Remembering colonialism in the UK

Working on representations of colonialism in Germany, I’ve been asked recently what Britain’s perspective on its role in imperialism and colonialism is. Today’s Daily Telegraph presents a clear image of an entirely uncritical, unreflective view of the glory of the British empire. A comment piece berates David Cameron for apologising for the British role in Kashmir.

[I]t is the job of a British prime minister, as Cameron knows all too well, to stand up for his country when abroad. He could have pointed out that we gave Pakistan (and indeed the rest of the world) many splendid bequests: parliamentary democracy, superb irrigation systems, excellent roads, the rule of law, the English language and, last but not least, the game of cricket.

Is that the job of the prime minister? I thought it was a more complex affair of negotiations, diplomacy, etc. (and including something about making business deals). Cameron could have pointed out what “we” “gave” Pakistan, writes the Telegraph. This long “we” includes all of today’s British citizens in the “we” of colonialism. Including the Brits of Pakistani origin? “Gave”: so the most important thing to remember about colonialism is the “giving”, not the “taking” of the globe’s natural resources, the arbitrary splitting of traditional collectives, the silencing of local voices, the millions of dead, and the horrors of the slave trade.

The article has more on slavery in a sweep at Tony Blair’s similar attempts to address the colonial legacy:

In fact, our role in slavery is a very complicated one, and certainly not susceptible to Tony Blair’s school of facile analysis. It is true that private merchants were heavily involved. But Britain was the first country to ban the slave trade, on March 25 1807, and thereafter our navy swept the high seas in search of slave traders. We acted in this highly principled and moral way in defiance of wealthy private interests – it was one of the proudest moments in our history.

“Heavily involved”? So the analogy would be that a thief who sweeps the countryside in search of thieves (without in any way being sanctioned for his/her deeds) is acting in a highly principled and moral way? A rapist who sweeps the cities in search of rapists (without in any way being sanctioned for his/her deeds) is acting in a highly principles and moral way. Etc. etc.

That’s quite a different take from the usual Telegraph take on crime: Once a criminal, always a criminal; tough on crime, etc.

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One Comment to “Remembering colonialism in the UK”

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