Enduring pain of the Empire


This year, many Commonwealth member states are in the process of celebrating 50 years of independence from the United Kingdom. Some may argue that the British Empire is now dead and buried, but there are still outstanding cases where the effects of empire are still being argued over:

  • This week, the High Court ruled out a challenge by campaigners seeking to open an inquiry into an alleged massacre by British soldiers in the British colony of Malaya in 1948.
  • The British Government is currently being sued by three elderly Kenyans for damages, following alleged torture and abuse at the hands of British soldiers during the Mau Mau Rebellion of the 1950s.
  • Three thousand people from the British Indian Ocean Territory remain in the UK after being forcibly removed from their homeland to make way for a United States Air Force Base 40 years ago.
  • Belfast has once again fallen victim to sectarian rioting after controversial parades.

It can be argued that all these events can be connected to the British Empire and its legacies, but this is difficult to establish given the lack of proper debate on the issue. Such lack of debate seems to be encouraged by our leading politicians.

In the past week, Foreign Secretary William Hague gave an interview to the London Evening Standard, encouraging an end to ‘post-colonial guilt’ and that Britain is now seen in a different light in a changing world. Such a bold assertion would need to take into account any acknowledgement of colonial wrongdoing on the part of the British Government, allowing catharsis to take place for those who still feel wronged after many generations. While many may argue that these events were in the past and that current leaderships should not be made accountable for those wrongs, an examination of our colonial history and the effects it has upon today’s world is the best way to fully put the colonial past behind us, looking deeply at where our attitudes towards our country come from and whether or not they are more positive than they ought to be.

Pro-empire arguments can be heard, implicitly or otherwise, in regular political discourse, with many people using Britain’s past influence on the world as a reference point for things that are wrong with the country today. Indeed, the idea of reacquainting Britain with its glorious past is something that been touted as part of government policy. The Education Secretary, Michael Gove has made statements in the past favouring a history curriculum that seeks to ‘celebrate the progressive aspects’ of Empire and reaching out to revisionist historians such as Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson to re-write the History curriculum in our schools.

While it could be argued that there were indeed progressive aspects to the empire, such a policy set against the backdrop of the muted debate over the legacy of empire could lead to a skewed idea of what the empire did and the effect it had and still has on the now independent nations that were once under its rule, making understanding of our own history fundamentally flawed.

The current vacuum surrounding our imperial history has allowed those on both sides of the argument over its legacy to make sweeping claims about its effects without engaging with each other. Those who argue choose to home in on specific (and possibly isolated) examples to prove their points as opposed to the bigger picture of the political, social, cultural and economic effects of empire on Britain and the world. Only after a proper debate is had without one side trying to shut the other down, would it be possible to ‘get over the empire’ or teach it dispassionately without bias.

But sadly, it seems no-one is prepared to do that just yet.

Robert Austin