Xenophobia and imperial arrogance lurk inside most white Britons

'Until the people of this country can apologise for their imperial past, none of us can move on'
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The Independent Online

A finger clap for Jack Straw. After a good many months of anti-liberal and dangerous rabble rousing, he has said something that one can almost agree with. Almost. On GMTV last Sunday, Mr Straw asserted that much of the disgraceful behaviour of English hooligans abroad came out of a distorted sense of patriotism bound up with the "baggage of empire".

A finger clap for Jack Straw. After a good many months of anti-liberal and dangerous rabble rousing, he has said something that one can almost agree with. Almost. On GMTV last Sunday, Mr Straw asserted that much of the disgraceful behaviour of English hooligans abroad came out of a distorted sense of patriotism bound up with the "baggage of empire".

Most subjects of the old empire who came to stay have long felt and resented this. The leftover sense (or should I say stench?) of imperial superiority is still diffused through the heart and soul of this nation. The lands, sundowners, punkah-wallahs and viceroys have been gone for more than half a century, but - I think it was Salman Rushdie who said it first - like the phantom twitchings of an amputated limb, the sensations of power, arrogance and world ownership remain. How else can you explain the behaviour of undomesticated football fans abroad, the unzipped holidaymakers in Greece, Spain and Turkey, and the acts of drunken barbarism from among highly disciplined British soldiers in Cyprus?

But this is not just an "English" illness, as Mr Straw believes. It is something that all white Britons are prone to. Xenophobia and imperial arrogance is no worse among the English than among the Scots, the Welsh and even some Irish. Since devolution, a massive myth has been perpetuated by the Scots and the Welsh, that the empire was an English project and they (poor things) were as much victims as the rest of us. What rubbish. Among the most supercilious colonials I met as a child were a Mr McCourt and a Mr Jones, one a headmaster, the other a history teacher, both of whom spent all their time brainwashing us about the great mother country. Jones - who liked to call us his coolie children - even got us to cheer when we reached the "End of the Indian Mutiny" chapter in our absurdly biased textbooks.

Mr Straw is also unfair to focus entirely on the yob culture as a manifestation of this "baggage of empire". A couple of years ago, the journalist Anthony Daniels went to watch England play Italy in Rome. He wrote with some alarm that the vile crowd he witnessed on our side included a good many "computer specialists and local government executives". They abused the Italian police and behaved as if they had the right to do so "as freeborn Englishmen".

Have our ruling classes done much to excise these beliefs? Not at all, with rare exceptions such as the great anti-imperialist MP Fenner Brockway, who died many years ago. Hardly any politicians ever mention the negative effects of the empire, or allow themselves to dwell on how colonialism impoverished and undermined those who were ruled and how it has left the descendants of the rulers with a disfigured sense of their own importance in the world today. (Oh dear. I will have to brace myself for the rush of letters from people telling me to be less ungrateful to a country that brought bathtubs to India and postage stamps to Africa.)

One could take this as a sign of undeclared shame were it not for the fact that both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair have chosen to evoke the "great" empire in major speeches within the last decade. Speaking in Bruges in 1992, Maggie declared that Europe should be proud that it "conquered and civilised" the rest of the world. Even more astonishing was Blair's speech at the Labour Party conference in 1996: when listing the achievements of Britain, he chose to include "the biggest empire the world has ever known".

It is this partial remembering that is the problem. Those in positions of influence have yet to grow up and take responsibility for telling truths that hurt. Read Stephen Glover in the Daily Mail yesterday to see what I mean. Only a bloke blinded by lifelong privilege could whitewash history in the way he does: imperial society "was one of the best ordered, and most law-abiding societies the world has ever seen." Yes, it was ordered. So was apartheid. Yes, it gave us much, to me the ability to speak English, the most precious of gifts. But it was a morally corrupt enterprise. Until the people of this country can accept this and apologise, none of us can move on.

What is galling is that this is a country that is positively addicted to remembering what it wants to remember - always an unforgivably selective version of what really happened. It has been amusing to witness the national outrage over the American film The Patriot, which, it is claimed, distorts the truth about the American War of Independence and (horror of horrors) makes the Brits come out as total baddies. Perhaps they will now understand how we, the inheritors of empire, have felt all these years.

The suffering of British POWs in the Japanese camps was appalling, but were they the only ones who suffered? In Burma, Indian soldiers were treated abominably too, but I do not see Indian veterans going on and on about what happened to them. The Second World War was won not by white Britons alone, but by Africans, Caribbeans, other Europeans, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and Indians, who gave more in kind to the British war effort than any other nation. But these facts inject a complexity that would disturb the essential jingoistic self-image of this country, which needs to gorge on stories confirming that indigenous Britons were born to sit closer to God than any of the rest of us mortals.

Little wonder, then, that our yobs do what they do and why, in a survey carried out by MTV two years ago, our young people came out as the most intolerant in Europe. But the world out there is getting impatient with these illusions. In How to Be A Brit, that perceptive writer George Mikes warned that "bloody foreigners" now regard xenophobic Britons as "the laughing stock of Europe and have started looking down on the present generation with pity". But, he adds, this will not matter at all to the truly committed: "If Britannia does not rule the waves, that is only and exclusively because the waves and world do not deserve it any more."

Lashing out at English yobs is no answer to a madness as deep and endemic as this. Providing a brave new kind of leadership might be.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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