Letters on Liberty: Against Reparations

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


Open debate has been suffocated by today’s censorious climate and there is little cultural support for freedom as a foundational value. What we need is rowdy, good-natured disagreement and people prepared to experiment with what freedom might mean today. Faced with this challenge, the Academy of Ideas decided to launch Letters on Liberty – a radical public pamphleteering campaign aimed at reimagining arguments for freedom in the 21st century.

In his Letter – Against Reparations – historian and author James Heartfield argues that reparations should not be used as an easy way to buy apologies for past wrongdoings. In many instances, he writes, reparations have worked in favour of the colonisers, rather than the colonised. By looking through the history of reparations, including the Atlantic Slave Trade, James argues that these often represent the interests of the compensating power, not the compensated. No act of reparation will ever satisfy the disappointment that its champions feel, he argues, because the problem they are trying to deal with is their lack of authority in the present, not the injuries done to their forbears in the past.

Join James and respondents to ask whether reparations are necessary when it comes to dealing with past wrongs. Do critics of reparations fail to take seriously the legacy of the slave trade, and the link between the oppression of black people in centuries gone by and the discrimination suffered by some today? Does accepting reparations make the recipient a ‘prisoner of history’, as Frantz Fanon put it? Are reparations a vital leveller? Or just another white saviour project?

Dr Remi Adekoya
lecturer of politics, University of York; author It’s Not About Whiteness, It’s About Wealth and Biracial Britain

Dr Pauline Hadaway
researcher; writer; co-founder, The Liverpool Salon; author, Escaping the Panopticon

Rushabh Haria
London-based policy and project professional; Living Freedom alumnus

James Heartfield
lecturer and author

Professor Kevin Yuill
emeritus professor of history, University of Sunderland; author, Assisted Suicide: the liberal, humanist case against legalization and Richard Nixon and the Rise of Affirmative Action