Your editorial (A German lesson for Britain, 27 December) raises important questions about Britain’s response to its imperial past. But it runs the risk of conflating some quite distinct issues. It is certainly true that the creation of a national museum devoted to empire is almost inconceivable in contemporary Britain. No one would want to lead such a project unless they relished the prospect of spending a good few years defending themselves on social media. And were the government to raise the idea, the Guardian would without doubt – and with good reason – be at the forefront of those questioning their motives. But this may be more a sign of fierce debate than collective amnesia.
You also bemoan the fact that Britain lacks “a shared view of history” or indeed “a common culture generally”. Here you enter more dangerous territory. Both have more to do with the top-down imposition of national mythologies than with a creative engagement with the past. Debates about the sort of history children should learn in school usually have as their unspoken subtext the question of what it is “good for them” to know and believe. The idea of history as a morally improving magic lantern show is one that many professional historians, myself included, would treat with extreme caution. Nevertheless, we all have a duty to ensure that the ever more rich and varied insights being generated by academic research on imperialism feed into a genuinely informed public discussion of empire.
Professor Philip Murphy
Director, Institute of Commonwealth Studies
• How strange to see the word “colonialism” in your headline. Words such as colonialism, imperialism, jingoism and empire feel awkward and discredited terms that belong to a significant chapter in British history. For the best part of two centuries, when the sun would never set on the British empire, Britain was the superpower; its industrial, financial and political dominance was virtually unquestioned. In that sense, it can be seen as a “glorious” period of British history.
As you rightly point out, however, Britain seems unable to reflect on the foundations of its colonial supremacy – subjugation, oppression and discrimination – while Germany appears to have accepted its history, by holding exhibitions and negotiating with its former colonies. How sad that our attempt at self-examination – the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol – was so short-lived and mired in controversy. Could not politicians, historians and museums work together to develop a permanent legacy that acknowledges the “complex and difficult truths” about our colonial past? It would be a fascinating history lesson for all British – and global – citizens to learn.
• The Guardian is right to bring to our attention the noble efforts being made in Germany to address its own savage colonial history and it is timely as a post-EU Britain tries to find its new place in the world. It is essential to state that our place in that world was forged out of the suffering of the poor and the British empire was built more on horror than honour. Maybe now, after the exposures of our relatively recent abuses of the Chagos Islanders and the torture of the Mau Mau rebels – likely to be the tip of the iceberg – a start might be for the government to release all the remaining papers relating to our colonies, at least those that have not been destroyed. Much of our history has been stolen or swept under the heavy carpet of official secrets acts. Your own Ian Cobain’s The History Thieves illuminates these dark places.
A Museum of the British Empire would be a harrowing place to visit, but perhaps if it existed it might have fostered a view of our nation more grounded in the reality our own grim, dependent past. Such a view would have, for instance, made us far warier of isolation from the EU and our view of immigration would be, partly at least, based on the massive debt this nation owes to the blood, sweat and tears of the victims of the British empire. A Britain removed from the European project, paying even a tiny proportion of our debt to our former colonies, living only off our own means, is going to be a very different place indeed. In the shadow of the Museum of the British Empire lies our future.
Dr Colin Bannon
• Britain’s colonial past is indeed still with us and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Next year will mark the centenary of the Balfour declaration, a colonial document whose consequences were disastrous for the colonised people of Mandate Palestine and their region. No worse calamity could have befallen the Palestinians than to have Britain promise their country to another people over their heads in 1917, and then invite the newcomers to take over, a process that led to the destruction of historic Palestine in 1948.
Today’s Palestinian fragmentation into a nation of refugees, exiles and occupied people, with no common homeland, and the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict and regional instability and all that has caused, are direct results of Balfour’s careless declaration. It would be only fitting for 2017 to be the year when Britain acknowledges what its past colonial decisions over Palestine led to and offers a long overdue apology and reparations to the victims of a particularly egregious piece of British colonialism.
Dr Ghada Karmi
• Your editorial is most instructive. The benefits of colonialism have been well argued in numerous historical works; even scholars from former British colonies show an empathetic understanding of the British imperial past. Nevertheless, as in Germany, it is vital for historians and teachers of history not to shy away from researching and teaching about the violence of both the official colonial state and numerous British people towards colonial subjects over nearly four centuries. This is particularly necessary if our young people are not to be seduced into the euphoria of national glorification in post-Brexit Britain.
Visiting research fellow, Department of History, Manchester Metropolitan University
• Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, or the Eurosceptic historians for Britain, seems to have infiltrated the Guardian Review on Christmas Eve. Philip Hensher tells us, reviewing a book on Handel’s Messiah, that “early 18th-century London was unusually open to European influences”. This left me puzzling as to when London had been closed to European influences in the centuries since the Romans founded it, the Flemings and Hansa established their trading houses, religious orders from France and Italy set up monasteries and friaries, and reformers from Prague, Amsterdam and Geneva promoted religious change. The Hanoverians were of course German kings; but the English (or British) royal family had rarely been entirely native in the centuries before then, and the court had always maintained active European links.
Bernard Porter, reviewing a book on Britain’s role in shaping production and trade in alcohol, then credits the British empire with introducing viticulture to South Africa. But the British only took over Cape Colony in the Napoleonic wars; the Constantia wine that Napoleon quaffed on St Helena came from vines originally planted by Dutch settlers, enhanced and improved by the Huguenots who joined them over a century before the British arrived. Daniel Hannan, Andrew Roberts and others tell us frequently in the rightwing press that everything worthwhile in the world – from freedom to sport and capitalism – came from the Anglo-Saxon imagination. The Guardian should be careful to offer its readers a perspective that admits that good ideas and products have also flowed into Britain from across the Channel.
House of Lords
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