If we were taught just how much the UK was shaped by its colonies, the shared history would unite rather than divide us
Sat 6 Jul 2019
These days we’ve become wearily accustomed to depictions of Brexit Britain as oppressed by a villainously imperial Europe. Annexed “without permission”, Nigel Farage claimed melodramatically, defending Brexit party MEPs against charges of “disrespecting” the European Parliament. In a particularly far-fetched comparison, Ann Widdecombe MEP has compared Brexit with the resistance of “slaves against their owners” and “colonies against empires”. Prime ministerial frontrunner Boris Johnson too has spoken of Britain’s supposed “colony status” in the EU though, with a familiar double standard, he also believes that it would be good if Britain was still “in charge” of Africa.
These bizarre comparisons can be made and go unchallenged because the stark fact remains that most Britons know very little about the history of the empire itself, still less the way in which its long afterlife profoundly shapes both Britain and the wider world today.
Teach British tourists the truth about empire – they can take it
This great amnesia or “shocking lack of understanding” has led a respected race equality thinktank, the Runnymede Trust, to call this week for the teaching of the intertwined histories of empire and migration to be made compulsory in secondary schools. Migration and empire are “not marginal events”, its report rightly notes, but “central to our national story”.
Most students would welcome this move. Mine often tell me, regretfully, how little they were taught about the empire at school or, when it was addressed at all, how selectively. They want to know more and to know the truth. While some Conservative politicians, such as former schools secretary Michael Gove, have also stressed the need to teach the British empire, their preference is for mythology over history, a drums-and-trumpet “island story” in which Britannia munificently scattered “British values” across the globe like so much imperial confetti. The enormous scale of resistance to empire and the terrifying bloodshed it took to quell that resistance are either hidden or deliberately played down.
My new book, Insurgent Empire, shows how this resistance and repression influenced another strand of British history few Britons know anything about – criticism of empire and colonialism within Britain itself over centuries. There is much to be proud of here, especially those clear-sighted Britons who refused mythmaking and insisted on solidarity with those at the receiving end of exploitation and dispossession, whatever their skin colour.