No, the British Empire isn't something to be proud of—in fact, it's still causing harm today

From China to Iraq, we kid ourselves when we downplay the effects of Empire

July 21, 2017
Iraqi refugees queue for food and water. The country was formed by British colonisers. Photo: PA
Iraqi refugees queue for food and water. The country was formed by British colonisers. Photo: PA

A recent YouGov poll revealed that 59 per cent of Britons think the Empire is something to be proud of. They also tend to think it left its colonies better off. A third would like it to still exist.

This is possibly not surprising. Many of the people asked for their opinions in that survey would probably agree that they don’t believe they’ve experienced any blights of the Empire directly. Indeed, it’s clear that many people in this country (like most other countries in the Western world) have benefited enormously from the vast profits of colonial exploitation—at the expense of other nations.

Take a country like Iraq, for instance. Iraq was created by the British Empire by amalgamating three Ottoman provinces (Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) under the Sykes-Picot agreement—an agreement which made sure to keep oil-rich Mosul out of the equally colonial hands of the French government. The British authorities then placed favourable elites in charge of the governance of this racially and religiously divided region. How anyone could expect that to proceed happily is quite beyond me.

Yet while most of us would chuckle at the belief, widely-held in the People’s Republic of China, that Mao was “70 per cent right, 30 per cent wrong”, this is precisely the kind of delusion we sell ourselves when we look for what is disingenuously termed a more “balanced” view of Empire. But “balance” is exactly what we need—although not the “balance” some pundits are calling for. At the moment, our schools barely seem to educate us about the realities of Britain’s colonial past. I don’t remember the subject of Empire being touched on at all at the state schools I went to. The first time I heard the words “opium war” was when the director of a short film I was working on made a flippant remark about it in reference to my “Chineseness.”

What the Opium Wars actually were

Those same Wars came up in a Twitter dispute I had recently. “There was nothing illegal about opium trade,” I was told, in all seriousness, by someone who describes himself as an academic. Perhaps he was suggesting that it was legal, at least under British colonial law, for Britain’s fearsome East India Company to operate as the single biggest drug-running cartel in history, flooding the Chinese market with the highly addictive narcotic subject in order to alleviate its trade deficit with Imperial China—who had no desire to purchase pianos and solid-silver British cutlery.

You might even think it contrary to the British idea of “fair play” that the Qing administration attempted to ban this noxious and debilitating scourge from being sold to its citizens, and believe it only fair that Queen and Parliament sanctioned its great navy to batter the Chinese into submission on the matter with their vastly superior military weaponry and prowess. Not once, but twice.

Anyway, China wasn’t officially a “colony” of Britain’s (the main reason, apparently, why the contributions of the World War I Chinese Labour Corps are given scant recognition in the Imperial War Museum).

No: all that happened was that the “great powers” had an “open door” policy with regard to China, possibly because it was considered too big, too expensive and too time-consuming to actually administer when you can just plunder its resources with none of the attendant responsibilities of actual governance. Because, make no mistake, colonialism was an expensive, as well as lucrative, business. You had to speculate to accumulate—so to speak.

How was the Great British Empire able to speculate in this way? On the back of an enormously profitable slave trade, of course!

A long-held belief

Talking of attendant responsibilities: this week isn’t the first time Empire apologists have tried to portray British colonialism as an essentially benevolent world presence. Take Evelyn Baring, 1st Earl of Cromer and Governor-General of Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th Century:
“It is for the civilised Englishman to extend…the hand of fellowship and encouragement, and to raise (the subject races), morally and materially, from the abject state of in which he finds them” 
This noble, if breezily superior, outlook didn’t, however, extend as far as education for the natives—which Evelyn viewed as something unnecessary, or even dangerous in its potential to cause social disturbance among the colonial subjects he considered racially inferior.  It’s a little-known fact that, during the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference, the then burgeoning East Asian colonial power Japan was able to extract enormous concessions from the British, French and American governments by requesting that “racial equality” be included in the membership requirements of the League of Nations—which none of the three Western powers could possibly agree, to, of course, because racial inequality was at the very foundations of their international (and domestic) modus operandi.

Today, rhetoric like Baring’s pervades in talk of invasion and migration, which allows us to feel very sorry for refugees—as long as they don’t come here. As if the British are afraid that the colonies will harm them in turn. You only need to look at the recent upsurge in anti-immigration rhetoric, which often centres round a bizarrely frustrated demand to know why “all these migrants want to come here”, to see it.

It feels almost too simplistic to point out that migration exists basically because the Western world is richer, and therefore more stable, whilst all too many African and Asian countries exist in a state of impoverished chaos—one due to the long-term implications of Western colonialism, passed down through history.

The effects of Empire are all around us. They dog us to this day. We kid ourselves by not acknowledging it—at our peril.