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Steve May

Coming to terms with Britain's past

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Oxford college to investigate its own role in colonialism

This is an interesting development from my old alma mater which I wholeheartedly support.

We need to understand much more about where this country has come from and therefore take a much clearer and more honest view of why we are where we are.   That Britain hasn't already done this is a source of much of our problems.

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3 minutes ago, Steve May said:

Oxford college to investigate its own role in colonialism

This is an interesting development from my old alma mater which I wholeheartedly support.

We need to understand much more about where this country has come from and therefore take a much clearer and more honest view of why we are where we are.   That Britain hasn't already done this is a source of much of our problems.

I've raised this a fair bit on here during your absence as it's something I've become more and more aware of in recent years. Not uncoincidentally during this time I've had a fair few conversations with people from countries where Britain was in charge but where it (obviously) no longer is.

My highly abbreviated position is that we won't have moved on as a country until the majority are able to say, and be at peace with, this straightforward and honest statement: The British Empire caused more harm than good.

There is a longer version but that will do for now.

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The problem with 500 years of history is that you end up with so many hypotheticals that realistic conclusions border on impossible. Then there is the misconception that there was a one-size-fits-all template of colonies. In some countries the British presence consisted of little more than a few troops propping up the indigenous status quo, such as Malawi, Tonga, and much of India. Another popular misconception is that a lot of these countries would have been so much better off if they'd never seen white people - The Wakanda Delusion.

It is true that legal standards change over time but I don't find this a strong argument. There had been enough wars and occupations in Europe for the Colonial powers of the 17th and 18th centuries to have some philosophical understanding of what they were doing and to have first-hand experience of the carnage and deprivation involved.

Trying to realistically assess the damage the British did in Australia is very difficult and we have had our own "History Wars" for the last 50 years. Personally, I come down on the side of getting it all out on the table and attempting some reparation where possible but I also want it to be based on fact, not white guilt.

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2 hours ago, Steve May said:

Oxford college to investigate its own role in colonialism

This is an interesting development from my old alma mater which I wholeheartedly support.

We need to understand much more about where this country has come from and therefore take a much clearer and more honest view of why we are where we are.   That Britain hasn't already done this is a source of much of our problems.

It's a perfectly valid subject of study but I would hope it doesn't become an exercise in self-flagellation.

Nor should it become simply an opportunity to make sweeping statements of the sort you make in your last sentence.

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7 minutes ago, Martyn Sadler said:

It's a perfectly valid subject of study but I would hope it doesn't become an exercise in self-flagellation.

Nor should it become simply an opportunity to make sweeping statements of the sort you make in your last sentence.

I think it is possible. Liverpool played a major part in the slave trade, something that the city now doesn't shy away from. It doesn't exactly celebrate it, that would be a silly thing to do, but it does recognise it. There is a section of the Maritime Museum dedicated to it. There are also guided walks, called the slave walks, around the city centre taking in the any references to slavery on the buildings (there are quite a large number if you know where to look).

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To be honest I have a hard enough time coming to terms with a lot of Britain's present never mind it's past.

 

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19 minutes ago, Griff9of13 said:

I think it is possible. Liverpool played a major part in the slave trade, something that the city now doesn't shy away from. It doesn't exactly celebrate it, that would be a silly thing to do, but it does recognise it. There is a section of the Maritime Museum dedicated to it. There are also guided walks, called the slave walks, around the city centre taking in the any references to slavery on the buildings (there are quite a large number if you know where to look).

I've heard some good reports about the Maritime Museum and hope to visit before too long.

In its section on slavery, does it celebrate this country's role in abolishing slavery?

Because that is worth celebrating!

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1 hour ago, gingerjon said:

I've raised this a fair bit on here during your absence as it's something I've become more and more aware of in recent years. Not uncoincidentally during this time I've had a fair few conversations with people from countries where Britain was in charge but where it (obviously) no longer is.

My highly abbreviated position is that we won't have moved on as a country until the majority are able to say, and be at peace with, this straightforward and honest statement: The British Empire caused more harm than good.

There is a longer version but that will do for now.

I have to take issue with this framing of the Empire legacy question (and do so acknowledging that you're miles ahead of most people on this issue).

The idea of the empire being a balance sheet of good and bad things I think misunderstands both the intended purpose and reality of the "good things" and how they were simply a means of facilitating the "bad things" to happen. Look at the colonial infrastructure left behind by the British in any former colony and it becomes clear.

To take two oft-cited "good thing" examples - Britain built large networks of railways in their former colonies and agricultural productivity increased. Those railways always follow the same basic pattern - Point A (Resource e.g. mine in the interior) to Point B (Port). In Europe, rail infrastructure was built to facilitate communications between trading centres and to transport mostly finished commodities between developed markets. It allowed for the development of modern industrial capitalism e.g. finished cotton products could be sent from the north west to London for export worldwide. In Africa (for example) rail infrastructure only facilitated the transport of raw materials fro the interior to ports for export to Europe. As a result, regional markets and industrial capitalism was never allowed to develop in Africa. The entire economy of a vast continent was completely dismantled and rebuilt for the sole purpose of exporting raw materials thousands of miles away to manufacturing centres in Europe.

Why did agricultural productivity increase? Colonialism involved the mass dispossession of people from the land that they worked as subsistence farmers. Farms were "rationalised" and modernised (often by white settlers who took possession of the cleared lands) and became more productive, at the expense of the vast bulk of the indigenous population who were left without their traditional means of subsistence. Conveniently for the colonisers, this also created a vast army of labourers with no other choice than to work in near slavery in the mines etc. which supplied the raw materials for export. Those who were unable or unwilling to do this, or were simply surplus labour that couldn't find a job, would starve under the repeated famines which characterised European colonies despite massive increases in agricultural productivity, as they were unable to afford the food which, under imperialist capitalism, was now a commodity. This is the cycle of a colonial economy.

So I suppose if you are a big fan of capitalism it can be argued that colonialism left some infrastructure in place and integrated the colonies into the "global" (i.e. western capitalist) economy, but it came at the cost of the complete destruction of traditional societies, mass dispossession of indigenous people, the irrevocable loss of cultures, languages etc. and of course, the starvation and murder of millions of people.

It's like if someone breaks into your house using an angle grinder, steals everything you own, burns the house down, salts the earth but then leaves their angle grinder behind when escaping. You wouldn't characterise this incident as bad because the loss of your house and possessions outweighs the good of obtaining an angle grinder. It's just unequivocally bad.

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12 minutes ago, damp squib said:

I have to take issue with this framing of the Empire legacy question (and do so acknowledging that you're miles ahead of most people on this issue).

I did say there was a long version. You've more or less written it for me there.

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35 minutes ago, Griff9of13 said:

I think it is possible. Liverpool played a major part in the slave trade, something that the city now doesn't shy away from. It doesn't exactly celebrate it, that would be a silly thing to do, but it does recognise it. There is a section of the Maritime Museum dedicated to it. There are also guided walks, called the slave walks, around the city centre taking in the any references to slavery on the buildings (there are quite a large number if you know where to look).

Museum of London Docklands has a superb gallery called Sugar and Slavery (or something similar). It is well worth a visit.

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I was speaking to someone from Panama the other day about this. He said many people in latin America wish they'd been colonised by England rather than Spain and that they look at countries like the states, oz etc a bit wistfully.  He also said that if we hadn't done it another European country would have. It was about the only interesting thing he had to say for himswlf?

 

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Just now, gingerjon said:

I did say there was a long version. You've more or less written it for me there.

Fair enough. I just think that a summary that implies colonialism did some good could lead to misunderstanding about what colonialism is.

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Just now, damp squib said:

Fair enough. I just think that a summary that implies colonialism did some good could lead to misunderstanding about what colonialism is.

Yes, that's fair.

But I think the starting point here is that a lot of people still think the British Empire was all japes and, heh, we abolished slavery and built railways, and India still uses our justice system … a truer statement ("The British Empire was a militaristic endeavour based on nationalism and racial superiority") might take longer to gain acceptance.

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1 minute ago, slowdive said:

I was speaking to someone from Panama the other day about this. He said many people in latin America wish they'd been colonised by England rather than Spain and that they look at countries like the states, oz etc a bit wistfully.  He also said that if we hadn't done it another European country would have. It was about the only interesting thing he had to say for himswlf?

 

Is your friend one of the vast majority of Panamanians with indigenous background? If so he should probably look at the fate of the indigenous peoples of the States, Oz etc.

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1 minute ago, gingerjon said:

Yes, that's fair.

But I think the starting point here is that a lot of people still think the British Empire was all japes and, heh, we abolished slavery and built railways, and India still uses our justice system … a truer statement ("The British Empire was a militaristic endeavour based on nationalism and racial superiority") might take longer to gain acceptance.

I totally get that and the knowledge gap is so vast that I understand the temptation to approach it this way.

The problem I have is that the denial in British society about the Empire is based not so much on outright suppression of information (although that is also in abundance e.g. operation legacy) but by a series of equivocations and characterisations of aspects of colonialism as natural phenomenon or an "acknowledge but minimise" approach. I think sugar coating empire, even as an introduction, feeds into that.

Really the Empire should be viewed by the British the way the Nazis are viewed by the Germans. Maybe Hitler made the trains run in time, I don't care. The only people who care to bring that up are Nazis who want to whitewash Nazism. It should be the same for the Empire. The difference is the Nazi state was comprehensively defeated by an overwhelming force which forced the Germans to reckon with their history. The British Empire was defeated by a series of smaller forces, leaving the British state, and all the institutions and propaganda which maintained public support for the empire, intact.

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You're right..it was just a viewpoint I'd not really heard before..it's easy to say if you haven't been colonised..it came up in a conversation where I was saying a lot of people in this country are embarrassed by the British empire cos he was saying that people from Spain look down on latin Americans.

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1 minute ago, damp squib said:

I totally get that and the knowledge gap is so vast that I understand the temptation to approach it this way.

The problem I have is that the denial in British society about the Empire is based not so much on outright suppression of information (although that is also in abundance e.g. operation legacy) but by a series of equivocations and characterisations of aspects of colonialism as natural phenomenon or an "acknowledge but minimise" approach. I think sugar coating empire, even as an introduction, feeds into that.

Really the Empire should be viewed by the British the way the Nazis are viewed by the Germans. Maybe Hitler made the trains run in time, I don't care. The only people who care to bring that up are Nazis who want to whitewash Nazism. It should be the same for the Empire. The difference is the Nazi state was comprehensively defeated by an overwhelming force which forced the Germans to reckon with their history. The British Empire was defeated by a series of smaller forces, leaving the British state, and all the institutions and propaganda which maintained public support for the empire, intact.

Yes, Operation Legacy continues to be remarkably successful. As is the fact that a lot of the more damning evidence of deliberate British atrocities sits in a bunker outside Milton Keynes and isn't going to see the light of day any time soon.

The minimise approach is ongoing. It wouldn't surprise me if more people in this country knew about the Belgian massacres in the Congo than about anything the British did anywhere.

 

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1 minute ago, gingerjon said:

Yes, Operation Legacy continues to be remarkably successful. As is the fact that a lot of the more damning evidence of deliberate British atrocities sits in a bunker outside Milton Keynes and isn't going to see the light of day any time soon.

The minimise approach is ongoing. It wouldn't surprise me if more people in this country knew about the Belgian massacres in the Congo than about anything the British did anywhere.

 

Absolutely. Just look at this thread.

In fact going back to the OP and the idea that this is the source of Britain's problems i.e. Brexit, I no longer contribute to the Brexit thread because I find that both sides are making arguments steeped in the British exceptionalism created to justify the empire (yourself excluded obviously). With Leavers you take it as a given but how Remainers can simultaneously recognise the imperial nostalgia behind Brexit and also lament the absence of Tony Blair from politics, whitewash the devastation of the Iraq war as a simple political blunder and worry that post Brexit military cuts will prevent the British army from being deployed overseas is beyond me. I'm not sure if you agree with me on that but I find it all stems from the fact that the Imperial British state survived it's loss of colonies completely intact. Perhaps Brexit is it's final unravelling.

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17 minutes ago, slowdive said:

You're right..it was just a viewpoint I'd not really heard before..it's easy to say if you haven't been colonised..it came up in a conversation where I was saying a lot of people in this country are embarrassed by the British empire cos he was saying that people from Spain look down on latin Americans.

It's common enough in ex-colonies to view your own coloniser as particularly cruel - former British colonies say the same about the British. Likewise it's almost universal that people from colonial countries view their former Empire as more enlightened and benign than the others. I don't really see the point in a league table of colonial cruelty, just recognise all colonialism as evil.

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There were a lot of things done in the name of the British Empire. Both bad and good.

History is the past. 

My ancestors were victims of being shoved up chimneys, down coal mines or press ganged. They lived in squalid conditions in England, Wales and Ireland ( I do not know of any Scots ancestors) and were victims of the British Empire.

My lot have nothing to apologise for.

 

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9 minutes ago, damp squib said:

Absolutely. Just look at this thread.

In fact going back to the OP and the idea that this is the source of Britain's problems i.e. Brexit, I no longer contribute to the Brexit thread because I find that both sides are making arguments steeped in the British exceptionalism created to justify the empire (yourself excluded obviously). With Leavers you take it as a given but how Remainers can simultaneously recognise the imperial nostalgia behind Brexit and also lament the absence of Tony Blair from politics, whitewash the devastation of the Iraq war as a simple political blunder and worry that post Brexit military cuts will prevent the British army from being deployed overseas is beyond me. I'm not sure if you agree with me on that but I find it all stems from the fact that the Imperial British state survived it's loss of colonies completely intact. Perhaps Brexit is it's final unravelling.

There is a belief in British exceptionalism. To an extent, and with varying degrees of genuinely meaning it and/or believing it bestows superiority, a lot of countries and people seem to have a belief in their exceptionalism.

So, for example, within Britain I've heard Scottishers and Welshies bang on that 'they' didn't really do the British Empire, it was all the English. Which the only response can be, having bothered to open a history book, balls. Sure, in some ways it may be more complex but, look, your guys are there on the frontline, shooting darkies for Britain.

I also often fall into the trap of believing in exceptionalism. Because there are obviously things that make Britain different from most other places. We're an island for a start. We drive on the wrong side of the road, play cricket, measure height in feet, and drink warm beer. These are things that most of the rest of the world does not do. Ireland might but the day I pay attention to that dark backward place is a day you will not see. Begorrah.

But then there are people who believe that Britain, because it's Britain, has, by destiny, leadership role. In fact, I'm absolutely convinced that's the attitude behind a lot of Brexit: they simply can't wrap their heads around consensus as opposed to one lot winning and telling the other what to do.

I would separate that from people who believe that a (not: the) role for Britain's armed forces could and should be peacekeeping or humanitarian. There's a difference between believing in that and believing that we should send gunboats to Gib to teach the dagos a lesson.

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4 minutes ago, gingerjon said:

There is a belief in British exceptionalism. To an extent, and with varying degrees of genuinely meaning it and/or believing it bestows superiority, a lot of countries and people seem to have a belief in their exceptionalism.

So, for example, within Britain I've heard Scottishers and Welshies bang on that 'they' didn't really do the British Empire, it was all the English. Which the only response can be, having bothered to open a history book, balls. Sure, in some ways it may be more complex but, look, your guys are there on the frontline, shooting darkies for Britain.

I also often fall into the trap of believing in exceptionalism. Because there are obviously things that make Britain different from most other places. We're an island for a start. We drive on the wrong side of the road, play cricket, measure height in feet, and drink warm beer. These are things that most of the rest of the world does not do. Ireland might but the day I pay attention to that dark backward place is a day you will not see. Begorrah.

 But then there are people who believe that Britain, because it's Britain, has, by destiny, leadership role. In fact, I'm absolutely convinced that's the attitude behind a lot of Brexit: they simply can't wrap their heads around consensus as opposed to one lot winning and telling the other what to do.

I would separate that from people who believe that a (not: the) role for Britain's armed forces could and should be peacekeeping or humanitarian. There's a difference between believing in that and believing that we should send gunboats to Gib to teach the dagos a lesson.

I mostly agree with this but will have to agree to disagree on the last paragraph. I would go into it more but that's a hell of a rabbit hole and I'm already making a mockery of my vow to spend less time online!

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Just now, damp squib said:

I mostly agree with this but will have to agree to disagree on the last paragraph. I would go into it more but that's a hell of a rabbit hole and I'm already making a mockery of my vow to spend less time online!

Okay, let me rephrase it slightly (and then pull back): we live in a world in which countries have armed forces. There is a role for all countries' armed forces in humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts. Britain is no different from any other country in that regard.

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