Stop apologising for the past

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

James Heartfield

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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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.

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.


20th November 2019 at 8:02 pm

I am poor as many people in this country are. As far as I am aware my ancestors didn’t benefit from the empires alleged plunder. At the time of the empire the underclasses in this country were little better than slaves. Any future government can apologise on behalf of the toffs who benefited but not for me.

Elvis P

20th November 2019 at 7:34 pm

The same moral Corbyn who refused to condemn 30 years of IRA murder

James Knight

20th November 2019 at 6:55 pm

It is laughable to claim Brexit is about imperial nostalgia. Brexit is a about the spirit of self determination which was the challenge to imperialism. If I was being generous I would say that the likes of Fintan O’Toole are just too thick to get it. More likely they would have been on the side of imperialist suppression of the Quit India movement because people would be economically “better off” under British rule or they are just too incapable to run their own affairs.

Of course Brexit is far more modest than many former movements for self determination. Which only begs the question as to why are so many neoliberal shills going so ultrasonic about it?

Paul Dunmore

20th November 2019 at 6:51 pm

We are merely scratching the surface of pretend apologies for the past. I look forward to seeing a formal apology for Edward I’s 13th-century conquest and subjugation of Wales, for the English ruling class’s destruction of Saxon society under William the Conqueror, and for the appalling slaughter of innocent Roman civilians in Boudicca’s rebellion. Come to think of it, no withdrawal from the EU can be truly satisfactory without an apology from Italy for the atrocities committed during the colonial occupation of Britain by the Romans.

James Knight

20th November 2019 at 6:46 pm

Not long ago the SNP and other parties were pardoning gay men for crimes that are no longer crimes. At the same time the Scottish Nasty Party has now pushed through legislation criminalising loving parents who smack their children. Their instincts are every bit as authoritarian as any government from the 1950s, they just have different targets for their moral outrage.

It is also cowardly: it is easy to speak up about injustices of the past, but it is a bit late now.
Imagine what it was like speaking up for gay rights in a climate of chauvinism of the 1950s? Owen Jones writing columns in the Guardian in 2019 is hardly the same. Now everyone thinks the police have something to answer for after Hillsborough, or Orgreave. An enquiry is what you have when the issue is safely in the past. It is more about a new establishment using the past to build it’s moral authority in the present.

Ed Turnbull

20th November 2019 at 3:08 pm

These ‘therapeutic apologies’ (for want of a better term) are simply facile. How can anyone *credibly* (and that’s the key right there) apologise for something for which they bear no accountability? Answer: they can’t, and such apologies are not credible.

So, that leaves two options: such apologies are consciously deceitful, or unconsciously delusional. Politicians (Blair for example) who indulge in this behaviour are therefore either liars, or mad (and no doubt in some cases both).

Yes, by all means examine the past, analyse and draw conclusions, but saying sorry for events in which your hand played no part is just 100 octane stupid.

Ven Oods

20th November 2019 at 2:15 pm

“and shine a new light upon the darker chapters”

Why a new light? Are there any incidents or atrocities left to discover? It’s all available for those who are interested, while those who aren’t won’t thank Labour for wasting money in order to inform them.


20th November 2019 at 1:35 pm

Presumably the point would be to give employment (and thus taxpayers’ monies) to a few of the needy academics who can be most safely relied on to churn out whatever reading of Britain’s imperial past suits the politicians. I’d rather it didn’t happen. It might give them ideas about funding ‘green’ dietary advice, ‘progressive’ medicine or ‘socialist’ science.

Dominic Straiton

20th November 2019 at 1:13 pm

Tony Blair already said sorry in 2007.

Ven Oods

20th November 2019 at 2:18 pm

But not for Iraq.

Stephen Nash

20th November 2019 at 1:13 pm

I agree with the argument made here. I do however believe that there is another more traditionally imperialistic method at play at here. Namely divide and rule. The new establishment cares little about History as such but is keen to exploit divisions in society for which they can construct an educational role for themselves as our ‘betters’. For instance in my home town of Wolverhampton with a sizeable Sikh population there has been a campaign led by academics for a public apology to be given to the Sikhs today for the Amritsar massacre of 1919. What effect can this possible have on the young people but a divisive one and a sense of eroding any common vision amongst the general citizenry. We are all as citizens capable of the study of history and this should always be encouraged. But please don’t politicise the past. It is only going to confuse and further politicise identity.

Claire D

20th November 2019 at 1:53 pm

I agree with you Stephen.
It is also dangerous to politicise the past because almost always the ‘ past ‘ as presented today is historically inaccurate, eg, at the time the overwhelming response of the British public to the Amritsar massacre was one of horror and opprobrium. The causes of why it happened are complicated, to blame the British Empire is too simplistic. Ironically enough it is probably more relevant that Dyer, the officer responsible, was born in India just after the Indian Mutiny, when hundreds of British men, women and children were massacred by Indians. He would have heard frightening stories about it as a child, and may well have responded in the way he did at Amritsar, in a deeply neurotic way as a result, ie, it was human error to some extent.


20th November 2019 at 5:25 pm

There are numerous ironies about the Amritsar Massacre. Dyer may have been one of the most ‘wicked’ of imperialists, he may have made a bad misjudgement, but he had been placed in a very difficult position by the politicians above him. When, a little while afterwards, the massacre became a cause celebre for Indian nationalists he was hung out to dry by his political masters. They were fortunate that a series of strokes prevented him from doing what he might to explain the circumstances in which it took place and – at least partially – clear his name. He became a convenient scapegoat for the Cabinet: so there are lessons there for the modern age!

Claire D

20th November 2019 at 9:27 pm

In fact Dyer did give evidence to the Hunter Commission, the inquiry set up in India in October 1919 looking into what happened and why it happened. Dyer’s evidence and his reasons for his actions are quite clear, and caused a lot of criticism at the time. It was just after that he became ill.

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