A world of troubles – all made in Britain?
David Cameron blames the UK for a host of global ills. Andy McSmith asks: is he right?
Thursday 07 April 2011
Britain is responsible for "so many of the world's problems", said David Cameron earlier this week, during a flying visit to Pakistan, a country that came into being amid the horrific communal violence that marked the end of British rule.
The Prime Minister possibly was not aware of it, but his remarks were remarkably relevant to a case that opens in the High Court today, where five elderly Kenyans are seeking compensation for what the British colonial authorities did to them more than 50 years ago, in the dying days of the Empire.
The Mau Mau rebellion, which lasted from 1952 to 1960, was one of Africa's bitterest struggles against colonial rule. It lasted from 1952 to 1960. In those years, it has been estimated that 100,000 suspected rebels were herded into camps, and many were brutally mistreated by their captors. More than 1,000 were executed. The five claimants were among the survivors, but their lives were blighted by their experiences.
For the time being, the Government is holding its ground, saying that compensation became the responsibility of the Kenyan government as soon as British rule ended in 1963.
But there has been a noticeable trend over the past decade for leading politicians to admit that Britain's contribution to world history has not been all good. Tony Blair acquired a reputation for being a serial apologiser for past mistakes or misdeeds.
In 1997, Mr Blair apologised for the callousness of the British authorities during the Irish potato famine of 1847. In 2000, he apologised to those who had been wrongly convicted of IRA bombings in the 1970s. In 2006 he expressed "deep sorrow" over Britain's role in the slave trade, which had been brought to an end two centuries earlier.
In the case of the Mau Mau, there is the added element that one of the Mau Mau rebels imprisoned and allegedly tortured by the British was Barack Obama's grandfather – so even if there is not a public apology while the court case is pending, there is not going to be any attempt to claim that Britain's role is beyond criticism.
Meanwhile, there are countless other problems and trouble spots where our forebears have something to answer for, if only because of the size and reach of the British empire. Should we hold ourselves responsible for all these ills? This global guide to some of the better-known of these issues may help you to form your own conclusions.
Pointing the finger: Problems that Britain might be blamed for
We started the industrial revolution, and advertised its benefits to the world. Is it surprising that others joined in?
The political system that still deprives Cubans, North Koreans and others of their liberty (and whose scars can still be seen in the former Soviet bloc) can be traced back to Karl Marx - who invented it in the British Library
The legacy of slavery
Any number of social and economic problems, notably in Africa and the Caribbean, have roots in the slave trade - which Britain made into an international business. Then again, we were the first to abolish it.
We sell anything anywhere, and have done for years. Many conflicts would be impossible without us.
The international trade in opium was started and nurtured by the English/British. In the 19th century we fought wars with China to ensure its health. What did we expect to happen?
Boom and bust
We invented it: the South Sea Bubble was the first international slump caused by an investment boom.
British colonial injustice is deeply implicated in Kenya's modern troubles. The Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s - itself provoked by heavyhanded and unjust colonial rule - was viciously suppressed by the British. Some victims are seeking justice through UK courts; but the legacy of that "emergency" can arguably be seen in political divisions in Kenya as well.
The nation's miseries and tensions cannot be dissociated from the brutality and injustice on which Rhodesia was built (by the British). And Robert Mugabe's mental state probably has a lot to do with his having been imprisoned by the British for over 10 years.
The failure of Iran to achieve a stable democracy can be traced back to the violent overthrow of its elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossabegh, in 1953. The plot was co-ordinated by the CIA and the Shah, but the motive was to protect the British ownership of the Anglo- Iranian oil company, which Mossabegh wanted to nationalise. Iranians are still paying the price.
The religious divide in Northern Ireland dates back to a decision to settle Scots and English farmers in the 17th Century. It was the British Parliament which agreed to the partition of Ireland in 1922. No amount of subsequent good intentions have healed these wounds.
King Idris, the only King of Libya, and the man who created the country, who was toppled by Gaddafi in 1969, was a British puppet. But the Italians are the real colonial villains in this case.
Although the civil war is over, there is still a large problem of people displaced by the war, and there are allegations that Tamils are denied equal treatment by the Sinhalese. This issue originated in the decision of 19th century British plantation owners to bring indentured Tamil labourers on to the island.
The islanders would like to go home but cannot, because we deported them all to make room for a US military base.
Australia's lost children
Thousands of children were shipped out of Britain after the war, to empty our orphanages, having been promised they would be adopted by loving families in Australia. Many are still dealing with the trauma.
The British gave the creation of Israel its legal status through the Balfour Doctrine, but then incurred the enmity of the Israelis by trying to protect Arab interests. The situation has been out of our hands since 1948, but we can hardly claim to be guiltless.
The island was effectively under British rule from 1861 until 1971, and we upheld the system under which it is ruled - brutally, in recent weeks - by the Sunni minority.
The state of Kashmir was created by the British to reward a Sikh prince and it was Mountbatten who decided that it should be part of India. The arbitrary border has had India and Pakistan on the brink of war for decades (with China also chronically unhappy at the arrangement).
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