Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The grip of the imperial imagination

Gove wants to own and whitewash the story of British imperialism

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That Diane Abbott, who does she think she is? Too brusque, say some, too full of herself, as many have put it to me, uppity and everywhere. Peter Mandelson can be all these and still end up as the most powerful and respected minister in a Labour government, so too the millionaire ex-Tory Shaun Woodward, but a spiky, black woman who doesn't know her place, and never will, no way! Even in the 21st-century, there are Britons who are discombobulated by Abbott's inclusion in the Labour leadership contest. That strong, dark mahogany face is an intrusion, an invasion possibly. For others her entry is "tokenistic", unfair, undemocratic, positive discrimination gone mad, ungodly probably and thoroughly un-British.

The same grumbles rumbled across the land when a Muslim female lawyer, Sayeeda Warsi, was promoted by David Cameron into places reserved for the master class. The party disgruntled couldn't understand why a woman born to sell them milk in the cornershop (or perhaps plot terror attacks) walked into the Lords adorned in ermine and now the Muslim upstart is the Tory party chairwoman and a member of the cabinet. When she swanned into Downing St for the first coalition meeting, in a rose-coloured salwar kameez, something changed forever. Through a new looking glass, Blightie saw a transfigured reflection of herself. The feisty Oona King – half Jewish, half African-American – has declared she will fight Ken Livingstone to become the Labour candidate when the next London Mayor is elected in 2012. In small ways these are our Obama moments when people of colour, women in particular, try to propel themselves into positions of power, hitherto unimagined. The audacity of hope he calls it.

Abbott dared to go where ladies still fear to tread, even those like the acting leader of the opposition, Harriet Harman, or Yvette Cooper whose husband Ed Balls is in the race. "Go girl Go", "Go for it Diane", crooned the supporters of the Hackney MP. She did, and punched a huge hole in the double-glazed ceiling. Many attribute this breakthrough to the generosity of David Miliband, forgetting that it was Abbott's decision to stand, to challenge the cloned New Labour boys and their drift to the right, their support for the Iraq war. Like it or not, like her or not – and there are many black and Asian people who cannot stand her – Abbott too has made history. Whose version will always remain contested.

Witnessing the vitriol thrown at her, the most vicious written by female white commentators, I realise what different worlds we still inhabit. We people of this land, share space and lives, are interconnected as never before; many rejoice in the diversification of the nation, yet our responses, emotions, hopes, fears, aspirations and failures are determined by the past, some threads going back centuries. Abbott would not be here were it not for British control of the colonies. These countries were sites of domination and struggle, even though the rulers delivered some benefits – never as many as are subsequently claimed. For us Diane is part of that ongoing fight for equality and recognition. Her white detractors see her as a beneficiary of national weakness that does not face down Political Correctness.

Which brings us to that wiry and creepy ideologue, Michael Gove, the Tory Education Secretary whose plans for education freeze my blood. First, he is about to preside over separatist education, funding schools set up by this interest group or that, various faith communities and self-regarding clusters of citizens who want to make sure their darlings spend time only with their own sort. Then, appearing to contradict his promise to set education free, Gove seeks to impose a compulsory history curriculum designed by those stalwart imperialist historians, Andrew Roberts and Niall Ferguson, whose pheromones exude enough haughtiness to vanquish Shaka and his army of indomitable Zulus.

These two mighty men once verbally knocked me down during a debate on whether the Empire was a force for good. Yes it was, pronounced the stuck-up and swaggering duo, obviously, indisputably, the Empire that gave the ungrateful natives the first line to modernity and progress. Ferguson went on to broadcast the revisionist version for hours on TV and has since become a glam and rich intellectual, feted on both sides of the Atlantic. He was for the Iraq war and is apparently convinced that only white rule can sort out the recalcitrant third world. Roberts too has made a fortune writing tomes that take indigenous Britons back to their glory days and believes the empire is "an idea whose time has come again". For these irrepressible enthusiasts of occupation and colonialism to have such influence in public debates is bad enough; to give them power over young minds is perfidious.





You can be sure they would want children to know all about William Wilberforce but not about the evil slavery that drove the abolitionist. Nor would we get anything about the Indian famines in the late 19th-century when over thirty million died while the British took their food and imported it to the Motherland, or the appalling treatment of Arab, Indian and African liberationists. European empires were built on ideas of natural supremacy and inequality and their purpose was to exploit. Delivery of democracy was never part of the plan. I grew up in a colony. The first time we had the vote was after the Union Jack came down. The tragedy of Palestine, a gift by the Brits to the world, would also, I reckon, have to be excluded, and Cyprus, Zimbabwe, divided Ireland and so on and on.

I do not, repeat, do not blame Britain for all the bad history above. There were always heroic British individuals who identified with the subjugated. An oversupply of black, Arab and Asian villains made and today makes old British rulers seem relatively benign. However, Gove wants to own and whitewash the story of imperialism. We, from the ex-colonies, will fight the Stalinist plans every inch of the way. With the power they now have, Abbott and Warsi should lead the resistance. Then they really will have broken the mould. We watch this space and hope.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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