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.
How might the world have looked but for that cataclysmic conflict which began almost a hundred years ago? Mighty different, I can tell you. It is highly unlikely we would have a United Nations since only a catastrophe on a planet-wide scale could have caused countries to submit themselves in the future to a supra-national authority.
There would be no Arab-Israeli conflict and, as a result of that, no 9/11. We would be boarding aircraft in pretty much the relaxed way we used to, with none of the demeaning scrutiny and security measures we have now. There would have been no Cold War and as a consequence of that no mad rush to be the first to land a man on the moon. Because the Second World War was the unfinished business of the first, rocketry was given priority by the Germans as a possible war-winning technology and without that impetus space technology would be way, way behind where it is today. We might not even have those satellites circling the earth which give us GPS, satellite television and so much else. Computer technology – also hastened by war – would still be in its infancy and the World Wide Web would be non-existent. The whole business of electrical miniaturization on which just about everything today depends received a major shot in the arm by the space effort. Of course we would have got there in the end but it would have been at a much more leisurely pace.
In geopolitical terms, the landscape would be just as dramatically different. There would be no European Union since it was only the trauma of the two World Wars which caused Europeans to think there had to be a better way. We would probably still rule India and most of the other European empires would be staggering on, though under rising pressure for emancipation along with us. Russia would have evolved from a tsarist autocracy into a fully fledged democratic state. All the fallen monarchies of Europe – the Hapsburgs of Austria/Hungary, the Hohenzollerns of Germany, he Tsar of Russia and even the Sultan of Turkey would still be in place along with a clutch of Balkan princlings. It is likely, though, that most of them would have had their wings clipped democratically.
But the Emperor of China would still be gone. He went three years before the Great War started, discredited by his inability to prevent China’s humiliations by the European colonial powers. But the new China would have had a Japanese experience; it would have taken the Japanese approach of if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, and industrialised like mad. Today, most probably, it would be the top economic as well as military power in the world with Uncle Sam as No. 2. It would have avoided the trauma of the Mao experience and be like Japan, a democratic state. Britain’s colossal overseas investments – all lost to war – along with her staggering land holdings around the world would have been deployed to who knows what ends. They might even have allowed her to stay top dog.
All in all it would have been an utterly different landscape from the one we see around us today. It would not necessarily have been a better world since many of the less salubrious features of the old world would not have been swept away and there would have been umpteen disputes leading to what may be described as bush-fire wars.
As for no conflict with the Muslim world, that is because there would be no state of Israel. If there was any conflict it would be with their Ottoman overlords – it would be them, not us, taking the flak. It was Britain’s seizure of Palestine and the destruction of the Ottoman Empire along with its foreign secretary’s promise to allow a home for Jews in the Holy Land which made the creation of Israel possible. He had no idea it would lead to the dispossession of millions of Arabs from their ancestral lands. This, above all else, is what drives the Jihadists today along with Western military intervention in Muslim affairs. They take the view that it was not a kind-hearted act on the part of Britain regarding Jews – which in fact it was – but a calculated move to plant a Trojan Horse in their midst which would do the West’s bidding and help it keep control of them.
One of the consequences of the two World Wars was to so weaken and discredit the European powers that it hastened the end of their empires. Had the people of the various empires gained their freedom at a more leisurely pace – perhaps as much as a century later – there would have been more time to prepare cadres of their people and put institutions in place which could have avoided the shambles we saw following the rush to independence after the war. Africa, today, with its boundless resources, might perhaps be a well-governed and prosperous continent
But war did hasten the end of deference – à la Downton Abbey – and dispose, in the process, of autocratic monarchies. Only in the victor or neutral states did they survive. Interestingly, not a single state which abolished its monarchy has had a change of heart and reinstated it. I suppose that is our fate when something cataclysmic comes along one day to discredit our own monarchy.
Apart from the most obvious ones – the advancement of science, the UN and the EU – the other major beneficiary of war has been the emancipation of women. Oddly, it was not the dictatorships with their powers of compulsion (the USSR was an exception) which were the earliest and most successful in harnessing the abilities of the fair sex, but the elective dictatorships of the West. Albert Speer, Hitler’s armaments minister, was always bemoaning the Reich’s slowness in this crucial field to his boss.
It may be said that the gods have punished us these many wet summer months for some misdemeanour of which we are unaware. But it appears they may have stayed their hand in ruining the most spectacular sporting jamboree on the planet.
By this time of year the country’s lush foliage is normally beginning to wilt a little. Sometimes even our abundant and lovely grasslands are looking a bit browned off. But with the way it has all panned out it has made this summer, of all summers, the lushest it has ever been. Truly, if the sun shines on all this, our sceptred isle will look like no other place on earth. The nations of our planet will return to their homelands realising, perhaps for the first time, what a beautiful place we inhabit.
With its cosmopolitan and multicultural dynamism they are unlikely to deny they have been privileged to spend a fortnight in the coolest city in the world, and the closest thing to an earthly paradise beyond its city boundaries.
Danny Boyle’s evocation of the Britain he cherishes I hope will do us proud. Someone once said that “it is not what you are, but what you would be”. I believe that to be true and beautifully put.
No event provides such an opportunity to showcase yourself as does the Olympics, and what a sporting year this is already proving to be. We came within a whisker of carrying off the Wimbledon title and Bradley Wiggins has triumphed in the mighty Tour de France in what is surely the greatest single sporting achievement in any of our lifetimes.
We cannot know how many medals we will carry off, but I am sure we will acquit ourselves well. We are, after all, fielding two and a half times as many contestants as we did in Athens. And we are on our own home turf.
What an inspirational overture to all the contestants about to mount the podium to listen to the melody of the Chariots of Fire. We made that film and with it we made the world’s heart beat faster.
We are a little nation, but the footprint we have left on the world is that of a giant. It is small wonder that the author of ‘Jerusalem’, the gifted but delusional William Blake writing at the height of the Industrial Revolution, believed that we were a chosen people favoured by god to be a light to the nations. Only that explanation, he considered, could account for such extraordinary and overwhelming success in the world.
Reticence and understatement are in our genes, but the world looks to, and expects, the host nation to lay out its wares. What are those wares? We have sent out our sons and daughters to every corner of the planet in the greatest diaspora in human history; we created the greatest empire ever known to man and seeded it with justice, law, democracy and the world’s first – and likely to be its only – universal language; and our scientists, entrepreneurs and engineers catapulted the world into the Industrial Revolution: the only true change in the human condition since hunter-gathers turned to farming. It is not too much to say that we have invented the modern world.
And let’s not forget, during this great celebration of human physical prowess, our own contribution to sport. Just listen to the roll call of competitive sports we invented: football, golf, rugby, cricket; baseball, tennis, polo, modern boxing, darts, eventing/horse trials, billiards, badminton, squash, hockey, snooker, sailing, motor racing and Formula One, table tennis, cycling, rowing, ice hockey; bowls, ten-pin bowling, some forms of skiing, mountaineering and curling. It doesn’t appear we left very much for anyone else, does it?
So as tomorrow you enter this great festival of human endeavour be proud of who you are and of what your ancestors have achieved. Try to live up to them – not easy, I know – but remember, too, those many, still alive, who bought in blood and treasure the liberties that we and the world enjoy today.
Recessions come and go, but in the great pantheon of the gods, you – a little people living on less than 1 per cent of the world’s land surface – occupy a special place. You have done wondrous things. For all our many and grievous faults, I remain convinced that history will be kind to us.
Now go out to get some gold and lay on the greatest show on Earth!