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Imperial Whitewash


As of November last year, anyone applying for British citizenship has to pass a test demonstrating both proficiency in English and “sufficient knowledge of life in the United Kingdom”. In preparation for the test, applicants are asked to study a booklet that begins with a brief history of Britain. Sanctioned and published by the Home office, this is the closest we have to an “official” history, though it was written by an individual, Professor Bernard Crick, political commentator and biographer of Orwell.

Crick disclaims any official status for his 9,000-word essay and states clearly:

Any account of British history, whether long or short, is an interpretation. No one person would agree with another what to put in, what to leave out, and how to say it.

None the less, his text drew fire from historians, who noted a host of embarrassing errors. Crick misquotes Churchill, misrepresents the Magna Carta, and wrongly asserts that the massacre at Glencoe took place before the Battle of the Boyne and that unemployment “vanished” after 1945.

Some of the omissions seem indefensible. There are 210 words on the end of the Highland clans in 1745 but not a single one about the Chartists, the rise of the trade union movement or the general strike of 1926; there is a relatively lengthy account of the Thatcher years – more than 300 words – but no mention of the Falklands war, inner-city riots or the miners’ strike of 1984-85, surely one of modern Britain’s watershed events.
What is most disturbing, however, is the treatment of the British empire. While the Atlantic slave trade is condemned unequivocally as “evil”, the empire is given a positive gloss:

For many indigenous peoples in Africa, the Indian subcontinent, and elsewhere, the British empire often brought more regular, acceptable and impartial systems of law and order … The spread of English helped unite disparate tribal areas … Public health, peace, and access to education can mean more to ordinary people than precisely who are their rulers …

It is noted that the British did not try to impose Christianity on India, which leads to the observation that “the English tolerance of different national cultures in the United Kingdom itself may have influenced the character of their imperial rule in India.” So, apparently, there was no policy of divide and rule and no racial discrimination against the natives.

There’s not a single mention of the empire carrying out acts of repression or exploitation – anywhere, ever; no mention of the famines that killed millions in British-ruled India; and, crucially, not a word about resistance to empire, except for a passing reference to “liberation or self-government movements that had been growing in India in the 1930s”. In Crick’s account, the empire came to a peaceful end after the second world war simply because the British public was not interested in it and “the Labour party believed in establishing self-government in the former colonies.”

But the empire did not quietly expire in 1947. British forces waged wars against insurgents in Malaya (from 1948 to 1960), Cyprus (1955 to 1959) and Aden (1963 to 1967). Between 1952 and 1956, the British suppressed the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya at horrific cost (the minimum estimate is 12,000 dead, but some studies claim more than 100,000). In 1953 and again in 1962, British troops were used to sabotage democracy in Guyana. And in 1956, Britain joined France and Israel in attacking Egypt in an attempt to repossess the Suez canal. After that, Britain became a subordinate power to the US, and in that capacity is still deeply enmeshed in the military and economic coercion of people in foreign lands.

The great majority of those who will take the new citizenship test come from countries once ruled by the British or other European empires, and their view of empire is likely to be better informed and more critical than Crick’s. What is also worrying is that his kid-glove approach is part of a wider trend, in which rightwing commentators like Niall Fergusson and Robert Kaplan have sought to resuscitate the idea of imperial rule, ignoring or minimising its ill effects while exaggerating its beneficence.

Very few Britons are aware that their country occupied Egypt in 1882 and remained its de facto ruler for 72 years, during which time its economy was profoundly distorted; or that between 1899 and 1920 Britain waged a savage campaign against the Dervish uprising in Somalia, wiping out one third of the population, 100,000 souls.

With 8,000 British troops currently fighting insurgents in Iraq and another 4,000 doing the same in Afghanistan, ignorance of imperial history and attempts to whitewash that history are of more than academic concern. This is not about asking people to feel guilt for the sins of the past; it is about ensuring that today’s British citizens are equipped to analyse and contextualise their government’s policies.

Because of Kipling and the Great Game, there is some awareness that Britain has been in Afghanistan before. But few have more than a fuzzy idea of the three Anglo-Afghan Wars (1839-42, 1878-80 and 1919), in each of which British forces sought to impose Britain’s will on a recalcitrant people, exacting and suffering substantial casualties before being forced to retreat.

Fewer still know of Britain’s previous adventures in Iraq. Using Indian soldiers, the British occupied Mesopotamia in 1918 and stayed there, effectively, until 1958. A national revolt in 1920 was put down with the utmost brutality, involving the use of poison gas and the relentless terror bombing of mud, stone and reed villages. In a single year, the RAF dropped 97 tonnes of ordnance, killing some 9,000 Iraqis for the loss of only nine soldiers. The rebellion nevertheless continued for a decade, as did the punitive bombing raids, under the command of Arthur Harris, who was to mastermind the 1945 firebombing of Dresden, which took 35,000 lives.

Harris’s statue stands today in London’s Fleet Street. Alas, nowhere in Britain is there a memorial to Air Commodore Lionel Charlton, who resigned from his post in 1924 after visiting a hospital and facing the armless and legless victims of British air raids.

Commenting in 1934 on the British and French claim that the “sole aim” of their appropriation of the old Ottoman possessions in the Middle East was the emancipation of its peoples, Jawaharlal Nehru offered a scathing and still pertinent indictment: “They shoot and kill and destroy only for the good of the people shot down. The novel feature of the modern type of imperialism is its attempt to hide its terrorism and exploitation behind pious phrases .”
If people in Britain, whether native born or naturalised citizens, are to strip away the pious phrases of today’s empire builders, they need a much more realistic account of their past than the one being offered by Professor Crick and the Home Office.

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