Leading Article: The end of Empire will test our good faith

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The Independent Online
This year is already marked out as one of great significance for Britain, and not just because of the forthcoming election. In June Hong Kong, the last colony of any great strategic or economic importance, is to be handed back to China after more than 150 years under the Union flag.

It is a momentous step in the history of Hong Kong, once derided by Lord Palmerston as a barren little island, now one of the world's leading financial centres. But it is also a landmark for Britain. Once Hong Kong goes, there remains only a cluster of islands - once strategically important, now just dots in the oceans of the the globe.

Empire was always regarded by its proponents as a mirror in which the British could see reflected their glory, their moral superiority and their strength. We have another chance to show what we are made of this year - because the transfer of Hong Kong, perhaps more than any other decolonisation, carries grave risks for the people of the colony.

There have been signs over the past few weeks that the Government is prepared to demonstrate some spine. It has loudly said that China's plans to impose a provisional legislature on Hong Kong go against the spirit and the letter of the Joint Declaration setting out the terms for the transfer of sovereignty. Governor Chris Patten, in his interview with The Independent today, is at pains to point out that Hong Kong's democrats must play a role in the territory after the hand-over.

But as important as the detail - more so - is that Britain continues to focus on Hong Kong, keeping its eyes on the Chinese-appointed authorities and their Peking masters. The omens are not good here. The British have drifted out of empire, rarely focusing on the problems we have caused, rarely aware of the continued existence of those places where once we ruled.

A hundred years ago, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee with a vast display of imperial might in a country that ruled a quarter of the globe. Today, we are barely aware that it ever existed. Apart from the names of streets and pubs that commemorate imperial battles or heroes, an immigrant population that came from the colonies and found a cold welcome, and a taste for an oriental beverage which we defile with milk, there is not much on the surface to show that we were once an imperial nation.

Beneath the surface, however, there is a lot. Our economy is built on the networks stitched together by empire. Most of our great institutions - from the banks to the BBC - bear its imprint. Our literature is full of it, from the historical to the present day. Our cuisine, in kitchens or high-street restaurants, is a testament to empire, as is our language, with its bungalows, its pyjamas and its running amok. The very creation of the idea of Britishness owes much to the imperial experience, as Linda Colley points out in her study, Britons.

Above all, there is our attitude to the rest of the world, a curious mixture of arrogance, indifference and post-imperial insecurity. All too often, we still subconsciously see the world in terms that we have inherited from the 19th century.

Imperious still, despite our fall from grace, we rarely heed Kipling's hubristic warning: "Lest we forget - lest we forget!" We have forgotten; the achievements of empire, and the atrocities, all have been relegated to the history books, if there. All that remains is a kind of Merchant Ivory version, restaurants called "A Taste of the Raj", or Rhodes on the telly. We are a nation that has effaced our history and replaced it with a "Heritage" version - more palatable, less controversial, less colourful.

Later this year, we have a chance to make amends and to show that the links forged by culture, by trade and by history still mean something. Emergency help for Hong Kong dissidents and ethnic minorities must be considered as a last-minute possibility. But that should be only the start.

Britain is to host a Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Edinburgh in October, the first time such a meeting has been held here for 20 years. It is perhaps fitting that the Commonwealth will meet after the Conservatives are likely to have lost the election, ending nearly 20 years of Tory rule. For all their imperial baggage, first picked up by Disraeli in his Crystal Palace speech of 1872, the Conservatives have shown scant interest in the former colonies since the end of empire (beside the ocassional rumble over the white colonial elites).

Aid to the Commonwealth nations has been cut, their interests have routinely been ignored, and Margaret Thatcher rarely thought it worth her while to listen to the views of her peers when they met. It is to be hoped that will change under a new government.

One of the first tasks that a new Foreign Secretary will be asked to perform is to attend the Hong Kong hand-over. If things go wrong, then or in the aftermath of Chinese rule, it will be up to - perhaps - Robin Cook to make sure that Britain's voice is heard, and respected. The empire may have gone, but the post-imperial responsibilities are still there.