‘Britain brought a lot of good to the world’: Union reparations debate sparks controversy

‘It’s one thing to defend free speech and another thing to provide a platform for people who simply want to rewrite history’

A debate at the Cambridge Union last Thursday (10th) on the motion “This House would pay reparations” has been the subject of controversy and disagreement among its audience and commentators, sparking allegations of “woke groupthink’ and ‘witch-hunting.”

The proposition speakers focused on the importance of reparations in facing up to the “roots” of today’s racism, while opposition speakers, Reverend Calvin Robinson in particular, attempted to draw attention to the so-called “benefits” of colonialism, objecting to the use of the term empire in “a derogatory fashion.”

When approached by the Tab, Robinson spoke of his frustration at the Union, saying: “Free Speech is fundamental to the British way of life. It seems to me that many people at the Cambridge Union are only in favour of Free Speech when they are in agreement with the speaker.” Robinson’s approach to the debate evidently shocked the chamber, as one attendee, speaking after the event, said that it was “inappropriate for the Union to provide a platform for someone like the Reverend to espouse his own version of history.”

The motion was passed by attendees, and the polarising tweets from the debate’s speakers after the event highlighted the contentious nature of the topic. Proposition speaker MP Belle Ribeiro-Addy wrote that “the call for reparations is only getting louder”, while opposition speakers Reverend Calvin Robinson and Rafe Heydel-Mankoo criticised the “woke mob” and “woke groupthink” respectively, that they believe were to blame for the debate’s outcome. Robinson wrote that “the woke witch-hunters cannot be appeased. They want absolute submission”, while Heydel-Mankoo stated: “If these are tomorrow’s leaders, our future is bleak.” He repeated these sentiments while speaking to The Tab, saying that the debate is evidence of “the worrying groupthink that is increasingly present in our universities.”

In this statement, Heydel-Mankoo also expressed his frustration at the conduct of the Union members during the debate:

“Anyone who watches my speech on YouTube will be able to see the immature behaviour of several students seated behind me and their utter disbelief when hearing, clearly for the first time, perfectly well-known and well-documented facts regarding African and Islamic involvement in the slave trade. It is clear that they were hearing about much of this for the first time — and they did not like or wish to hear it.”

Heydel Mankoo asserted that “the students’ reaction is a far bigger story than the speeches we delivered at the Union”, and alleged: “Had I delivered this speech in the previous decade, when I last addressed the Cambridge Union, the reaction of the students would not have been so extreme and ill-mannered.

“Are the students of today better educated than ten years ago? Or are they simply less willing to hear mainstream views that conflict with their own? The evidence suggests the latter.”

The debate, chaired by Lara Brown, the Union’s President, was introduced as a discussion on whether Britain owes reparation to its former colonies. Speaking for the proposition side, Ribeiro-Addy opened the discussion by arguing that: “We cannot eradicate racism in our society until we accept and understand that its roots are in these past injustices, and make meaningful reparations for the injustices caused.”

The debate then turned to Robinson, a deacon and right-wing political commentator, who provided the first paper speech for the opposition side. Robinson has in 2016 and 2018 stood for council election for the Conservative party, and then ran as the Brexit Party candidate in Broxtowe in 2019, before standing down to support the Conservative candidate. He appeared on Channel 4 News last year, opposite songwriter and activist Billy Bragg, to argue against taking the knee, and the interview sparked a lively debate on Twitter.

The Union’s audience seemed instantly shocked by Robinson’s speech, as statements of his were frequently met by widespread gasps and some laughter, such as when alleged: “We heard the word ‘empire’ and the word ‘nationalism’ used in a derogatory fashion as if they’re bad things.”

Robinson insisted that, through empire, “Britain brought a lot of good to the world”, before arguing that reparations are not due because Britons themselves were enslaved by the Roman Empire. This comparison was met with pronounced gasps and laughter, along with a Point of Information from a student, who highlighted that ethnic minorities in Britain, such as descendants of the Windrush generation, are “still very much suffering from the impacts of empire.”

The student asked: “Do you think that it is really an appropriate analogy to compare them to people who were slaves under the Roman Empire thousands of years ago?” Robinson responded, provoking loud jeers and gasps: “In what way are you suffering? In what way are you suffering? You can gasp and clasp your face, you are sat in one of the best universities in the world, in what way are you suffering? You are privileged.”

The student, who wishes to be known as T.Y., spoke to the Tab after the debate. T.Y. said that he feels that this remark was at least in part directed at him, and alleged that Robinson “was trying to insinuate that people of colour or ethnic minorities in this country don’t face systemic suffering.” He said he felt that Robinson “was simply upset at the response the chamber had given him and was trying to express his anger.”

The student went on to say that the Union must take responsibility for the way in which the debate unravelled: “It’s one thing to defend free speech and another thing to provide a platform for people who simply want to rewrite history.”

Speaking to The Tab, the Union’s President, Lara Brown, said: “Last week’s debate may not have pleased everyone but if it challenged ideas and updated the views of those who were there it was a success.” T.Y. seemed unconvinced by this idea, however: “I don’t think anyone in the debate was inspired into taking on a new point of view.”

T.Y. continued: “[It was] inappropriate for the Union to provide a platform for someone like the Reverend to espouse his own version of history which is out of line with reality, which glosses over the suffering of lots of people.”

This sentiment seemed to be echoed by other attendees of the debate, as another Union member expressed discomfort with the comparisons drawn by Robinson, saying: “Hearing that I should be grateful that colonisation happened since it introduced hospitals, schools, and the English language, was extremely offensive to many of us from African, Caribbean and Asian heritage.”

Screenshot via Camfess

This idea of platforming seems present in much of the online discourse that followed the debate. One user of the Camfess Facebook page wrote that “so many” people “do not understand what free speech is versus platforming” people with offensive views, while a commenter on another post on this page said: “If you are ‘offended’ by debates which allow both sides to make their case you really shouldn’t be at university.”

When contacted for comment, Calvin Robinson said the following: “It came as a huge surprise to me to see the fragility, immaturity and ill-mannered approach to debating that I experience at the Cambridge Union. Many students were expressing physical discomfort at hearing views opposed to their own. Have they forgotten the purpose of open debate?

“I was invited to speak in opposition of a contentious motion, I didn’t expect to win. I did expect to be heard out, and for people to entertain the idea that not everyone thinks the same way. The heckling, jeering and pearl-clutching was disappointing. I hope that the Cambridge Union can use this moment to spark a period of reflection and remind itself of the purpose of debate and intellectual exploration of contentious topics with civil disagreement.”

In his statement to The Tab, Rafe Heydel-Mankoo also said: “My speech primarily comprised a clear recitation of unequivocal facts, both historic and modern. Everything I said can be easily verified. A portion of students may have an issue with the content, but to the wider public, and most serious academics, this is mainstream stuff which previous generations of students wouldn’t have found extraordinary.”

The Union President provided the Tab with the following statement: “The Cambridge Union Society was established over 200 years ago to allow a free exchange of ideas. Debates by their nature are adversarial and will generate different views, whilst also informing and allowing participants to evolve their thinking. Over its history the same topics have on occasions reappeared but always interpreted through contemporary views and often coming to different conclusions.”

Featured image credit: Vedika Mandapati