Without a reckoning with our past, 21st-century Britain will struggle to forge a national story that functions for the country we are rapidly becomingby David Olusoga / December 10, 2019 / Leave a comment
On 20th October 2018, the day a “Save Brexit” rally was held in Yorkshire, a Leave voter who had just had his photograph taken with Nigel Farage, did a short interview with a television crew from Sky News. What he said to the camera was this: “For God’s sake let’s just get on, I mean, we’re British. We stood alone for years. Let’s just do it. You know, I mean, I was watching a thing with the Queen, there’s billions of people in the empire. Let’s get back to being the British empire again. That’s what it’s all about, you know? It’s about being the British empire.” A single interview with a single voter on a single day, not the manifesto of a mass movement, yet still an expression of a view that was in the ether long before the EU referendum.
More than half a century after the British empire began to disintegrate, it remains the biggest story in British history; an epic and tragic tale of how a tiny nation created a giant empire and then—within the span of a single life—lost it all. But in Britain’s over-stretched, under-resourced classrooms, the empire has been largely displaced by a twin obsession with the Third Reich and American history—the latter often taught with little emphasis on the decades during which the American colonies were part of the First British Empire.
When the British flag was lowered across the quarter of the world that had once been pink, an empire of territory and domination was replaced by an empire of delusions; a fantasy realm upon which the truth never rises. When the inglorious chapters of the imperial story—slavery, the Indian famines, the genocide in Tasmania—are forced into the national conversation they are relativised away; after all, was British rule not more benign than that of the Belgians in the Congo, was it not less brutal than that imposed on Namibia by the Germans? The closing down of the imperial debate, and its absence in schools, means that few in Britain recognise how the imperial project enriched the nation or how often colonial rule was underwritten by extraordinary violence. Nor is it understood how British culture, the English…