i Editor's Letter: British Empire


Saturday 10 March 2012 01:00

Have you caught Jeremy Paxman’s fascinating documentary series about the British Empire, imaginatively named Empire? It is an entertaining romp around the era when Britain ruled a quarter of the planet.

While Paxo has certainly boosted his Avios account, there is little new to be learnt, but it is a timely reminder of quite how ubiquitous British power was and the astonishing arrogance it begat. And that it was all so relatively recent. I say timely, because of the tragic failed rescue bid for the British and Italian hostages in Nigeria and the subsequent tension it has caused with Italy.

This is not the place to go into the rights and wrongs of the mission – we still do not know enough about the background to the decision. But it was clearly mounted with the right intentions and great courage. However, why on earth would we not share our intentions with the Italian government in advance? No UK politician can give a truly honest answer. The most charitable theory is that we believed Italy might try to talk us out of it, and that might delay matters. Like I said, that’s the generous version.

It is really hard to find a reason to disagree with Italian politicians and the Corriere Della Sera which said it was understandable that Italy felt “humiliated”, arguing Britain was “still locked in glorious empire nostalgia” which kept it in “isolation on military matters with everyone apart from the government of the United States”. I really don’t want not to believe this, but it is difficult to find our current explanation acceptable. If you don’t agree, try to contemplate the outrage in the UK if Franco Lamolinara and Chris McManus had died in a raid that involved Italian special forces, and Mario Monti had not forewarned David Cameron. Unimaginable, isn’t it?

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