For some reason, it matters to a significant number of people in this country that Britain was, and remains, a ‘force for good’ in the world.
Unfortunately it isn’t, nor has it ever been.
But before you get too upset, interpreting this conclusion as an incendiary provocation, it’s important to add that the same applies to every country. The idea that this or that nation has been an outstanding contributor to human progress is absurd. Does Indian prime minister Narendra Modi get credit for the concept of zero and the decimal point? Does the Saud dynasty get to strut the global stage as a result of the West adopting Arabic numerals five centuries ago? Should we salute Iran, Iraq and Turkey for innovations like barley, wheat and rye? Clearly not, and it is a uniquely European conceit to insist one’s country has been the shining city on the hill, the font of wisdom for which all humankind should be grateful.
What’s more, Britain has appealed to precisely such claims in its darker moments. To understand the purpose of insisting Britain has been a force for good, we need to comprehend how and why this has happened.
In 1946, with Clement Attlee installed in Number 10, Kenya’s colonial governor spoke of how the country was Britain’s “by right of achievement” and that Africans would have to get used to living “in a world which we have made, under the humanitarian impulses of the late 19th and 20th centuries”. Even while occupying faraway lands, Britain’s elite was convinced of its moral superiority. Under the guise of such zealotry, 150,000 Kenyans were killed over the following 15 years, while the colony operated detention camps which, according to one historian, were “probably as bad as any similar Nazi or Japanese establishments”. Indeed, on visiting the country in 1955, Labour’s Barbara Castle observed a pervasive “Nazi” attitude towards the indigenous population.
Another aspect of such ‘humanitarianism’ was the policy of enforced segregation between Africans and Europeans. This lasted until 1961 and was constitutive of Kenya’s ‘white highlands’, so called because this fertile land was given over exclusively to European settlers. Again, the pretext for such dispossession was charity, with Kenya’s deputy governor claiming there would be little hope “of erecting here a permanent structure of enlightenment and civilisation” without whites having the best agricultural territory. This civilising mission went so far that, according to Harvard historian Caroline Elkins, around 1.5 million Kikuyu were put in detention camps between 1952 and 1960.
Then there was British Malaya which, by 1949, neighboured the newly independent Indonesia. Indonesia had gained its freedom from the Dutch, despite the country’s post-war efforts to re-occupy the vast archipelago, with the help of Britain’s armed forces. This struggle for national liberation, with trade unionists and socialists at its heart, claimed the lives of 200,000 Indonesians. As this political orientation grew even stronger in the years that followed, the CIA facilitated the ascent of general Suharto. Alongside being more accommodating to the interests of foreign capital, Suharto would also oversee the murder of around one million members of the country’s communist party and its feminist and trade union movements.
In Malaya the push for national liberation was just as gruesome. Fighting a ‘counter-insurgency’ between 1948 and 1960, British forces deployed defoliant chemicals and forced resettlement – techniques that would subsequently be adopted by the US in Vietnam with Agent Orange and its ‘strategic hamlet’ programme.
Those overseeing such efforts were honest about their objectives. Gerald Templer, the country’s high commissioner, declared the country’s insurgents “must be, and will be, exterminated”. Such outrage was born of Britain’s strategic interests, and the high costs of withdrawal: revenues from Malaya, as with Kenya, Iran and elsewhere, were not only funding Britain’s remilitarisation but maintaining the sterling area. But rather than acknowledge these were the dying gasps of Britain’s role as a great power, the claim was that such efforts were humanitarian in intent.
Acknowledging such misdeeds does not mean we have to ignore the many accomplishments of Britons who have contributed to human progress. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, and subsequently refused to patent it, thereby saving the lives of millions. Tim Berners-Lee created the ‘world wide web’, and with it a major part of the modern internet, saying the key technology of the digital age belonged to ‘everyone’. Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft helped carve the story of modern liberty. John Logie Baird, Michael Faraday and George Stephenson were key pioneers for an age of television, electricity and rail. Florence Nightingale helped lay the foundations for modern nursing.
Yet these historic accomplishments are in no sense ‘Britain’s’. Italians do not make these claims with Da Vinci, nor Iranians with Avicenna. They might take pride in such figures, suggesting they personify an otherwise inscrutable national genius, but they are viewed foremost as individuals. They are certainly never a foil for colonialism and empire.
So why is Britain so desperate to assure both the world, and itself, of its positive role? In a word, guilt. While imposing suffering across Africa, Asia and elsewhere, Britain legitimised such acts of barbarism under the veneer of beneficence. To admit this was a complete lie is so tremendously difficult – and painful to the foundation of the national story – that it is far easier to carry on the charade. The truth is that the British empire, created for reasons of commercial gain by a small elite, is, like the slave trade, one of history’s most despicable episodes.
No living person should feel ashamed by these events – such misdeeds were those of our ancestors, not our own. But it should inform how we understand and address issues like racist policing, the intersection of economic and gender inequality with race, and the ongoing exploitation of poor countries by wealthy ones.
At a protest last week in Poole, near where I was born, a woman held a sign that read ‘British history matters’. I couldn’t agree more. It’s about time we started teaching it.
Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media contributing editor and co-founder.