IN general, it’s a good idea to start as you wish to continue, so let me put down a marker on a topic that caused controversy round this column right through 2020. I hope it will do the same in 2021, for the sake of its intrinsic interest and also for what it tells us about Scotland.

Slavery is the topic I mean. In The National before New Year, the last word on it came in a letter to the editor from Paddy Farrington of Edinburgh. He wrote in to say “Scotland’s role in the slave trade of the 18th century must be laid bare before we can build a better future … before we can recognise how much the wealth of our elites and wider society was owed to the human traffic across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa to the Caribbean sugar plantations.”

These were the most profitable economic units in all the territories controlled by European colonial powers, the UK to the fore. Not that the profits overcame every moral qualm. Some Scots working in the plantations, men such as James Ramsay and Zachary Macaulay, felt horror at what they saw and, on their return, devoted themselves to the cause of abolishing slavery. Robert Burns would have been another, except his luck changed while he waited on a ship for Jamaica at Greenock, and he gave us the Kilmarnock Edition of his poems instead.

READ MORE: Scotland's slavery role must be laid bare before we can build better future

Burns’s ambiguity was typical. As far back as the first Darien expedition of 1698, Scots had tried to join in the economic exploitation of the Caribbean region. By all accounts, they acted in a friendly manner towards the local tribes. This was not enough to make Darien a success.

After 1707, now as junior partners in the British Empire, Scots had little choice but to follow the cruel but effective commercial practices that enriched the dominant English colonial investors. To the Caribbean these needed to import physical labour from the other side of the ocean, usually buying up prisoners captured by the African chieftains in their constant warfare with one another. The traffic made the slavers super-rich, and one way a contemporary millionaire could exploit his wealth was to purchase a seat in Parliament.

But there were others repelled by the cruelty of the whole business, and they saw the battle they had to fight would be primarily a political one. Their leader was the MP William Wilberforce. With his humanitarian arguments he impressed the reforming Prime Minister William Pitt the younger. He, in his turn, sought a reliable aide to carry protective regulations through the House of Commons, where Wilberforce’s own efforts had so far come to nothing.

This responsibility was handed to the Home Secretary, Henry Dundas, the wily and versatile Scot who controlled his native land for the government. He was also useful in a financial sense because of his wide contacts in the City of London. Nobody would have accused Dundas of being an idealist, but he was an expert tactician eager above all for the government to succeed in its policies. Parliamentary systems always need men like him. He has his counterparts at Westminster today,

Dundas thought he could persuade the Commons to abolish the slave trade as long as it was done gradually, so that all involved had time to adapt to a new system. Without it, there was no chance the many MPs with interests in the West Indies would vote for banning the slave trade. In the course of a debate, Dundas said this: “The African trade is not founded in policy. The continuation of it is not necessary to the preservation and continuity of our trade in the West Indian islands … The slave trade ought to be abolished.”

In fact Dundas did get new regulations through the Commons by a vote of 230-85 – the first majority against the slave trade there had ever been at Westminster. But his legislation was defeated when it went up to the House of Lords.

MEANWHILE, the UK was at war with revolutionary France. This put paid for the time being to all attempts to do anything further about slavery, because one theatre of war was the West Indies, where defence became the priority over economic reform.

Abolition of the slave trade would only follow in the different circumstances of 1807, in a measure which itself had to be gradual – again, the sole means of making it effective in time of war and with many different interests at stake.

All the same the UK had been among the first of European nations to act against slavery. France and Denmark abolished the slave trade in the 1790s too, but soon restored it because the results required expensive garrisons of troops to maintain stability in the colonies. In fact both powers soon restored slavery and kept it in force till far into the 19th century. Meanwhile the UK imposed permanent abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and of slavery altogether in 1833.

Dundas could fairly claim to have played a leading part in this development. The charge against him of choosing gradualism as an excuse for prolonging slavery has no substance. Gradualism would also be required in 1833, simply on the practical grounds that a new economy in the West Indies would need thorough preparation of matters like paying wages (instead of payment in kind) for the ex-slaves.

That underlined how incompatible slavery was with the free markets of an emerging global economy. In fact Adam Smith had in The Wealth of Nations criticised slavery mainly for its inefficiency, which he saw as worse than its inhumanity. Dundas agreed with him.

READ MORE: Dundas kept saying ‘now is not the time’ to end slavery

We should remember that, for its time, this was advanced progressive thinking. Scots and most other Europeans still took their morality from the Bible, which nowhere actually condemns slavery. God punished the Pharaoh for enslaving the Jews, but because they were Jews, not because they were slaves.

St Paul says that in Jesus Christ there are neither slave nor free: the most important fact about human beings is that they can be saved by their faith, something true whether they are slaves or not.

In secular terms, archaeology has shown slavery was practised early on in the ancient Middle East, for example being the easiest way to deal with prisoners of war (the alternative was slaughter). Philosophers such as Plato and Cicero took the existence of slavery for granted. In the Roman Empire it was the form the labour market most commonly assumed. And there are societies where slavery still exists today.

The opinions of Dundas, Pitt, Wilberforce and Smith are worth recalling because they lived in a time when this deplorable aspect of human history was coming to an end, and they accepted a duty of ensuring the final damage it did would be limited. Since nothing like this had ever happened before, there was bound to be disagreement over the details.

Two hundred years later, we should be glad they can still show us the benefits of free thought and free speech in matters more important than mere political correctness.