SIR Tom Devine’s comments on the Atlantic slave trade (June 14) draw attention to national prosperity rather than the notoriety of individuals as a consequence of Scotland’s participation in this trade and associated investment in plantation economies. His perspective leads us to move away from attributing “blame” to individuals, providing instead a prompt to the recognition by wealthier, First World nations to act more positively towards poorer, Third World countries. With a breadth of vision as suggested by Sir Tom, we move beyond a charge-sheet listing individuals and their deeds. This is, of course, demonisation. More important, it is a distraction.

The gains from the slave trade enabled European nations and the emergent United States to move through the gears of commercial and industrial revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries, establishing an economic performance gap by the 19th century that has never been closed by African, Caribbean and South American states, the sources of slaves and the hosts of plantation economies.

Depopulation of African societies as a consequence of the slave trade was on such a scale and duration that it arrested and stultified indigenous economic growth. This is the essence of “divergence theory”: with the South and the North set on different trajectories. This separation was created and established by the economic forces identified by Sir Tom: and the processes of European invasion and colonial rule from the end of the 19th century consolidated the economic disparity. Formal colonial rule succeeded and overlaid previous economic domination and the mercantile ascendancy of informal empire. Decolonisation and independence could never reverse or re-engineer the economic relationship that was established from the end of the 18th century.

We should recognise the significant impact of the slave trade on major regions of the world. They have not recovered. The process of change will not be set in motion until we recognise the inter-connectivity of First and Third World economic histories. The obligation falls on all of us to recognise these fundamental truths and to look beyond the castigation of individuals.

Historians have a duty to provide the wider picture, and Sir Tom is to be congratulated on his response and the example he sets. The sphere and scope of discussion needs to be widened, away from describing acts of violence and desecration, “statue-gate” and towards comprehension of the factors and forces shaping the modern world, its conflicts and iniquities. By contrast, acts of violence are easily understood, punished appropriately…and forgotten. Real recovery and progress depend on shared understanding of how the slave trade defined a modern world characterised by rich and poor nations. With this knowledge we can begin dismantling structures far more significant than statues.

Professor William Wardle, Glasgow.

I FEEL I must speak up for a fellow townsman – Robert Burns.

Jatin Haria writes (June 14) that Burns was making plans to go to work as a slave driver in Jamaica. This is a highly emotive thing to say.

It is true that in the autumn of 1786 Burns considered emigrating to Jamaica, but the success of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems changed his mind and he stayed in Scotland. He had intended to seek a position as a bookkeeper in Jamaica. He did not intend to become a slave driver.

If Burns had secured a position as a bookkeeper on a plantation which employed slaves it would certainly have run counter to his stated beliefs on freedom, equality and the rights of man. But he never went to Jamaica, so what the outcome would have been we will never know.

Thomas Thomson, Glasgow.

Address the greed of billionaires

WHY do the rich get richer and the poor get poorer? This is one question we should all be asking, and then finding an answer that can finally change our country for the better.

During any crisis, when the vast majority of people suffer hardship, including death, illness and unemployment, and have to completely change their lives, the rich and privileged actually make more money, lots of it.

Why is that?

Martin Williams’s excellent exclusive (June 14) highlighted the names of some of those laughing all the way to their offshore bank accounts as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

They included Sir James Ratcliffe, whose company Ineos has many North Sea energy interests.

He took advantage of the Government’s furlough scheme to ensure 800 staff at his luxury hotel group would be paid with taxpayers’ money during lockdown. At the same his net worth soared by £5 billion.

Question to Sir James: Why couldn’t you dig into your own deep pockets to keep on your loyal employees, rather than rely on taxpayers’ money? Even if you paid them an average £30,000 a year (probably an over-estimate) that would only cost you £12 million for six months, a drop in your North Sea fortune.

Then we have Sir Richard Branson, a man I once admired after he started up Virgin Records. He wanted £500m from the Government to bail out his airline company. But at the same time, he was improving his wealth by even more during three months of lockdown.

Message to Sir Richard: is it not obvious you could have taken a hit – surely in times of crisis you can afford it?

This Forbes data covers 45 of the richest people in the UK, the billionaires. But rest assured, the millionaires will also be benefiting handsomely, and they will include many members of the UK’s Tory Government.

I am frustrated. Every day I see ordinary people (actually, they are extraordinary) who have very little themselves, but who give to those who have even less.

So why do those with plenty want even more? Greed and inequality have to be addressed. Covid-19 has provided that opportunity. Whether it will be taken up depends on all of us.

Andy Stenton, Glasgow.

North Sea oil’s days are numbered

YOUR article “When the North Sea gave up her liquid gold” (June 14) fails to mention arguably the biggest issue facing humanity today – global warming.

Burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases, causing global warming and ultimately climate chaos. That is the scientific consensus. This has been the case throughout the entire history of the North Sea, and much of it known by oil companies for many of these years. Ninety per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions originate in the North Sea.

And how could an article about North Sea oil, written in this period, fail to mention Covid-19, or the 30,000 potential job losses warned of by industry lobbyists Oil & Gas UK?

The author admits that “wave after wave of luscious, thick, liquid gold” has turned into “a glut of North Sea oil languish(ing) on ocean-going tankers”. At least no repetition here of the oil industry narrative where “key” workers battle manfully to keep the lights on. Oil workers are risking their health travelling to and producing oil on installations where social distancing is impossible while OPEC has been busy choking back 10 million barrels a day of oil production in order that we can all enjoy the oil price hike they’re trying to engineer.

One way or another the North Sea’s days are numbered. The industry/Government plan is called Maximum Economic Recovery, producing every barrel they can turn a profit on between now and 2050. The industry accepts no responsibility for the greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of these hydrocarbons.

There is an alternative up for discussion: an immediate end to exploration, a planned rundown of production and a transition to renewables. And this time the workers need to be treated fairly, re-skilled where necessary, and with earnings protected, unlike the carnage of the last energy transition when coal miners and their families were abandoned and their communities trashed.

The standard oil industry response to the periodic chaos of the oil markets is a culling of the workforce and wage-cutting. It’s well under way again this time.

Neil Rothnie, Glasgow.

New school regime could help discipline

OUT of the Covid crisis could well come benefits to our education system, if the necessary means are willed to enable such developments.

Social distancing means smaller classes. Smaller classes will demand the doubling of teacher numbers. Teachers would then be in a position to give more attention to the needs of individual pupils. Pupil discipline would be

much more manageable within such a context.

Low-level indiscipline of inattention and peer distraction arising from the group settings bedevilling our classrooms – the consequence of current educational orthodoxy – would be eliminated by having lines of desks, facing the front with one pupil per desk. Having those lines of desks facing the front would restore the primacy of the teacher as the leader of the class.

As the leader, the teacher would be in a position to take the class forward instead of having to mount a rearguard action to keep the kids on track, group work being a determining factor in the creation of distraction.

That would not mean the end of group work but it would no longer be the formative element in classrooms, where there does seem to exist today the unnecessary need to reinvent the wheel instead of laying the solid foundations upon which the edifice of sound education depends.

Denis Bruce, Bishopbriggs.

Education does not equate to IQ

SOMETIMES I disagree with Iain Macwhirter, but usually I agree.

I found his latest article on coronavirus (June 14) interesting and, in places, informative – but I take issue with one of his statements.

He stated, as if it were fact, that

Boris Johnson is an intelligent man. I differ in my view. He is, undoubtedly, a highly educated man – but in my opinion this has never proven intelligence quotient.

As Iain points out, Boris Johnson comes across as an inarticulate person and I believe he has proven beyond a shadow of doubt that he lacks any kind of empathy with his fellow citizens. This is not a sign of intelligence – quite the opposite, I would suggest.

Priscilla Douglas, Killearn.