Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: The grip of the imperial imagination

Gove wants to own and whitewash the story of British imperialism

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

English Teacher, full time role, delightul Whitstable school

Competitive Salary: Randstad Education Group: We have an urgent requirement fo...

Year 5/6 Teachers needed for supply roles across the region

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Ke...

Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobOur client is looki...

Teacher

£130 - £131 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobOur client is looki...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: EU news, and other reasons to be cheerful

John Rentoul
The influx of hundreds of thousands of eastern European workers has significantly altered the composition of some parts of Britain  

Immigration is the issue many in Labour fear most

Nigel Morris
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker