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Negotiating the Legacy of the British Empire

british empire photoPhilip Murphy, Director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and Professor of British and Commonwealth History at the University of London, comments on how the legacy of Empire is still affecting British diplomacy today

In February 2013, a team of academics from University College, London, launched an Internet database of 46,000 records, documenting the compensation paid to owners of slaves by the UK government following the abolition of slavery in the British colonies in the 1830s. Translated into contemporary figures, these amounts were staggering. In total, £20 million (or roughly £16.5 billion, in today’s terms) was distributed to around 3,000 slave-owning families, according to statistics from The Independent. The ancestors of many prominent Britons – including the father of the Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone, and even a distant relative of the current premier, David Cameron – acquired fortunes in this way.

Speaking at a conference on the ‘Legacy of Empire’ at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London (ICwS) in May 2013, Sir Ronald Sanders, a former High Commissioner for Antigua and Barbuda, noted that this issue was not one of purely academic interest. The release of the database has revived the campaign by a number of Caribbean states for the British government to pay reparations for the country’s role in bringing slavery and colonialism to the region. What, Sanders speculated, might have been the impact on the longer-term social and economic development of the Caribbean had even half the money that was given to the beneficiaries of slavery gone, instead, to its victims?

The conference at the ICwS drew on the memories of a number of other prominent public figures who had also had to grapple with the legacies of empire over the course of their careers. They included Dr Martin Aliker, a veteran Ugandan politician and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Lord Carrington, the former British Foreign Secretary, and the Hon Anson Chan, the former Hong Kong Chief Secretary and Head of the Civil Service. Also participating in the discussions were leading historians of the end of empire including Professor Robert Holland, Professor Henry Frendo, and Dr Harshan Kumarasingham. The conference was the latest in a series of witness seminars co-sponsored by the Overseas Service Pensioners’ Association (OSPA), the body that represents former members of the British colonial service. As the name implies, OSPA was established in response to a very practical grievance – the belief that the British government had not done enough to protect the pension rights of UK administrative personnel on independence. In more recent years, however, the organisation has focused more of its attentions on the way in which the British Empire is remembered. Many members of OSPA believe that both their motives and achievements during their time in the colonial service have not been fairly represented in the history books, and, as at previous seminars, they were keen to ‘set the record straight’.

The legacy of empire is, however, such a complex, emotive and highly politicised subject that arriving at any sort of consensus is an almost impossible task. Sanders himself provided an authoritative account of its impact on the Caribbean. On the plus side of the ledger was the English language, the Westminster system of democratic government, the British legal tradition and (albeit a rather late development under colonial rule) an education system that extended to tertiary level. On the debit side were the dire long-term consequences of mono-crop agriculture, ethnically-divided societies, political fragmentation, and the failure to industrialise or provide adequate infrastructure or transport links. Yet it was Sanders’ comments on the issue of compensation to slave owners which were perhaps the most striking. They were a reminder of how apparently distant historical events can suddenly become ‘live’ political issues.

The history of the British Empire has been marshalled to serve a number of quite distinct political agendas. The far Left have a particular investment in the notion that it was a squalid exercise in exploitation, capable of almost unlimited violence and cruelty. One might speculate that it is partly because their own gods failed so spectacularly and so murderously in the twentieth century that they are so keen to highlight the fact that the liberal democracies maintained their own ‘tropical gulags’. Their own rationale for exposing the brutal aspects of imperialism is to counter what they claim is a process by which the British public have been brainwashed into believing that empire was a ‘good thing’. There were indeed a small number of commentators, on both sides of the Atlantic in the early years of the current century, who sought to rehabilitate the British Empire as a means of justifying a new ‘Pax Americana’ which would maintain order and promote prosperity just as the British had supposedly done at the height of their power. As the Tory MP and historian, Kwasi Kwarteng, explained in his opening speech to the conference, it was with the aim of repudiating this approach that he wrote his own account of British imperialism, Ghosts of Empire (2011). For Kwarteng, empires are inherently unstable entities, not least because of the high degree of discretion  that they devolve to individual administrators.

Kwarteng probably spoke for the majority of historians of British imperialism in suggesting that the challenge is not to condemn or condone empire, but to understand it in all its complexity. It is precisely this profoundly heterogeneous nature (and indeed the difficulty of even defining what we mean by ‘imperialism’) that makes it so difficult to compile any sort of moral audit of the British Empire in general. Whereas in Henry Frendo’s Malta, engagement with empire shaped culture and the economy over many centuries, in Aliker’s Uganda, formal colonial rule only endured for roughly the length of a single human lifespan. As Kumarasingham noted, although the ‘Westminster model’ of democracy is indeed one of the more broadly positive legacies of British rule, it has taken root with varying degrees of success and with distinct local variations in different parts of the former empire. While the British government are now keen to promote this aspect of the country’s overseas legacy, Kumarasingham reminded the conference that at the time of the transfers of power the UK had often been highly sceptical about the idea that their unwritten constitution was suitable for ‘export’. Indeed, Anson Chan suggested that in the case of post-1997 Hong Kong, Britain’s enthusiasm for supporting democratic reform seemed to cool considerably when this appeared likely to bring it into conflict with China.

The point is that whatever the current view might be among professional historians, they are unlikely to have the final word. Around the world, we see a growing scepticism about the ability of national governments to solve the complex challenges that confront them. This is nowhere more acute than in some parts of the world formerly colonised by the British. Faced with a formidable range of economic, social and political problems, it is inevitable that some political leaders will delve deep into the colonial past in order to identify the British as the true authors of their citizens’ present ills. In the West, this loss of faith in the power of the nation state has arguably encouraged a political culture in which symbolic actions sometimes seem to be valued more than the search for practical solutions. History inevitably provides fertile material for the ‘politics of gesture’. If we cannot do much about the present or the future, we can at least ‘solve’ the past through public apologies, posthumous pardons, and in some cases the payment of compensation. This combination of factors suggests that the legacy of empire is likely to haunt British diplomacy for many years to come.



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