Why Should Britain Apologise For The Empire?

There are two reasons why I am writing this post, which is really a retake of an earlier post - Should Britain Apologise? - which I recently shared on Social Media. 

The first is that there is a renewal of this debate. The recent political twists and turns - Brexit and emergence of Hindu Nationalist India most importantly - have brought the question of British imperial folly to the forefront, engaged in animated debates and denials (see here).

The second is a renewal of interest in history itself, made possible by the deliberate wrecking of the Post-War world system by Conservatives in America and Britain. After being presumed dead, history has been regularly invoked in claims, particularly by British and American politicians who are good at pointing follies of other nations. Hollywood made a film about Holocaust denial, though the question of American imperialism in the Pacific was never deemed worthy of retelling. The British Secretary of International Trade, Dr Liam Fox, recently claimed that Britain, of all European nations, have nothing to apologise for its 20th Century history (see here). 

But why write again about this subject? The simple answer is because Britain made no such apologies and continue to live in denial. And, till such time a statement of apology was made by a British Prime Minister, the issue will not go away.

However, my intention is not go over the list of atrocities and achievements of the British Empire, but rather to address two very specific questions that have been raised:

1. Why is an apology needed? Why can't the ex-colonies get on with life?

2. What's the point of an apology? Sins, unlike property, are not inherited, and most people in Britain today can claim to be innocent of the empire. Why should they apologise?

These two questions are indeed related, and point to common misunderstandings about the issue of apology. 

For the British schoolchildren endlessly drilled in modern German History, the question of historical guilt is rather well-understood, as long as it applies to other countries. For them, it is obvious that Germany should apologise for its past for its own sake first. It is obvious, they are taught, that one of main reasons Germany succumbed to the Nazis was that it never fully reconciled with its own follies in the First World War. The atonement for its deeds during the Second World War, somewhat forced on it by the Allies, made it one most reconciled with itself: Neo-Nazis today are more common in Poland and Hungary than Germany.

Herein lies the answer to the first question: That the British government should apologise for Britain itself. In the absence of an apology, a fantastical version of the British history, of the sort Dr Fox is familiar with, lives on. And, this historical amnesia is not benign: This sort of misreading of history makes Britain at war with itself, unleashing an irrational, ahistorical rage that is making it wreck the world system. This is what makes a small cabal of politicians manipulate the British Public, not just in the Brexit debate but make them vote against their own self-interest election after election. A country with a false sense of its history is not unlike a delusional man, at once in love and maniacal rage with himself. 

This should clarify why apologising for sins of one's fathers may be good idea for today's British Citizens. This is not about the moral balancing act - acknowledging the follies of the past as they enjoy the fruits of the conquests! Knowing their own place in the world would allow them to escape the illusions of the past, and know, for once, what's really right or wrong. The double standards - between British Imperialist logic of might is right and the claim of folly when another nation used force - seriously impairs British engagement with the world, and limits its ability to deal with the future.

That the demands of apology come from nationalist politicians of ex-colonies, and not from British ruling classes - Tory, Liberal or Labour - obscure the need of history for Britain's own sake. The myth of the benign empire is one of the keystones of power of the British ruling classes. British empire, contrary to the narrative, was not about spreading freedom worldwide, but rather of importing practices of control and domination - fingerprinting was one small but symbolic example - from the colonial realm to the mother country. 

However, apart from the question this may become more important now than it has been so far. A more accurate appraisal of the imperial legacy is needed not just for Britain's view of itself, but also of its understanding of its place in the world. This is because we are perhaps at a turning point of the long arc of history, a point where the Atlantic predominance is matched or superseded by the powers of the Eurasian plain, a shift whose signs are already perhaps visible. When the most xenophobic of British politicians claim that limiting its relationships with Europe is worthwhile for the sake of new relationships with India and China, it is usually an imperial illusion fuelled by a hard geopolitical realisation: Abandoning the illusion will indeed help them deal better with the world of today.



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