introduced, questions have been raised about whether people with immunity from the disease should be allowed more freedom. [Ref: Stats News] At that time, such immunity would have come from having had the disease and recovered. The debate has re-emerged as the vaccination programme has proceeded. With vaccinated people now having a high level of protection from the worst consequences of the disease, should they now be allowed more freedom – and should there be a system to allow them to prove that they have been vaccinated?

For proponents of the idea, it would allow society more freedom overall [Ref: BBC News]. Instead of everyone being subject to lockdown measures, only those who had yet to be vaccinated would have to abide by the rules. Businesses like pubs, shops and gyms could reopen knowing that millions of people would be able to use their services. For those businesses that rely on personal services or where staff need to enter customers’ homes – from health and social care to hairdressers and plumbers – making vaccination compulsory for staff could provide protection and reassurance for clients and patients.

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