Almost every month Britain is being asked to apologise for one or other of her imperial crimes, to tear down statues of her most egregious imperialists (actually there aren’t that many), and even to compensate her victims financially. That’s going to be difficult, of course, when the victims are long dead, though there’s an argument for saying that the damage Britain did then still lives on, in the present economic and social state of the West Indian islands, for instance (the major example); as well the original profits of slavery that we could still be said to be living off, albeit somewhat diluted. All the same, at this distance in time it’s going to be difficult to disentangle the long-term effects of slavery from those of other events since, such as the misrule of the West Indies’ own democratically-elected governments; or, of course, from the benefits that their enforced connexion with Britain from the 17th century on may have bestowed on them. (I don’t want to make too much of this; but perhaps we can all accept cricket?) In any case ‘compensation’ surely smacks of a rather mercenary approach to these problems, such as is widely criticised in, for example, cases of medical malpractice today. Foreign aid should be determined by present need, not past crimes. Although whether the £25 millions that Britain has recently pledged to Jamaica to build a new gaol, to which Britain can shift some of her own offenders, is a particularly good example of this is a moot point.
Even ‘apologies’ are problematical. Slavery had nothing to do with any of us. It happened long ago, before we were born; as did most (not all) of Britain’s colonial atrocities. Why should present-day Britons be held responsible for events whose only connexion with them is that they were perpetrated by people who happened to live on the same patch of land as we live on today – but in very different circumstances? I’ll accept some responsibility for the Iraq war – I was against it but clearly didn’t protest loudly enough – and possibly for the horrors of the Kenya concentration camps, though I was only a boy at the time. But the slave trade? Or Amritsar? Or the near-extermination of native Americans and Australians? Or the Irish famine? I can just about see the point of governments formally acknowledging the crimes of their ancestors in these respects, and even more of those crimes’ being highlighted in schools, if only to counter more celebratory versions of British imperial history. But apologising? And how far back should that be taken? As a native of eastern England, I’m still waiting for Denmark to apologise for her ancestors’ rape and pillage of my country in the 10th century; or Normandy (originally Scandinavians again, of course) for her brutal subjugation of England after 1066; or Italy for the Roman empire (and for enslaving us); or Saxony (or wherever the Anglo-Saxons came from) for pushing back the Celts. Or – come to think of it – the English upper classes for consistently down-treading the rest of us for most of that time. Where will it end?
Quite apart from all that, the British Empire might be the wrong target to choose for this – quite understandable – resentment. Of course slavery happened under its aegis, but it wasn’t the only aegis – even high-minded Sweden had a slave colony, continuing to practice slavery for some years after Britain had abolished it – and it was quite a weak one, so far as aegises go. One myth about the British Empire – it probably derives from the big-sounding word ‘empire’ – is that it was a powerful entity, dominating its subjects and imposing its ways on them: rather like those Vikings and Romans did, or are thought to have done. In fact it wasn’t. It grew out of Britain’s world-wide trading interests, which are often dubbed ‘imperialistic’ today per se, but weren’t regarded like that at the time. It was formally ruled by just a handful of Britons – perhaps 2,000 at its height, which must be fewer than it takes to run a medium-sized town today, albeit with native collaborators and the backing of a few British troops. It was always vulnerable, and consequently ultra-cautious about imposing its will on its subjects, for fear they would stop collaborating – that was a lesson the Indian ‘Mutiny’ taught it. It was exploited by capitalists and settlers, who were responsible for most of the worst atrocities there, but usually against the wishes of their more paternalistic – minor public-school educated – rulers, though they were often too few and weak to prevail. If you want a proper target to blame for these crimes, then free enterprise – the outsourcing and ‘privatising’ of its government to businesses and settlers – might make a better one. As a result, the Empire was pretty cheap to run, apart from the Royal Navy that secured Britain’s trade routes as well as her empire; and also, and partly for that reason, of relatively little interest to ordinary people back in Britain; except during the ‘Boer War’ of 1899-1902, when one very little colony humiliated their army. That was of interest.
Of course this doesn’t exonerate Britain from retrospective responsibility for the crimes attributed to empire. It was morally wrong of her governments to off-load their responsibilities to capitalists and privateers, and then, when they got into trouble, to step in to defend them. But it does spread the responsibility somewhat: to the descendants of the European settlers who actually did the enslaving and massacring in Jamaica and Australia, for example; or to private companies like Jardine Matheson, which was originally responsible for the vile opium trade. (Jardine Matheson is still going, though its webpage keeps quiet about this.) It happened under ‘imperialism’. But the ‘blame’ goes wider than that: to many more agencies and phenomena than a monolithic British Empire, and to a different time from our own. The past is a foreign country. What it did was wrong, in many – not all – respects, and that must be acknowledged, with proper humility: in fact, drummed into old empire-nostalgic reactionaries. But speaking for me, and my government, we have an alibi – the best one of all. We weren’t even born.