Over the past few months, there have been several debates in newspapers, TV and online about the British Empire. Headlined by outrage over a production decision by the BBC to play an orchestral version of “Rule Britannia” at the end of the Proms, a decision that was made solely from artistic licence rather than as an anti-imperialist stance. This decision has attracted a lot of controversy with many people rushing to condemn the BBC. This includes prominent figures such as Boris Johnson, who stated that there should be no “cringing embarrassment” over such celebrations of empire. This has sparked debates online, on TV and in newspapers about the legacy of the British Empire.
The British Empire did a lot of terrible things; it was a key player in genocides, the slave trade and the deaths of millions of people over hundreds of years. Yet just over a quarter of British people wish the UK still had an empire. I don’t think that most of these people actually wish the UK still had its Empire. They just don’t know the full story behind it and everything it did and represented.
At school we are poorly taught about the Empire, if we’re taught about it at all. This ignorance about the British Empire is harmful and dangerous. Think about how it must feel to be someone of Indian, Pakistani, African, Caribbean or any other heritage that was a victim of the British Empire’s violence and see your own Prime Minister defend the actions and heritage of an Empire that was responsible for causing centuries of pain, oppression and hurt to your ancestors. Ignorance surrounding the British Empire helps to ingrain in us that Black, Asian and minority ethnic lives, histories and cultures do not matter and are not valued in Britain.
A lot of defences of the Empire’s violence, outline some of the good things the Empire did such as playing a role in the abolition of slavery. This limited role in the abolition of slavery does not make up for its role in maintaining the slave trade and takes agency away from slave revolts in Jamaica (1831) and Haiti (1791-1804) that were key to slaves securing their own freedom. It also misses the fact that Britain paid reparations to slave traders and their decadents until 2015 and not to former slaves.
It is not anti-British to acknowledge that the British Empire did a lot of awful things. It shows a desire to learn from the past and build a better future. The British Empire has not left a positive legacy in British society. It’s helped to ingrain ideas of racism and classism deep within the UK’s social fabric. As a society, we need to move beyond debates over the morality of the Empire and start properly educating ourselves and young people on the dark things the Empire did and acknowledge that clinging on to the idea of the British Empire being a positive thing is limiting us as a society.
By Nelson Cummins