By Jingo

Issue section: 

Britain's empire is nothing to be proud of.

If the strains of 'God Save The Queen' send a shiver of delight around your body; if you thought it was a good idea when Blair and Mandelson 'reclaimed' the British bulldog in an election ad; if the occupants of Henman Hill shouting 'C'mon Tim!' do not make you think, 'What a sad bunch of middle class losers'... then you might want to look away now.

Spend some time campaigning against British foreign policy or racist immigration laws and you're sure to be asked the question, 'Aren't you proud to be British?' Sometimes in puzzlement, sometimes in anger, but always it's asked with the same underlying 'common sense' - that something intrinsically binds together this disparate nation, a nation that, whatever its faults, has always acted benignly, in good faith.

It was a question that sprang to mind when I was talking with a group of prospective history teachers recently. We were discussing the national curriculum and, perhaps naively, I assumed they would tend to be left of centre. I still have fond memories of my own history teacher, who defied our headteacher (Lady Stubbs, made famous by Julie Walters in a recent ITV drama) to explain the imperial root of the Troubles, and who once chased two Nazis twice her size from our school gates.

But these prospective teachers thought that too little attention was paid to the British Empire. 'Yes, students should definitely learn about the heroism of the slave revolts,' I offered, my words falling into a well of incomprehension. For it was the Niall Ferguson/Gordon Brown view of empire they were advocating, the empire of peacefully expanding free markets and grateful natives; the empire of Tim Collins, former Tory education spokesperson, who eulogises 'the survival of the British nation... our shared heritage and the nature of the struggles, foreign and domestic, which have secured our freedoms'. To aid this project, he asked right wing historian Andrew Roberts to draw up a list of 'key facts' that all students should know before leaving school. I doubt that the following will be among them:

Britain did not 'come in peace'.
It took Africa by force of arms and naval dominance. African societies were forced to militarise in response to the violence of the 'triangular trade', a need British merchants happily fed with inferior small arms. Between 1750 and 1807 they shipped 330,000 firearms to West Africa alone. This distorted long established trades and put African economic development back centuries.

Britain did not abolish slavery as an act of generosity.
To read some establishment historians you would think that Britain played a leading role in the slave trade solely to show its benevolence in eventually scrapping it. You can picture the scene: the rich banker, wearing the best American cotton, sipping his sugared tea while smoking heavily, declares how generous he has been to the slaves: 'I mean, if they disliked being kidnapped, beaten, shipped in 8 foot by 6 foot cages across the Atlantic and forced to work 16-hour days until they died of hunger and exhaustion, they only had to say.'

Of course they did say, as the countless acts of rebellion and the slave revolts testify. It was such a slave revolt in Jamaica in 1831 that finally sealed slavery's fate within the empire. It had just become too expensive (and was becoming a block to 'free' trade). The final insult was the £20 million compensation (a huge amount at the time) awarded by the British government... to the slave owners.

Britain fomented communalism.
'Divide and rule' was a tried and tested tactic employed throughout the empire. In Ireland this meant 'playing the Orange card', stoking sectarian bigotry when the United Irishmen threatened imperial rule in 1798 and repeatedly afterwards. In India huge strikes and protests in the 1920s frightened the imperial authorities into stressing religious divisions - forcing voters to register as Hindu or Muslim and fostering Jinnah's Muslim League. The eventual bitter fruit of this policy was communal rioting and partition that cost 1 million lives.

Britain starved its subjects.
The most famous example of this is obviously the Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s, which killed at least 1 million and produced 2 million more refugees. During the Great Hunger, Ireland was infamously exporting more food to Britain than it was receiving in aid. There were probably economists at the time commenting that 'the aims of Make Famine History are naive in the extreme. They say that if we just stop removing their food they would be able to eat. This totally misunderstands the nature of the free market.'

Less famously, the people of Bengal were left to starve during the Second World War. To his record as a politician who sent armies to break strikes and who used chemical weapons against Iraq, we can therefore add 4 million deaths to Winston Churchill's claim to be a 'Great Briton'.

Britain hung on to the bitter end.
Britain did not abandon its empire graciously. It officially killed 11,503 rebels and incarcerated hundreds of thousands in concentration camps (a great British invention from the Boer War) during the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. The real toll was probably much more, but I suppose at least they did 'do bodycounts'. Likewise Britain's support for Ian Smith's racist white settler state of Rhodesia explains why Mugabe's opportunistic condemnations of British colonialism continue to resonate in Zimbabwe.

History teaching will always be political, and not just in Britain. China has been using battles about Japan's revisionist history curriculum to stoke nationalist feeling. The Hindu chauvinist BJP gave tacit support to violent attacks on lecturers who stressed India's multi-ethnic past. As George Orwell put it, 'Who controls the past controls the present and who controls the present controls the future.'

So am I proud to be British? I'm proud of the Lancashire cotton workers who campaigned for slavery's abolition; of those trade unions that backed the fight for a united Ireland; of every ordinary person who built the boycott of apartheid South Africa. But what's distinctive about such people is not what patch of ground they were born on or found themselves on. It's the spirit of international solidarity displayed once again by the response to the tsunami and Africa's debt crisis. So I look forward to the day when such solidarity does not go against the grain of the way society is organised, but with it - the day when we make nationalism history.