“Who do you think you are? Can history help us define British identity today, or is it part of the problem?"
It seems useful, then, to depersonalise our concept of nationality and view it as something that, whilst informing our personal identity, remains external to us as individuals. We could therefore identify the nation as consisting essentially of the social context in which we find ourselves and the nation state for which we are responsible. Each influences the other, with the citizenry as the active component in the mechanism. This is consistent with the democratic view of the nation state’s value as being essentially utilitarian; acting as both guarantor and facilitator of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, and subject to the interests of the people.
This utilitarian view contrasts with the somewhat mystical concept of nationality as being irreducible and indivisible in nature, residing at the core of our beings. The spectral image of an immortal national spirit, demanding the reverence of those born under its wing, has immediately recognisable and decidedly ugly connotations for anyone familiar with 20th century history. But we should not allow those isolated and extreme manifestations of the quasi-religious form of nationalism to blind us to its more subtle and common (if mostly inadvertent) appearances in our culture and popular discourse, or to its unhealthy effects even in these latter instances.
If we are to understand the nation’s role to be that of performing certain functions for our benefit and its value as the extent to which it performs those functions, the utilitarian view demands not reverence but a dispassionate assessment. History can be used to inform both the democratic utilitarian and the mystical views of nationalism: the former, by an objective analysis of the factual record designed to inform the value judgement described above, and the latter by making selective use of that record and subordinating history to the aggrandisement of the national self-image. This leads us to the second part of the second question: “Can history help us define British identity today, or is it part of the problem?”. As we examine how an objective and rounded view of history might help us to influence our society and government productively in the present day, the nature of the problems that arise from failing to do so will quickly become apparent.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s recent report into history teaching in schools provoked some discussion over what constitutes ‘British history’. According to the report, insufficient coverage is being given to the history of Britain’s ethnic minorities. Commenting in the Guardian, Max Hastings said that “The authority's thinking is easy to understand: to a teenager of West Indian or Muslim background, medieval exchequer practice or 19th century poor law seem remote. Surely we can offer such children knowledge that strikes a chord with their own heritage…[but] how is it possible to do much of this in a British school without distorting the western experience, which anyone living here is signed up to? I can't see the case for such an agenda, unless the vast majority of British people are to pretend to be something they are not”.
However, at no point in its report did the authority recommend that the role of minorities in Britain’s history should be taught in order to engage otherwise uninterested pupils. Nor did it assert that certain subjects are somehow not “relevant” to Black and Asian students. What it said was that schools "undervalue the overall contribution of black and other minority ethnic peoples to Britain's past” (as Hastings himself quoted). In other words, a rounded, objective view of Britain’s history would afford that contribution its due attention, and it is its exclusion that is “distorting” the teaching of British history.
At this point, it is worth making a banal yet apparently necessary observation about British society today. Britain now includes a sizable ethnic minority population who are neither guests nor interlopers of some kind but as much a part of this country as the majority. “Our” history therefore means just that: the history of all of us. Hastings' statement that “this is the country of Drake, Clive and Kitchener, not of Tipu Sultan, Shaka Zulu or the Mahdi” ignores the plain reality that Britain now boasts all of these figures in its national history, and many more with each successive influx of immigration. Furthermore, apart from being merely inaccurate, attempts to boil history down to some irreducible core can only impoverish our heritage, and our understanding of the past.
Central to Hastings’ argument, as we will see, is the role and nature of Empire and the place of immigrants from the commonwealth within imperial history. Empire is by no means the whole story of Britain’s past, but it is one of the more significant chapters and provides us with several pertinent examples of how history can help us define Britain’s identity today. Examination of that history may reveal some ugly episodes, but in doing so we expand the pool of experience from which we can draw in order to better understand our country. Let us then focus our attention on the imperial record, taking Hastings' views as our starting point.
For Hastings, “History is the story of the dominance, however unjust, of societies that display superior energy, ability, technology and might…. the world's development in the past 500 years has been dominated… by what westerners have thought and done. Other societies ….have been losers whose power to determine their own destinies, never mind anyone else's, has been small”. Whilst the west has indeed been in the driving seat of world history for several centuries, the proposition that the “losers” are undeserving of a place in the winner’s narrative is a bizarre one. Should the victims of the Holocaust be excluded from German history, or the victims of Stalin’s purges excluded from Russia’s, because their fate was “dominated, for good or ill” by people of “superior energy… and might”? And what sort of national identity might that version of the past help to create in those countries?
Furthermore, Hastings’ advocacy of the winner’s history neglects the active and material contribution made by those who were not in control of events. For example, as Cambridge historian Richard Drayton points out, the historical debt Britain owes to Africa is “incalculable. For without Africa and its Caribbean plantation extensions, the modern world as we know it would not exist. Profits from slave trading and from sugar, coffee, cotton and tobacco are only a small part of the story….English banking, insurance, shipbuilding, wool and cotton manufacture, copper and iron smelting, and the cities of Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow, multiplied in response to the direct and indirect stimulus of the slave plantations…African slavery and colonialism are not ancient or foreign history; the world they made is around us in Britain”.
Nor was Africa’s the only contribution that went beyond straight wealth transfer, helping to create the structural foundations of modern British prosperity. In his review of the colonial record “Year 501”, Noam Chomsky describes how Britain used protectionist laws and discriminatory colonial taxation to crush the superior Indian textiles industry to the advantage of its own. He cites Horace Wilson, who in his “History of British India” in 1826 wrote that were it not for these measures "the mills of Paisley and Manchester would have been stopped in their outset, and could scarcely have been again set in motion, even by the power of steam. They were created by the sacrifice of Indian manufacturers." According to economic historian J.H. Clapham "this restrictive act gave an important, and it may be argued a useful, stimulus to textile printing in Britain," a sector which lay at the heart of the industrial revolution that transformed Britain’s standing in the world. India also transformed in that time: from a world trading center whose industrial development was comparable to advanced European nations, into a massively impoverished agricultural society, with centres of its pre-colonial prosperity such as Dacca and Calcutta becoming synonymous by the 20th century with deprivation and squalor.
Though they may often have been “losers” in the grand narrative of British history, the contribution made by the colonised and the enslaved – the ancestors of much of Britain’s ethnic minority population - plainly helped to shape the Britain we know today. Both the poverty that many commonwealth immigrants left behind and the prosperity that they came to Britain to share in are a part, to a considerable extent, of Britain’s imperial legacy. To acknowledge these aspects of our past, which generally receive rather less of our attention than Hitler or Henry VIII, is to greatly enhance our understanding of how Britain’s history has culminated in the nature of our society today. In a similar fashion, assessing the conduct of the British state in the colonial era can inform our understanding of the nation state for which we, in the present day, are responsible.
As Britain and America have pursued a considerably more robust foreign policy in recent years, popular conservative historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts have risen in prominence as they endeavour to rehabilitate the British Empire’s reputation in the public mind. Aside from the more predictable support these efforts have received from the right-wing press and from Washington’s neo-conservatives, Gordon Brown has also joined the chorus, calling for Britain to stop apologising for its colonial history. The link between our view of Empire and today’s foreign policies is clear and explicit. Both Ferguson and Roberts advocate a return to the overt colonisation of those countries that in Ferguson’s words have failed to “correct themselves” during the “experiment” of self-rule. Robert Cooper, a former adviser to Tony Blair, has called for “a new kind of imperialism” and, in a subtle yet unmistakable echo of the principles behind these views, Brown has said that celebrating our national identity would provide a self confident base for Britain’s engagement in the wider world. Brown is of course correct, as are Roberts and Ferguson in identifying the importance of imperialism’s reputation to the intellectual framework in which current foreign policy is formulated and in defining the national identity of the states which will pursue those policies. That being the case, the question of whether their views hold merit is one with immediate as well as historical implications.
Focusing on the Victorian era, and particularly the case of India, Ferguson identifies sound governance, disciplined fiscal management, secure property rights and the rule of law as the defining characteristics of the British Imperial legacy, laying the foundations for democracy and economic growth. What makes these claims problematic is that during this golden age of British governance up to 27 million people are thought to have died in India through famine; deaths which could to a large extent have been avoided, were it not for the malfeasance of the colonial administrators. As the Nobel prize winning economist Amartya Sen has shown, famine is not simply a naturally occuring phenomena but one that can be averted or at least minimised by properly functioning social systems. It is not that such systems failed under the British, but that policies were relentlessly pursued with full knowledge of their fatal consequences.
Pre-colonial India had, over the centuries, developed an insurance system to mitigate the worst effects of crop failures, for example by modulating taxation to reflect the vagaries of the harvest. But under the British, severe and inflexible taxation dramatically increased the population’s exposure to drought. Fiscal discipline demanded that no relief be given to the starving - despite the fact that grain stocks were often plentiful - lest they gain the impression “that they are entitled to such relief at all times…which we cannot contemplate” said British officials. As the price of grain soared with the death toll in close pursuit, Viceroy Lytton dismissed calls for relief as “humanitarian hysterics”. According to a detailed study carried out by historian Mike Davis, in some areas, “the only well-fed part of the local population were the pariah dogs, ‘fat as sheep,’ that feasted on the bodies of dead children”. Still neither relief nor interference with the divine hand of the market was contemplated by officials who, according to Lord Salisbury “worshipped political economy as a sort of ‘fetish’” and accepted the famines “as a salutary cure for overpopulation”. Famine, according to lieutenant-governor of Bengal, Sir Richard Temple, merely terminated lives “of idleness and .. crime” as grain was shipped from starving India to Britain, which could afford to buy it. The only relief Temple allowed came in the form of hard labour camps, where rations provided less sustenance than was given to the inmates of Buchenwald a few decades later.
Amartya Sen’s work has highlighted the contrast between the successive waves of famines in colonial India and their near disappearance as democracy was introduced after the British were ejected and government became subject to the popular will. This contrast tells us a great deal about Ferguson’s claims for Empire as fostering good governance and democracy, about the moral legacy of our imperial past, and crucially about the nature of the nation state that we have inherited; the subject to which we now turn.
As the historian Mark Curtis points out in his review of the post war record, mainstream intellectual culture “usually actively promotes, or at least does not challenge, the idea that Britain promotes high principles - democracy, peace, human rights and development - in its foreign policy. Criticism … is certainly possible….. but within narrow limits which show "exceptions" to, or "mistakes" in, promoting the rule of basic benevolence”. The revisionism of Ferguson, Roberts et al serves to buttress this fundamental assumption, yet the facts, as we have seen, often tell a different story. Using history to help us define the nature of our nation state, we might conclude that it generally acts, not in the interests of high principles, but of economic elites and the state apparatus that helps to sustain them, and that it frequently does so irrespective of the human costs.
This institutional analysis has serious implications when applied to British foreign policy in the present day. Consider British officials’ description of Middle Eastern oil in 1947 as "a vital prize for any power interested in world influence or domination", and that in 1956 Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd declared "We must at all costs maintain control of this oil". Consider Lord Curzon’s earlier description of evolving colonial methods in the Middle East. It is preferable, said Curzon, to rule behind an "Arab façade," with "absorption" of the quasi-colonies "veiled by constitutional fictions as a protectorate, a sphere of influence, a buffer State, and so on". Consider Britain’s backing, from Curzon’s era up to and including the present day, for vicious autocratic regimes throughout that region, such as the House of Saud or the Iranian Shah. These relevant facts suggest rather different motivations for our current regional policies, the than those claimed by Whitehall.
Discussions of British identity appear for the most part to have patriotic pride as their goal, with examples of our inherent magnificence drafted in to inflate the mood. Gordon Brown cites “a commitment to liberty [and] a belief in fairness” as among “the enduring ideas that Britain gave the world”; which will have been news to any number of peoples who had known a little of such things even before first contact with the British. The Daily Telegraph’s leader writers urge us to take pride in the “stupendous series of national achievements” in our history, remaining silent on the less salubrious episodes, whilst the Observer, cautioning Brown against ostentation, still finds itself forced to concede that “Certainly, there is a rich tradition of tolerance [and] liberalism to celebrate in this country”, and in some quarters, we might add, a degree of self-satisfied conceit.
Since the term nationalism came into common political usage in the late 18th century it has, broadly speaking, manifested itself in two forms: reactionary conservative and revolutionary liberationist. In India we have seen both species, the latter in the secularist anti-colonial movement and the former in the tragic rise of the BJP (whose attempts to rewrite school history books, subordinating scholarship to their brand of national chauvinism, should be noted for our purposes here). As India makes its choices, so we in Britain must make ours. We can retreat into an imagined essentialist version of our history, or embrace the pluralism of our society and its enrichment of our national heritage. Choosing the latter would be to acknowledge the contribution made by all of our ancestors, with practical benefits for social cohesion in the present day. In respect of how we behave outwardly as a country, we can choose to laud the good intentions of our leaders as they embroil us in further crimes and disasters abroad, or we can recognise the institutional nature of our nation state and work to create something truly deserving of our pride. An honest look at our national history can go some way to helping us make these choices. A selective view, choosing only to acknowledge what is useful, or what puffs up our sense of patriotism, can only cause more problems in the future, both for ourselves and for others.