In the course of the 20th century, Britain underwent two world wars which decimated its young manhood, devastated its cities and bankrupted its economy. It lost the most extensive empire the world has ever known, and almost the entire manufacturing base on which its wealth and expansionist zeal was predicated. Despite this (and its diminutive size) it is still the world’s seventh largest economy by GDP. Extraordinary, when you think about it. And even more extraordinary that this loss of power and relative wealth was a largely post-war phenomenon: in a few brief decades, the work of two or three centuries was undone; and Britons found themselves being invited to atone for their former global destiny and to get used to being just another country.
Against this background, any attempt to re-appraise the legacy of the British Empire is a risky enterprise. Children of my mother’s, inter-war, generation were raised to see the Empire as a Jolly Good and Necessary Thing, and the British as a sort of chosen race, destined to bring civilisation, Sung Evensong, and a proper cup of tea to the earth. While my father (whom she would not meet until 1948) was growing up in 1930s British India, she was at school in east London where, on Empire Day (24 May) they waved union jacks and sang:
Red, white and blue
What does it mean to you?
Surely you're proud
Shout it aloud
The Empire too
We can depend on you.
These are the chains
Nothing can break.
Well, they may not have broken, but clearly they do not bind in the same way. This is the theme of Jeremy Paxman's BBC TV series, Empire. In it, Paxo visits various Commonwealth countries - apparently wearing the same powder-blue linen shirt throughout - in an attempt to re-assess the British Empire's legacy. The tone and content is one designed to avoid any charge of revisionism on the one hand, and mindless 1970s-style repudiation on the other. It doesn't quite achieve objectivity, perhaps because that is not really possible, and the series is in any case billed as a personal account. But there is evidence of an honest determination to get at the facts, combined with Paxman's celebrated "come off it" inquisitorial style designed to get people to spit out what they actually think.
He is, for instance, able to ask an east African man of Asian race (whose forbears were effectively transplanted by the British) if he is not grateful to the British for building the trans-Africa railway which he so admires; and also to ask an Indian if she does not hate the British for their cruelty and snobbery. The answers are typically nuanced, and can be summarised as "yeah but no but". The conclusion that the viewer is invited to draw is that the British Empire was in some senses a very good thing, and in other senses a rather horrible one. Not very exciting or ground-breaking; but perhaps in need of being said.
The late, great Bernard Levin coined the term "The Fallacy of the Altered Standpoint", to describe the difficulty of judging something - particularly a historical event or circumstance - free of the insidious prejudices imparted by subsequent events and subtle changes in social mores. This applies rather sharply to post-war attitudes concerning the British Empire, which have been conditioned by Britain's radically (and, in historical terms, rapidly) changed status. Perhaps the relatively balanced take espoused by Empire is a small sign that we are beginning to shake off our post-war, post-imperial shroud of self-denigration, and to view our historical selves both more kindly and objectively.
History is neither good not bad. It just is.