An imperial history lesson for Mr Brown

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Gordon Brown clearly has something of a soft spot for the British Empire. He told Newsnight on Monday: "I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values." He sounded a similar note on a trip to Africa earlier this year, when he told a newspaper: "The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over". We are also informed that Britain's "history and values" will be the major theme of today's pre-election Budget speech.

Gordon Brown clearly has something of a soft spot for the British Empire. He told Newsnight on Monday: "I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it and we should talk, rightly so, about British values." He sounded a similar note on a trip to Africa earlier this year, when he told a newspaper: "The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over". We are also informed that Britain's "history and values" will be the major theme of today's pre-election Budget speech.

Evaluating the British Empire as a discrete historical phenomenon is an impossible task. It was a sprawling, diverse institution and had a life span of more than two centuries. It did some good during its existence. For the natives of many colonies, the dominion of the British was - it must be admitted - preferable to that of other nations. In some imperial possessions, such as India, Britain left behind substantial infrastructure and the machinery of good government - although this was by no means true across the empire.

But it also did great harm. That is why the Chancellor's call for Britain to "celebrate" our colonial history is distasteful. Should we celebrate Britain's attack on the Zulu state in 1879, or our role in getting the inhabitants of southern China hooked on opium? Ought we to be proud of Britain's indifferent response to the Irish famine? Does Mr Brown think that we should draw a veil over Britain's early role in exporting African slaves across the Atlantic? These atrocities must never be erased from the history of the British Empire.

It is remarkable that a politician who has made such a noisy show of concern for the plight of Africa, can switch so easily into being a cheerleader for the old British Empire. It is true that not all of the problems that afflict that shattered continent can be traced back to the exploitation and misgovernment of the time of empire. But many can. That must not be forgotten.

Being praised as "patriotic" by the right-wing press is no doubt gratifying for ambitious politicians. But it is a dangerous game. In future, Mr Brown ought to think very carefully before wading into the troubled waters of Britain's imperial past.

Comments