Stop apologising for the past

Labour’s promise of an inquiry into Britain’s imperial history is pointless.

James Heartfield

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Topics Politics UK

The Labour Party’s much-trailed manifesto is reported to include a promise to inaugurate an inquiry into ‘the legacies of British imperial rule’.

The backdrop to this proposal is a growing campaign to challenge traditional ideas about the virtues of the British Empire, and shine a new light upon the darker chapters – like the Bengal famine of 1943, which killed three million, or the torture and execution of Mau Mau fighters in Kenya’s struggle for independence.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has raised similar ideas before. Last year in Bristol he proposed a special Emancipation Education Trust to teach about slavery and Empire in schools.

The new proposal is not without precedent. Government inquiries into the Empire were commonplace in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the Colonial Office published the reports of colonial governors on a regular basis. Historians have been blessed with millions of pages of official reports put out by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office and raw records kept at the Public Records Office at Kew.

However, the thinking behind the Labour Party proposal is complicated. It perhaps springs from a recognition that the Labour Party in government has long been an enthusiastic champion of imperialism, from the Great War right through to the Iraq War of 2003 and beyond.

If, as many people believe, Labour is making this new proposal because it wants the country to come to a moral judgment about the British Empire, that raises significant problems.

Governments ought to make available as much of the historical record as is practicable. One of the significant complaints made against the Colonial Office is that they appear to have kept large amounts of material hidden. They destroyed a lot, too.

Historical knowledge is constantly being deepened and nuanced, and often significantly transformed. Historical inquiry is a valuable part of the way that a community relates to its past and its goals today.

When it comes to governments casting judgment on historical events, however, the value is more doubtful. The Labour proposal is part of a movement to pass a negative judgment on the history of the British Empire. There is good reason to criticise Britain’s imperial record, which is indeed steeped in oppression and cruelty. But the virtue of the British government making pronouncements about the past is less clear. In the case of most of the events in question, the conflicts are long since passed, and the protagonists dead.

For the British government today, to strike a moral position on governments of the past is an empty kind of gesture politics. In 1997, Tony Blair apologised for not doing enough to help Irish victims of the Potato Famine of 1847. But Tony Blair was in no position to do anything about the Potato Famine, since he wasn’t born for another century.

(It was poor history, too. The problem in 1847 was not that the British government did too little to stop the famine, but that British absentee landlords did too much to promote famine. Their predatory attitude to rents left their tenant farmers dependent on a single crop — the potato — while their other produce, including wheat and beef, continued to leave the country as a form of payment of rent to the landlords.)

This year, Britain’s high commissioner expressed his deep regrets for the Amritsar Massacre by British forces in India a century ago, in 1919.

These expressions of regret fail to satisfy because everyone can see that they are tailored to meet the needs of present-day statecraft, not to fix problems from the past. Just as the British governments of 1847 and 1919 defended their actions to silence criticism, the governments of 1997 and 2019 made expressions of regret to meet their policy goals today – principally to advance Britain’s claim to moral authority in the world.

Many Britons resent the apologetic attitude to the past. They think that the willingness of Labour Party politicians, Foreign Office diplomats and university lecturers to find fault with Britain’s military past is aimed at them. The hundreds of thousands who took part in Remembrance Day services are less interested in collecting evidence of war crimes and more in honouring the sacrifice of British servicemen. Their patriotism arises out of a common commitment to the country they live in.

Many of them suspect that the rewriting of the past is about making them feel guilty for Britain’s imperial record today. They hear the apologies as saying that they should have something to feel bad about or say sorry for. The point seems to be that, as British citizens, they were privileged and pampered at the expense of the colonies’ subjected peoples. Telling people who are themselves working hard to get by that they should be sorry about the past is just a way of putting them down.

It is perhaps an indication of the judgmental implications of the contemporary anti-colonial mood that many commentators and academics wrote of the result of the 2016 referendum as a malingering sickness of imperial nostalgia (see, for example, Fintan O’Toole’s book Heroic Failure). Leave voters struggled to understand this judgment, wondering how it was that these wise owls heard ‘bring back the Empire’ when they voted to leave the European Union.

No doubt people in the future will look back at us today and wonder at the things that we are doing wrongly. But sadly, we cannot tell what judgment the historians of the future will make of us. Will they condemn us for burning fossil fuels, or will they perhaps condemn us for encouraging children to undergo sex-change surgery? Only time will tell.

To imagine that the moral judgments we make today are the last word is to make the error of ‘presentism’. Just as we are astounded by the shocking things our forebears said, so too will our descendants be shocked by us.

In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the protagonist Winston Smith has a job rewriting past editions of the official newspaper to match the policy alignments of the present. The story is meant to shock us as a dishonest and philistine treatment of the truth. Britain’s record of imperial domination of hundreds of countries and peoples across the world cannot be expunged. Nor should we want it to be. A future Corbyn government could go through the motions of apologising for things that it did not do, but what would be the point of that?

James Heartfield is co-author of The Blood Stained Poppy, published by Zero Books. Order a copy here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Comments

Winston Stanley

24th November 2019 at 4:47 am

How Britain stole $45 trillion from India: Utsa Patnaik draws on nearly two centuries of detailed data on tax and trade and calculates that Britain drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India during the period 1765 to 1938.

How Britain stole $45 trillion from India
And lied about it.

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/britain-stole-45-trillion-india-181206124830851.html

H McLean

20th November 2019 at 11:22 pm

The ‘black armband’ view of history has been the dominant feature of education for decades. The damage has been done. The thing is, any reasonable analysis of history shows that empires brought varying degrees of both progress and oppression to conquered/settled lands, and the British Empire arguably did a fair amount of both. But such is the political motivation of the left that the atrocities of the Arab slave trade, for example, are ignored, indeed, all empires are given a sympathetic hearing except those that sprung from an Anglo white or European heritage.

A fair amount of criticism can be levelled at the British Empire, not least the asset stripping by East India Company and the wars and large-scale death they caused. But the criticism should be aimed at the past. The left wish all Britons to bear the guilt and responsibility for the past, and that is an immoral bad-faith argument. To the left there’s no truth, only politics. They care about nothing except gaining and wielding power.

Consider the quote from Aristotle, that ‘Masculine republics give way to feminine democracies, and feminine democracies give way to tyranny’ and you begin to understand why western democracy founded on enlightenment principles is crumbling before our very eyes.

Tim Hare

20th November 2019 at 11:16 pm

It makes a mockery of the concept of apology to apologise for something over which you have no control. The whole idea of apology is to accept personal responsibility for your behaviour which may have caused pain or hardship to another. You cannot show responsibility for something that happened before you were even born without being totally incredulous.

How what does it benefit a group of people to be apologised to for something which did not happen to them by someone who had no part in it?

We must question these politicians and academics when they do apologise for their own failings. What do they mean when they say they are sorry if they have such a warped sense of personal responsibility?

Christopher Tyson

20th November 2019 at 9:37 pm

Heartfield’s point is well made and I have nothing to add to that. It was back in 1982 that I went to St Kitts with my siblings. We stayed with our grand–dad, he was ill and died the following year, I was not to well either, the first thing my grand-dad said to be was ‘I hear you’ve not been doing so well at university’. My grand-dad was a business man he arranged for a couple of his underlings to show us around. One of them was a fan of the Beatles, he loved the Beatles. Today when we hear John Lennon’s name it is often in regard to some bad behaviour or others, that is our perspective today, I don’t feel the need to defend Lennon, I think his legacy is there for all to see warts and all, today, however, we are not impressed by the fact that he touched millions throughout the world, of different races, colours, creed, genders, with his songs. Recently I was thinking of Lennon’s song, ‘The Woman is the N***** of the World’. I wasn’t thinking about how bad Lennon was to say the N word, I was thinking about the idea that we all need someone below us to make us feel better about ourselves, or even more profoundly that there is a limit to how far we might fall, being a N***** is a tough job but somebody has to do it. Lennon also did a song called ‘God is a concept by which we measure our pain’. So N***** is a concept by which we measure our oppression. In our secular society some look to history for authority and morality. In the past if you wanted forgiveness you could ask God, and here’s the great thing, God would give it to you. Today you must apologise ad nauseam, prostrate yourself before the God of History.

Dean 61

20th November 2019 at 8:59 pm

Hey perhaps this historic reparations nonsense isn’t all bad. Maybe in 50 years my ancestors will be able to lodge a claim on my behalf for the decades of discriminatory bile spewed out against straight, white blokes like me for the heinous crime of being, er, straight, white and blokeish . The snowflake generation having to pay off the OK Boomers has a delicious irony to it.

Dan Galvin

22nd November 2019 at 6:27 am

I’m right there with you on the reparations. I just realized that the descendants of the British soldiers who drove my great-grandparents out of Ireland owe me money. I haven’t quite worked out when I’ll come around to collect so you should have plenty of time to pass the hat.

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