Mr Kwarteng, the first black MP to head a government department, also described the ripping down of statues as an “act of vandalism”.
Last year a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during Black Lives Matter protests in Bristol.
Mr Kwarteng told the Political Thinking with Nick Robinson podcast: “I think you’ve got to understand history and understand that it’s very complex and there are different arguments that are presented. And I have a plea to understand the arguments and the context of the British empire.”
He added: “Even when you say the phrase ‘the British empire’, you’re talking about something that lasted more or less 400 years and covered a huge expanse of territory.
“So within that time and geography there’s a huge amount of variety, different cultures and different time periods and getting a sensitivity to that is hugely important and I think a lot of the debate around Black Lives Matter and imperialism or colonialism has a very kind of cartoon-like view of what was happening over centuries across a quarter of the world.”
When it came to the issue of statues, he said: “I don’t think you can just rip down statues – I mean that’s illegal and an act of vandalism.”
He also said that the public should learn more about the empire.
“I don’t quite understand what decolonising the curriculum means. Is the implication that it’s a colonial relic and that you’ve got to try and decolonise it? I’m saying the opposite – that you’ve got to learn more about colonialism,” he said. Mr Kwarteng also said he personally halted a post-Brexit review of workers’ rights and working practices when he was made business secretary three weeks ago.
“I don’t think the opportunities of Brexit are about whittling away workers’ rights or trying to have a race to the bottom or trying to reduce wages,” he said.
“On the contrary, a lot of people in my constituency voted for Brexit because of a stagnation of wages.”
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