It has been obvious to me for a long time that the attitudes of some towards the British Empire in general, and the Boer War in particular, have nothing to do with historical reality – ie. what actually happened – and everything to do with a bizarre dislike of anything and everything British. This strange and illogical outlook was recently explored in a piece by Danial Hannan in the Telegraph, which I think is well worth sharing:
When I was an MEP, federalist colleagues would often deliver what they plainly regarded as an absolute zinger of a putdown. “So, Hannan, you also are in favour of an independent Scotland, yes?” Sometimes, they would not wait for a reply, but would wander off, giggling at their own cleverness like Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows.
It was a spectacularly silly question. Being a democrat, I backed both the 2014 Scottish independence referendum and the 2016 British independence referendum. And, being a democrat, I respected both results.
More interesting, perhaps, is the converse question: why do so many people who detest Brexit favour Scottish separatism? That position – the policy of the SNP, and the default stance of the most hardline Euro-zealots – makes little sense unless your over-riding consideration is anti-Britishness.
Anti-Britishness may be a minority creed, but it is in the ascendant. It lies behind our statue-smashing spasm and behind the “decolonisation” of school and university curriculums. It drives the reordering of museum exhibitions and the campaign to give away legally purchased artefacts. It animates the idiotic campaign for “climate reparations” to badly-governed countries.
Sure, each of these campaigns has other notional justifications. But none of them stacks up. If you want to argue that a connection to slavery, however tenuous, wipes away everything else that a historical figure achieved, fine. But I can’t help noticing that the agitators who make this case never apply it to Chinese or Arab or African slave-owners. Nor, more damningly, do they seem to care about the places where slavery is most common today (in declining order of prevalence, North Korea, Eritrea, Burundi, the Central African Republic and Afghanistan).
Slavery was practised across every continent and archipelago, but social justice warriors reserve their vituperation for the country that distinguished itself by pouring its blood and treasure into a decades-long campaign to extirpate the foul trade.
“Colonialism-and-slavery” is almost a binomial phrase, like “law-and-order” or “wear-and-tear”. But colonialism was partly driven by abolitionism. Having halted the Atlantic traffic, Britain sought to eliminate the practice in the African kingdoms where it remained endemic.
The Benin bronzes, for example, were seized in an 1897 punitive expedition against a slave kingdom that thought nothing of burying alive the people it owned. That fact is rarely mentioned because Britain must always be the villain. Thus, the British Museum, which owns most of the brass carvings, says on its website that their acquisition was a consequence of the “expansion of colonial power”, and mentions slavery only glancingly, and in a way that implies that it was somehow imposed on the region from outside: “While by the late 19th century this trade had been largely abolished, its increasing scale and barbarity in the preceding centuries had a massive impact on West African societies.”
Most of our intellectual leaders are pulled by the same current. There may well, for example, be a case for a more heterodox school curriculum. But heterodoxy should mean intellectual and stylistic variety. Adding black anti-colonialist writers to white ones does not make a curriculum diverse. (One of the reasons that George Orwell’s place is secure is that, despite being male, white and rampantly heterosexual, he wrote devastating criticisms of the British Empire.)
Similar thinking lies behind demands for carbon reparations. Climate change is a global concern, and wealthier countries have so far been happy to bear more than their share of the burden. But the idea that Britain should be penalised for having given the human race industrialisation, which released billions from backbreaking toil, is asinine.
Logic, though, has little place here. Everything has to be squashed into the approved format of our age: poor-against-rich, colonised-against-coloniser. Outrage trumps inconvenient facts. Does Pakistan, which is leading the calls for climate reparations, have 100 coal mines while Britain has none? Meh. Has China emitted more CO2 over the past eight years than the UK over the past 220 years? Who cares? Britain should pony up because exploitation and something something.
So widespread is this attitude that, on Friday, the President of the European Commission casually likened Britain’s relations with Ireland to Russia’s with Ukraine. Now British-Irish relations have at times been painful. But is the UK – a parliamentary democracy that was driven by the logic of its values to quit the parts of Ireland that voted for separation – really comparable to Putin’s dictatorship? These days, apparently so.
We can hardly blame the SNP for exploiting the zeitgeist. Its activists were furious when the Supreme Court rejected their demand for another referendum, dismissing what it called their “absurd claim” that Scotland was an “oppressed colony”. As a matter of historical and political fact, that statement is unarguable. If anyone felt colonised when James VI united the realms in 1603, it was the English. If anyone felt oppressed when the parliaments merged in 1707, it was English MPs, grumbling at having to assume Scotland’s debts.
There is, though, a logic to the SNP’s tactics. Unionism used to rest on a sense of satisfaction at living in the world’s greatest country. Nowadays, though, victimhood is the supreme virtue. The fact that Scots created, defended and administered the Union and later its Empire is a cause of embarrassment.
One of the most irritating aspects of this whole debate is that I find myself being dragged into it unwillingly. As a Gladstonian, I regret most of our imperial moment. We should have contented ourselves with coaling stations and trading posts rather than assuming responsibility for vast and expensive tracts of land. This was also, incidentally, the view of the Colonial Office throughout the nineteenth century. They knew that the British paid far higher taxes than their imperial subjects (who also benefited from lower taxes than the rest of the world). If the Empire was an attempt at exploitation, it was stunningly ineffective.
And, of course, I dislike the repression – notably in India, Cyprus, Kenya and Burma. (Ireland, which was considered a core part of Britain rather than a colonial possession, was a different story.)
Still, as I frequently find myself reminding anti-colonialists, the British Empire had a self-dissolving quality. Its administrators spoke of “stewardship”, and brought most of their colonies to independence without a shot being fired in anger – an extraordinary and unsung achievement.
Several countries petitioned to join. Some, like Malta, were admitted; others, like Uruguay and Ethiopia, were not. Why did they ask? Perhaps because, in many parts of the world, Britain was seen as the sort of adult that a lost child might approach. People in the Empire were, on most measures, vastly better off than the people living under German or Belgian or Japanese rule. And the authorities in London at least tried to keep colonists in some kind of check. It is hard to argue that indigenous populations were worse off under British rule than in autonomous settler states such as Argentina, the USA or the Boer republics.
The Empire was self-dissolving because the British have a peculiar obsession with representative government. The same obsession makes the UK uniquely sanguine about its own potential dismemberment. Those separatists raging at the Supreme Court might ask whether Corsica or Bavaria or Lombardy would have been offered a 2014-style referendum.
Our obsession with representative government, personal freedom, private property and independent courts defines us as a nation. And that obsession, albeit worn lightly, drives our enemies to distraction.
Listen, for example, to how Vladimir Putin talks of the current war. Russia, he says, is fighting against the West’s determination to impose liberal values everywhere. What liberal values? Freedom from arbitrary arrest, uncensored broadcasters, genuine elections, that sort of thing. He correctly associates liberal values with Britain, for no country has done more to disseminate them.
That dissemination happened partly through example and partly through imposition. Some countries saw that our liberal institutions had made us rich and free, and chose to copy them. Others had liberal institutions forced on them by colonial authorities, and were left to decide, after independence, whether to keep them.
But does the fact of having exported these values really make us the baddies? Would people rather live in a world dominated by Erdogans and Xis? I have a nasty feeling that we might soon find out.