We must stop flagellating ourselves over the sins of the past and learn to live with them
Remember Blaire’s apology for the Irish potato famine? Or Brown’s apology for our treatment of the Bletchley Park codebreaker, Alan Turing? How about his apology to the families of the 306 executed ‘cowards’ of WWI? This furore over Cecil Rhode’s Oxford University statue is another prime example of our breast-beating tendencies today. What nonsense it is to maintain that because ethnic minority students walk past a high-up – and out of the way – statue of the arch empire builder they are suffering a form of violence. Let’s grow up a little; this surely is over-egging it.
I am not saying that we should not be aware of what was done by us long ago around the world and, indeed, that much of it was wrong. It was even sometimes brutal. But that is to see it through today’s prism. George Washington was a slave owner and Elizabeth II tortured Catholics. Churchill excoriated Gandhi and the whole notion of Indian independence. He positively gloried in the British Empire. Are all his statues, worldwide, to be taken down, including the one in Parliament Square?
I can list many examples of terrible things done by our nation. I can also quote you many more carried out by other nations. Of course, that doesn’t make any of them right. It is simply to contextualise them.
The retreat from empire in the British case was orderly and largely peaceable. In France’s it was bitter and bloody. The First World War brought about an upsurge of nationalism. The genie was partially put back in the bottle after that war, but it burst out with a vengeance following the Second World War and there was no putting it back. Bankruptcy and the need to rebuild Europe convinced us that the imperial game was up. Others were slower to realise it.
Those undergraduate agitators should pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that their privileged Oxford education came courtesy of one of the undoubtedly good things that Rhodes did with his life: he donated an immense sum to the university. I know his detractors will leap in and say that it was wealth accumulated on the backs of poor, benighted Africans, and to an extent, this is true. But we are where we are and numbers of them are at least seeing some of it coming back to them. The fact is we cannot undo the past.
Nowadays we are much taken to apologising for our forefathers’ misdeeds and though I see no great harm coming from that I have to ask myself where it ends. Should Rome apologise to us for its soldiers flogging our Queen Boudicca and raping her daughters? It may, for all I know, be that it makes a few of our ‘victims’ feel better for our having owned up and taken sack-clothe. Perhaps the idea is not that at all, but to make us feel better about ourselves. The question then is whether we are actually achieving anything meaningful at all. Does it help to rake over old coals and give ourselves an unhelpful guilt complex?
If we were such a shower of cruel oppressors, why are our former colonies so anxious to maintain their links with us? Why do they play an active part in the Commonwealth club and travel from the far corners of the earth for its bi-annual jamboree? It is telling that the French have not been able to form such a club.
It can be argued that while we took much – especially from India in the early years – we also gave much. We irrigated huge swathes of the country which hitherto had never been brought under the plough by constructing 40,000 miles of canals. We gave it, too, the largest railway system in all Asia (another 40,000 miles.) We also built and surfaced roads and constructed the 2,000-mile Grand Trunk Road east-west with trees either side to shield its travellers from the Indian sun. We gave our former subjects throughout the Empire the rule of law. We gave the Indian subcontinent parliamentary government. We also saved myriad constructs and temples, including the Taj Mahal, and its ancient language, Sanskrit, by setting up the School of Oriental Studies. We gave them an education system, which they maintain with all its rigours to this day, and we gave them a free press. Oh, and we also gave them the greatest love of their lives, cricket. It has become the poor boy’s hoped-for route out of poverty; their equivalent of our premier league.
In the last century of our rule there we developed a strong conscience so that, when we stood in mortal peril in the two World Wars, they martialled the largest volunteer armies the world has even known to help us win them.
As well as the profiteers and exploiters of the early years, we later sent the brightest and best that our country has ever produced to govern it. The special public school, Haileybury – set up to train those administrators in the languages and culture of the sub-continent – was second to none with, created in its wake, the Indian Civil Service, the most dedicated ‘sea-green incorruptible’ system ever devised. Its entry examination had no equal on earth.
Without exonerating Rhodes for his excesses, he, like many others of his time, believed fervently that they had a duty to mankind to spread British values across the world. It may seem presumptuous, even arrogant to us today, but because the Industrial Revolution had so changed the face of humanity they believed, with their strong Christian faith, that they were the elect of God, chosen to lead the world to a better future. It was an understandable enough trap to fall into and any country finding itself in that position might well have believed similarly. In truth they did mean well.
So let the callow hot-heads who will take away that priceless Oxford degree show a little humility themselves. They are young and, for the moment, know little of the world. For our part we are content to stand on the record and let history be the judge.