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Britain: Imperial Nostalgia

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Britain: Imperial Nostalgia

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Britain: Imperial Nostalgia

By Seumas Milne* Le Monde diplomatique

May 2005

Barely a generation after the ignominious end of the British empire, there is now a quiet but concerted drive to rehabilitate it, by influential newspapers, conservative academics, and at the highest level of government. Just how successful this campaign has already been was demonstrated in January when Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer and Tony Blair’s heir apparent, declared in east Africa that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over" (1). His remark, pointedly made to the Daily Mail – which is leading the rehabilitation chorus – in the run-up to May’s general election, was clearly no heat-induced gaffe.

Speaking four months earlier at the British Museum, an Aladdin’s cave of looted treasures from Britain’s former colonies, Brown insisted: "We should be proud. . of the empire" (2). Even Blair, who was prevailed upon to cut a similar line from a speech during his first successful election campaign in 1997, has never gone quite this far (3).

Brown’s extraordinary remarks passed with little comment in the rest of the British media. But the significance of a Labour chancellor’s support for what would until recently have been regarded as fringe rightwing revisionism was doubtless not lost on his target audience. This is a man who, despite his neoliberal enthusiasms and tense alliance with Blair, has always liked to project a more egalitarian, social democratic image than his New Labour rival. His imperial turn will have given an unwelcome jolt to anyone hoping that a Brown government might step back from the liberal imperialist swagger and wars of intervention that have punctuated Blair’s eight-year premiership. By the same token, his determination (in advance of his own expected leadership bid) to wrap himself in the Union Jack – dubbed "the butcher’s apron" by the Irish socialist James Connolly – will have impressed sections of the establishment whose embrace he is seeking.

Brown’s demand for an end to colonial apologies was part of an attempt to define a modern sense of British identity based around values of fair play, freedom and tolerance. What modernity and such values have to do with the reality of empire might not be immediately obvious. But even more bizarre is the implication that Britain is forever apologising for its empire or the crimes committed under it. As with other European former colonial powers, nothing could be further from the truth. There have been no apologies. Official Britain put decolonisation behind it, in a state of blissful amnesia, without the slightest effort to come to terms with what took place. In the years following the British army’s bloody withdrawal from Aden in 1967, there was little public debate about how Britain had maintained its grip on a quarter of the world’s population until the middle of the 20th century.

That began to change in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Rehabilitation of empire was initially raised in the early 1990s at the time of the ill-fated United States intervention in Somalia, used by maverick voices in both the US and Britain to float the "idealistic" notion of new colonies or United Nations trusteeships in Africa. The Wall Street Journal even illustrated an editorial on the subject with a picture of the British colonialist Lord Kitchener, who slaughtered the Mahdi’s followers in Sudan a century before (4).

Under the impact of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the cause of "humanitarian intervention" was increasingly taken up by more liberal voices across the western world. While the liberal imperialism of the late 19th century had been justified by the need to spread Christian civilisation and trade, now it was to be human rights, markets and good governance. At the height of the Kosovo war, Blair issued what amounted to a call for a new wave of worldwide intervention based on a "subtle blend" of self-interest and moral purpose. Within a year, he put this "doctrine of international community" into practice in the former colony of Sierra Leone, where British troops were sent back after a 39-year absence to intervene in a protracted, bloody civil war.

But it was the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington and the subsequent US-led takeover of the former British imperial zone of Afghanistan that finally outed into the political mainstream the policy that had until then dared not speak its name. By spring 2002 Blair’s foreign policy adviser and Afghan envoy, Robert Cooper (now working for Javier Solana at the European Union council of ministers), published a pamphlet making the case for "a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan views" (5), while the prime minister privately argued in favour of military intervention in the former British colonies of Zimbabwe and Burma.

Such political adventurism has had to be at least temporarily reined as a result of the political and human disaster of the Iraq war and occupation. But the more favourable climate for this retro reactionary chic created by western military interventions has been seized by Britain’s conservative commentators and historians, such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, both to champion the cause of the new imperialism and rewrite the history of the colonial past. Ferguson is an open advocate of a formal US-run global empire and his defence of British colonialism, notably in his book Empire (6), as the forerunner of 21st-century free-market globalisation, was clearly echoed by Brown’s praise of the "traders, adventurers and missionaries" who built the empire. Roberts is an open advocate of the recolonisation of Africa and insists that "Africa has never known better times than during British rule". When the South African president recently denounced Churchill and the British empire for its "terrible legacy" in Khartoum, Roberts blithely told the BBC that the empire had brought "freedom and justice" to a benighted world (7).

It would be interesting to hear how Roberts – or Brown - balances such grotesque claims with the latest research on the huge scale of atrocities committed by British forces during the Mau Mau rebellion in colonial Kenya in the 1950s: the 320,000 Kikuyu held in concentration camps, the 1,090 hangings, the terrorisation of villages, electric shocks, beatings and mass rape documented in Caroline Elkins’s book Britain’s Gulag (8) – and well over 100,000 deaths. This was a time when British soldiers were paid five shillings (equal to $9 in today’s money) for each Kikuyu male they killed, when they nailed the limbs of African guerrillas to crossroads posts. And when they were photographed holding severed heads of Malayan communist "terrorists" in another war that cost over 10,000 lives.

Even in the late 1960s, as veterans described in a recent television documentary (9), British soldiers thrashed, tortured and murdered their way through Aden’s Crater City; one former squaddie explained that he couldn’t go into details because of the risk of war crimes prosecutions. All in the name of civilisation. The sense of continuity with today’s Iraq could not be clearer.

Such evidence is a timely corrective to the comfortable British mythology that, in contrast to France and other European colonial powers, Britain decolonised in a peaceful and humane manner. It’s not as if these end-of-empire episodes were isolated blemishes on a glorious record of freedom and good governance, as Ferguson and other contemporary imperial torchbearers would have us believe. Britain’s empire was in reality built on genocide, vast ethnic cleansing, slavery, rigorously enforced racial hierarchy and merciless exploitation. As the Cambridge historian Richard Drayton puts it: "We hear a lot about the rule of law, incorruptible government and economic progress – the reality was tyranny, oppression, poverty and the unnecessary deaths of countless millions of human beings" (10).

Some empire apologists claim that, however brutal the first phase might have been, the 19th- and 20th-century story was one of liberty and economic progress. But this is nonsense. In late 19th-century and early 20th-century India up to 30 million died in famines, as British administrators insisted on the export of grain (as they had done during the Irish famine of the 1840s) and courts ordered 80,000 floggings a year. Four million died in the avoidable Bengal famine of 1943 – there have been no such famines since independence.

What is now Bangladesh was one of the richest parts of the world before the British arrived and deliberately destroyed its cotton industry. When India’s Andaman islands were devastated by December’s tsunami, who recalled that 80,000 political prisoners had been held in camps there in the early 20th-century, routinely experimented on by British army doctors? Perhaps it’s not surprising that Hitler was an enthusiast, describing the British empire as an "inestimable factor of value", even if it had been acquired with "force and often brutality" (11).

There has been no serious attempt in Britain to face up to this record or the long-term impact of colonialism on the societies it ruled, let alone trials of elderly colonial administrators now in Surrey retirement homes. The British national school curriculum has more or less struck the empire and its crimes out of history. The standard modern world history textbook for 16-year-olds has chapter after chapter on the world wars, the cold war, British and US life, Stalin’s terror and the monstrosities of Nazism – but scarcely a word on the British and other European empires which carved up most of the world, or the horrors they perpetrated.

What are needed are not apologies or expressions of guilt so much as education, acknowledgment, some measure of reparation and an understanding that barbarity is the inevitable consequence of attempts to impose foreign rule on subject peoples. Like most historical controversies, the argument about empire is as much about the future as the past. Those who write colonial cruelty out of 20th-century history want to legitimise the new imperialism, now bogged down in another colonial war in Iraq – just as those who demonise past attempts to build an alternative to capitalist society are determined to prove that there is none. If Brown really wants to champion British fair play, and create a new relationship with Africa, he would do better to celebrate those who campaigned for colonial freedom rather than the racist despotism they fought against.

* Seumas Milne is comment editor and a columnist on the Guardian, London, and author of ‘The Enemy Within – the Secret War Against the Miners’ (Verso, London, 2004).

(1) Daily Mail, London, 15 January 2005.
(2) Daily Mail, 14 September 2004.
(3) John Kampfner, Blair’s Wars, Free Press, London, 2003.
(4) Wall Street Journal, 8 and 21 January 1993.
(5) Robert Cooper, Reordering the World, Foreign Policy Centre, 2002.
(6) Niall Ferguson, Empire – How Britain Made the Modern World, Allen Lane, London, 2003.
(7) Daily Mail, 8 January 2005
(8) Caroline Elkins, Britain’s Gulag, Jonathan Cape, 2005.
(9) Empire Warriors, BBC 2, 19 November 2004.
(10) Speech to the Royal Geographical Society, 1 June 2004.
(11) Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts, Verso, 2001.

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