The new defenders of the British Empire

The chic retro-historians claim the British were better than home-grown despots and paved the way for modernism
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The Independent Online

Imperial revisionism is the new black, although its zealots would not care for the cliche

Imperial revisionism is the new black, although its zealots would not care for the cliche. On the lecture circuits and the media, at literary festival hotspots, you see them, always supercilious, absolutely convinced that the British Empire was a damn good thing for all concerned. These ideological crusaders who claim and re-work history are elatedly received and handsomely paid. This is their moment.

In an exhausting debate last week at the Royal Geographical Society in London, I argued (incompetently and fruitlessly) with some of these star apologists: the historians Andrew Roberts, Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James. On my side were Richard Drayton and David Washbrook, academic experts on the other side of the story of empire - the devastation, the cruelties, the appalling polices that seriously disabled the future for so many countries. We lost the vote, and of course I am sulking.

Oh, the flair and buoyancy of the young establishmentarian pack - I described them as the Master Race, men who believe they are born to dominate the world. The smug Roberts accused me of being a racist for using the term "Nazi". Doubtless, British colonialism was more benign than German colonialism and much good came out of it. But then apartheid, communism, fascism all produced some good - all three kept down crime and could boast certain efficiencies. Those who claim Britain brought democratic values to their subjects need to name one colonised country where there was a credible democratic system during colonialism.

This long historical encounter corrupted both sides. Inestimable damage was done to generations of the colonised who were infantilised and left with a lingering sense of inferiority. (Millions of South Asians still prefer a white doctor to a brown one and believe anything made in England is superior to home-grown products.) Many white Britons have come to think they can behave as badly as they wish anywhere in the world.

White "supremacy" was continually replenished by racist imperial narratives and the immense power in the hands of this island. The white dominions were always treated with respect and they still are. One example: In Conan Doyle's novel The Poison Belt, the races succumb to a mysterious lethal poison engulfing the globe. Africans, Aboriginals, then Indians and Persians are quickly extinguished, long before white northern stock.

Empire builders cleverly used stooges and pliant, greedy indigenous leaders and merchants but never regarded them as equal partners. The British Empire could not have survived and grown without these traitors and they are as much to blame for what we, the colonised, suffered.

The chic retro historians claim the British were better than the home-grown despots and that they paved the way for modernism in India and elsewhere? What bunkum. Nobody (not even the Master Race) can predict what might have happened without this exploitative episode. As for the sad fact that most non-white Commonwealth countries are miserable failures, who can say for sure if this was due to the empire, in spite of its good influence, or nothing to do with either?

That great statesman Dadabhai Naoroji, the first Indian MP in this country, said in a speech in 1902: "One of the arguments for the system is that the British prevented the different peoples of India from plundering each other. That was only a half truth. They prevented this in order that they might themselves plunder all. It is monstrous for the British to keep Indians under their heels and then claim gratitude."

There were essential services and administration that the British exported - yes, flushing lavatories, trains and upright civil servants are very useful, as are the values of civil and fair societies - but the Romans brought great systems and structures and more to this country and that did not stop the natives resenting their presence. Autonomy cannot be traded in easily.

How do we understand this resurgent intellectual bragging, this modern-day colonial nationalism? Who does it speak to? It must reassure Britons who feel bewildered in this globalised, devolved world with dissolving national boundaries. That was the time that was. As Commonwealth immigrants take their place as real equals, the only happy place for some is in a falsified and glorified history.

But they can't be the only constituents. Is this a generation seeking something they felt was denied to them? We have had this said of the writers and others who are obsessed with the First and then the Second World Wars: they never got the chance to experience those ultimate experiences; their lives are soft and predictable, give or take a suicide bomber, and so they look back with shock and awe and perhaps unhealthy relish. Now the nostalgia has moved further back and there is a rising regret that the Baby Boomers never got to be the bwanas and memsahibs out there kicking ass, bossing the natives.

Maybe Commonwealth immigration is a factor. Instead of asking what Britain did that thousands had to go abroad from their countries seeking a livelihood, too many Britons think we are here because we couldn't bear to let go of the fabulous Empire.

This revisionism has been helped enormously by the empire-friendly media, the bland school curriculum and anti-racists demanding a history of empire that only blames whites. The BBC, together with Channel 4, and the media in general, have cynically nurtured mostly pro-colonial storytellers because it makes them feel radical. There is no balance.

Other than intermittent stuff on slavery, it has been years since A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown and the monumental feature film, Gandhi. If you are white and grew up in the colonies, especially Zimbabwe, you are considered exceptionally interesting by Radio 4 and others. The people who went through institutionalised mortification are invisible and inaudible. There isn't a single post- colonial historian today who has been given the media limelight.

Discourse on the empire in schools is so safe it may as well be a blank sheet. And today's left is muddled - focused mostly on Marxist class analyses and not enough on the injustice and arrogance of the adventure. Past anti-colonial white Britons, such as Annie Besant and Keir Hardie, understood this clearly. We need to get back to basics; to describe the Empire through the voices of the conquered, to stop this spinning, now. As Saul Bellow wrote: '"It is sometimes necessary to repeat what we all know. All mapmakers should place the Mississippi in the same location, and avoid originality."

And the US had better be cautious too. It had been hesitant, until now, of naked, full-blown imperious ambitions, having once itself been a subject nation. But a new affair between neo-con Americans and neo-imperialist British intellectuals is changing that. If Americans learn nothing else from the disaster in Iraq, one hopes they understand that replacing despots with an occupation brings no jubilation, only double the humiliation.

If Ferguson et al were right, Iraq would be begging for a return to the glorious rule by the mother country. As far as I know, no such petition has been received by Her Majesty.