The British Empire is, to state the blatantly obvious, a topic of great historical importance, and a sensative subject capable of arousing strong emotions. The British Labour Party has announced, in it’s “Race and Faith Manifesto” that, if elected, it will investigate the impact of British colonialism:
“Labour will conduct an audit of
the impact of Britain’s colonial legacies
to understand our contribution to the
dynamics of violence and insecurity
across regions previously under British
We will also:
· Create an Emancipation Educational
Trust to ensure the historical injustices
of colonialism, and the role of the
British Empire is properly integrated
into the National Curriculum, to teach
powerful Black history which is also
British history”, https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Race-and-Faith-Manifesto-2019.pdf.
As a historian, Labour’s “pledge” to carry out an audit of British colonialism causes me great concern. Whilst there where (undoubtedly) injustices committed by the British Empire, and its impossible to deny that many of those involved in colonial administration believed in the superiority of white (and, in particular British rule, which would, by today’s standards make them “racists), this is not the whole story. As pointed out by Jeremy Paxman in this article, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/9085936/Jeremy-Paxman-Our-empire-was-an-amazing-thing.html, Britain played a leading role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, it stamped out the practice of widow burning in India, it built infrastructure in the form of roads and rail, and left a legacy of incorupt administration.
I am left wondering who will conduct this audit of British colonialism. Will it be a cross section of highly respected historians (of differing perspectives), or historians who are (from the outset of their investigations) convinced that the British Empire was a wholly bad thing with few (if any) redeeming features? From the wording of Labour’s Manifesto, I suspect that the latter will be the case, with left-wing (perhaps Marxist) historians carrying out “research” which will (when published) be hottly contested by other academics.
In education its vital that children learn about the British Empire, warts and all. If, however they only learn about the warts (with no acknowledgement of the positive role Britain played in the world), what they will be receiving will be indoctrination rather than education.
Racism is an evil (and also deeply stupid for there is no evidence whatsoever that the colour of one’s skin plays any role in determining intelligence). We share a common humanity and its right that the role of black people in this country’s history is acknowledged and celebrated. However I do not believe that what Labour is proposing is the right way to go about it.
As always I would be interested in the views of my readers.