Empire Day Reloaded?

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What Gordon Brown's 'British Day' chooses to celebrate will not be as important as what it chooses to hide.

My dad shared his birthday, 24 May, with Queen Victoria. It was designated Empire Day, and when he was a child in the 1920s and 1930s school children held parades and celebrations of the British Empire, on which famously at the time the sun never set. I was reminded of this with all the talk about a 'British Day' proposed by Gordon Brown, when one suggestion was that this could be a resurrected Empire Day.

That goes some way to explaining my reservations with the whole idea of a British Day. After all, there are very different views about Britain and what it means to be British. There are also very different interpretations of our history. To most Irish, Zimbabweans or Indians the British Empire meant poverty, famine and repression. When the German general Rommel fought the British in the North African desert during the Second World War, many Egyptians wanted a German victory against the hated British Empire.

Gordon Brown blithely declares that we should have our own 4 July, without apparently noticing the irony that US Independence Day commemorates the day that Americans finally decided after years of discontent to begin a war to overthrow British colonial rule. Bastille Day, 14 July, is celebrated in France as the beginning of the French Revolution which overthrew the absolutist monarchy and established government based on 'liberty, equality and fraternity'. The revolution was bitterly opposed by the monarchy and government in Britain.

Those days are now celebrated in the US and France not just as an excuse for fireworks and feasting but because they represent movements which changed those countries forever. Countries such as India and Kenya have as their national celebration the day when the British left.

Here it is conveniently forgotten that most of the gains we have made towards democracy and freedom were made in the teeth of opposition from the rich and powerful. Parliament and its supporters had to fight a civil war in the 17th century, including executing the king, to establish the right of democratic rule over the monarchy. Civil liberties, jury trials and the right to demonstrate have repeatedly come under attack.

Virtually everything we now regard as a normal part of our lives was the result of bitterly contested political battles: the right of women of all classes and working class men to vote; the right to join trade unions; the right of women to equality; the right of ethnic minorities to be treated equally. Perhaps any new holiday should commemorate some of these achievements.

But my worry isn't just about the day. This Britishness notion is fraught with just as many difficulties. It was the attitude of empire that this small rainy island on the edge of Europe was the source of civilisation, wisdom and superiority. The empire did not, of course, export democracy - the colonies were ruled directly from London or through local minority (usually white) rule.

Genuinely multicultural

The multicultural nature of cities like London today owes much to the existence of empire. While people in Africa and India fought for freedom and won, the economic conditions created by empire often left them with little choice but to emigrate to work in the factories, mills, hospitals and transport systems of Britain.

They, their children and grandchildren have the right to call themselves British and to be seen as British in the sense that they should have full and equal rights in this country, and that they may regard Britain as home more than the countries from which they originally came. But they also have the right to reject a 'Britishness' which is forced on them in the name of integration.

A genuinely multicultural society isn't about buying chicken tikka masala in Tesco or having black and Asian newsreaders on television (welcome though those developments may be). It is about striving to overcome the structural inequalities of our supposedly tolerant society. Asian languages, although widely spoken worldwide and in many parts of Britain, are not routinely taught in British schools. Children of many ethnic minorities suffer the worst schools and tend to underachieve. Young black and Asian men are more likely to be stopped and searched by police. The Muslim community is under attack for its culture and religion.

Talking about Britishness while leaving these problems unaddressed will only continue the inequalities, not end them. And it is in this context that ideas of empire are once again being rehabilitated. Why should people want to join celebrations of Britishness led by a government participating in George Bush's imperial adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan? Now, the day the troops come home from Iraq will be the day for a party.


Lindsey German is convenor of the Stop the War Coalition and writes in a personal capacity.