Imperialism is an oppressive and exploitative form of government that seeks to enrich a select few at the expense of millions of others. Whether it is the example of Britain in India, the US in the Philippines, or Belgium in the Congo, colonial ‘adventures’ have been rightly characterised by violence against the native population by the occupying power and the ravaging of the host country’s natural resources for the benefit of the colonising nation.Yet despite these historical realities a recent YouGov poll showed that 44% of British people were “proud” of their nation’s colonial history whereas 21% regretted it took place and 23% were agnostic on the issue. The same poll also showed that 43% of British people’s view of the British Empire was positive whereas 19% viewed it negatively and 25% held no view. Not only is this attitude dangerous, as one of the key reasons people study history is not to repeat its mistakes, but these views have implications on modern policy.
There are two reasons I believe that these pro-imperial attitudes persist: education and military success. Until the late 1950s/early 1960s the dominant strand of historical enquiry was Whig history, which focused on using history to reinforce the ideas of British government like liberal democracy and constitutional monarchism. However, because of this focus, the history of Western countries was primarily concerned with aristocrats and bourgeois individuals who were associated with the levers of power.
As a result of this academic focus, textbooks used in British schools were written as an ideological defence of imperialism and the students who read these books would now be around 60-years-old. Although this teaching has since been removed for British schools, it is crucial to point out that the negative aspects of imperialism are often not spoken of. When students learn of the Industrial Revolution, for example, syllabi mention how cotton was transported from the India to Lancashire to be manufactured into clothing, but the physical and economic exploitation of Indian labourers is rarely spoken of.
The second aspect is that of military success. The British Empire didn’t end because of a grand defeat that proved that imperialism was morally reprehensible. If you ever visit Japan, I would encourage you to go to the Peace Park in Hiroshima because there are a series of monuments that speak of fallout from the nuclear bomb that was dropped on the city. Since the end of WWII the anti-nuclear weapon and anti-militarism movements have been incredibly strong in Japan because the recent history of the country has illustrated the negative consequences of these attitudes.
This links in Britain for the opposite reason. It wasn’t Britain that fought in WWII, it was the British Empire, and therefore WWII was an example of how the British Empire was victorious. Because it was victorious, and was led by Winston Churchill who was an avowed imperialist, the ideological challenges to Nazism and eugenics were not levied at imperialism. Furthermore there was no definitive moment that ended British imperialism. As some nations became independent, others became overseas territories and the Commonwealth of Nations was established which, although not militarily imperialistic, is an organisation that institutionalised Britain’s economic and geopolitical influence.
It is this last point that illustrates why modern attitudes to imperialism are problematic. These views on the British Empire prevent substantive policy from being implemented. Because Britain hasn’t had a substantial military defeat in the last hundred years Britain’s political system hasn’t been deemed as necessary for reform. After WWII the German, Italian, and Japanese political systems were reformed but Britain’s political system has remained in many ways archaic. In addition, Britain still has overseas territories all over the world which cost millions of pounds to defend every year, but openly suggesting that Britain shouldn’t control the Falklands, Gibraltar etc. is deemed as political heresy. Because of the public’s views on Britain’s past, substantive policies, like advocating political reform and not relinquishing former colonial possessions, are career suicide for politicians.
Here’s a case study: should the Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is currently a part of the crown jewels, be returned to India? The British public resent the thought of taking an integral part of the crown jewels and ‘giving it away’, but considering that the diamond itself was stolen by the East India Company in 1849 it’s not ‘giving it away’ it’s giving it back. But this gets back to heart of why the dispute is controversial.
It is only seen as controversial because the foundation of India’s claim is that the British Empire ‘did something bad’, but if the British public are presented with a view of imperialism that says something along the lines of “India benefited from British rule because of all the railways that were built”, the notion of the Empire ‘doing something bad’ is alien. It is an educational problem because right-wing governments have often whitewashed the history of the Empire in order to perpetuate national myths.
British society is changing in many ways, but there are some things that remain stubbornly static. The Head of State is an unelected aristocrat, the Union itself as a political concept still exists, and power is largely centralised in London. I believe that because of Britain’s past military successes, the cause of these actions was never scrutinised. Without such collective introspection many of the institutions that dominate British society have remained and policies that should be implemented are not because of this legacy of imperialism. We have to educate the next generation about what the British Empire, and imperialism more broadly, inflicted upon people around the world so that society can move on. We cannot move on from the legacy of history if we are unwilling to accept what truly happened.