In order to move forward as a nation, Britain must radically alter its inability to critically assess its history. We must accept our colonial past for what it was: the use of state sanctioned systemic violence to subjugate ‘lesser’ nations to the will of the oppressor.
When Jeremy Corbyn declared last month “Black History is British history, and it should not be confined to a single month each year”, he was met with jeers from the ‘patriotic’ wing of the Conservative party. Jacob Rees Mogg – ever a bastion of progressive politics – claimed the ‘good’ parts of Britain’s empire were ‘really wonderful’. It is strange for self declared patriots to be wholly ignorant (wilfully or otherwise) to the realities of Britain’s colonial past. Such reductionist ‘good’ and ‘evil’ binaries purposefully distort history. Using the subjugation of West Papua as one contemporary example, colonialism is a system of ‘objective violence’, designed to totally pacify the colonial subject, no matter the cost.
Granted, Corbyn being lambasted for his comments – coming alongside a timely proposal to dramatically alter the way the history of the British Empire is taught in schools – should come as no surprise. The capitalist establishment has waged a consolidated campaign for three years to paint the Labour leader as an ‘enemy of the people’.
Why, exactly, are capitalist elites terrified of Labour’s policy to alter teaching about the legacy empire? The answer is very simple. Honest assessment of Britain’s imperial past would end the dominant discourse, exposing capitalism’s central role in binding half the globe in chains. It was, after all, the elite who circumvented the ‘rule of law’ in colonised nations. It was, after all, powerful plutocrats who plundered countries for their natural resources. It was, after all, the ruling class who cultivated and benefited from the inherent racism of imperialism.
Certainly, there are several radical examples from British history which cause great pride. From the Chartists to Mary Seacole, from working class solidarity united against fascism at Cable Street to the International Brigade volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. All of these episodes can provide contemporary inspiration to help the left fulfil its raison d’etre to construct a more equal world. It seems much more patriotic to begin to manufacture an honest national understanding of the legacy of empire, rather than attempt to whitewash it with meaningless platitudes, a la Rees-Mogg.
Let us be under no illusion about the necessity of Labour’s promise to add further study of the British Empire to the national curriculum. Post-colonial amnesia – that is a whitewashing of the population’s collective memory of empire – is widespread. An alarming poll by YouGov in 2016 found that 43% of the British population considered the Empire a good thing. Seismic changes are needed to counteract this false consciousness of empire, the sort of seismic changes only possible with state implemented education reform.
This is not only about colonialism, the history of minorities on these shores have also been distorted by elite narratives. Why are so many people unaware of the fascinating role Black people played in shaping British history? Right from 232 AD (when the first Black people came to Britain alongside the Roman invasion) to the Black tudors who served in the Tudor court, to the Toxteth riots on our own doorstep in Liverpool, Black British history is rich in multitude. It deserves to be taught.
Neither should we kid ourselves that imperialism is an archaic phenomenon, confined to the midst of time. The racism so inherent to the functioning of colonialism is still rife in Britain today: still rife in the upper echelons of the British political class. This phenomenon is best encapsulated by Boris Johnson, the bumbling caricature of an upper class statesman, with his well documented deployment of racist tropes .
At governmental level, the situation becomes yet more dire. Britain’s ‘hostile environment policy’ has created an atmosphere of terror, leading to the “the creation of an illegal underclass of foreign, mainly ethnic minority workers and families who are highly vulnerable to exploitation and who have no access to the social and welfare safety net.” The draconian ‘hostile environment’ is both racist and classist (how many rich people were victims of the Windrush scandal?), treating minorities with total disregard and lack of humanity. The left must remember its duty to fight inequality and dehumanization, standing in absolute solidarity with marginalised communities.
Britain is also culpable for its role in ‘Fortress Europe’, an umbrella term for the wide range of policies implemented by the European Union (EU) to totally dehumanize refugees, leaving them stranded in make shift camps- where corruption and exploitation are widespread – or at the mercy of the Mediterranean Sea.
The EU has knowingly left migrants to terrible fates, signing deals with some of the unstable countries in the world; including Libya, where Amnesty has documented torture and inhumane living conditions. Also, since its very inception in 2016, the EU’s agreement with Turkey has flagrantly contravened international law. If you are still under the illusion the EU is some bastion of tolerance and freedom, consider this: 34,000 people have died trying to reach its shores in the last 25 years. As one of 28 EU member states, the U.K’s burden of guilt ways heavy. Racism has not disappeared: Britain’s role remains entirely shameful.
To conclude, ponder this: what kind of legacy do we want to leave for future generations? Do we want Britain to remain ignorant of the violence inherent to its colonial past, or would it be better to build critical consciousnesses, so racism and dehumanisation can truly become a thing of the past. Solidarity to Jeremy Corbyn for his timely intervention. Shame on the bourgeois elites whose discourses still distort our history.
Featured image: Saarah Survé