Stop saying sorry for our history: For too long our leaders have been crippled by a post-imperial cringe
2 August 2010
Next year marks the hundredth anniversary of one of the most extraordinary events in our history, the Delhi Durbar of 1911.
In the Indian capital’s vast Coronation Park, more than half a million people watched as every prince, nobleman and senior official in the subcontinent paid their respects to their new King-Emperor.
At that moment, resplendent in his coronation robes and wearing the diamond-studded, 34-ounce Imperial Crown of India, George V could never have imagined that one day a British prime minister would be talking of his ‘humility’ — not his pride — in Britain’s relationship with India. The King expected his chief ministers to stand up for their country, not to apologise for it.
Yet when David Cameron travelled from Istanbul to India this week, he came perilously close to resembling the Uriah Heep of international diplomacy, forever telling his hosts how very humble he was.
Surrounded by the relics of the greatest empire-builders in history, from the Romans and Byzantines to the Ottomans and the Mughals, he seemed oddly ill at ease, as though embarrassed by the thought that Britain once eclipsed them all.
But coming so soon after his description of our country as a mere ‘junior partner’ to the Americans — as well as his apparent ignorance that in 1940 we fought alone while they sat on their hands — you wonder whether Mr Cameron’s exaggerated humility is part of a deeper and disturbing pattern.
He did, after all, once call himself the ‘heir to Blair’ — a prime minister who never seemed happier than when grovelling in apology for Britain’s magnificent history.
What a contrast it is with another Conservative prime minister, who once remarked that he had ‘not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British empire’.
The date was 1942, the speaker — it should hardly need saying — was the great Winston Churchill.
‘I am proud,’ Churchill said, ‘to be a member of that vast Commonwealth and society of nations and communities gathered in and around the ancient British monarchy, without which the good cause might well have perished from the face of the earth.
‘Here we are, and here we stand, a veritable rock of salvation in this drifting world.’
Those words still have the power to evoke tears of pride. Yet it is no easier to imagine Mr Cameron saying them than it is to imagine him telling Brussels to clean up its corruption or telling the United States Senate where to stick its demagogic criticisms of BP.
Humble: David Cameron with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in New Delhi
Ever since the Sixties, politicians have found it easier to run down our country, and to criticise the largest and most prosperous empire the world has ever known, than to stand up for Britain. By and large, of course, historical apologies are meaningless.
Somehow it says it all that Tony Blair found it so easy to apologise for the Irish potato famine, an event that took place in the 1840s, but has never quite got round to apologising for sending British troops to war on an entirely false pretext.
But while there is nothing wrong with showing a little humility, apologising for our history is the last thing a prime minister should be doing — especially a Conservative one.
Yes, our past leaders made their fair share of mistakes. And yes, like every nation on the planet, we have more than a few unsightly skeletons rattling around our cupboard.
But Mr Cameron’s visit to India, of all places, should have reminded him that we have no cause for self-abasement.
When Left-wing intellectuals indulge their penchant for self-flagellation, they blind themselves to the realities of past and present.
Modern-day India, after all, is a success story built on sturdy Anglo-Saxon foundations. Now the world’s second-fastestgrowing economy, it would probably not even exist as a unified state were it not for the legacy of British rule.
It was the British, let us not forget, who outlawed Indian slavery, infanticide and the horrendous practice of suttee, whereby widows were burned to death on their husband’s funeral pyre.
It was the British, too, who introduced to India the rule of the common law, parliamentary democracy and, perhaps above all, the English language — the greatest asset for any country in today’s globalised marketplace.
Of course, British rule had blunders, cruelties and prejudices. And yet, by comparison with the other great empires, from the Romans and the Persians to the French, the Dutch and the Spanish, Britain’s empire stands out as a beacon of tolerance, decency and the rule of law.
Defiant: Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill was proud of Britain’s history
There is no episode in British history, for example, that looks anything like the appalling exploitation of the Belgian Congo, in which ten million Africans died to satisfy King Leopold II’s lust for rubber profits.
Nor did Britain countenance anything like the dreadful tortures committed in French Algeria — a genuinely shameful episode which the French still refuse to confront. It is no accident that in India, a mere 40,000 British officials governed a vast country of more than 200 million people.
The Raj survived not at the point of a bayonet, but thanks to the enthusiastic co-operation of thousands of ordinary Indians, who relished the order that their colonial partners had brought to a subcontinent torn apart by religious and ethnic conflict.
And it is no accident, either, that uniquely among the great world empires, British rule carried within it the seeds of its own dissolution. For quite apart from the roads and railways, the bridges and ports and institutions of law and order, Britain bequeathed a much more precious legacy to its colonies: the idea of liberty.
We often forget, for instance, that Gandhi was the beneficiary of British tolerance and a British education, studying law at University College London and training for the Bar in the imperial capital.
From Ghana to Malaysia, from Jamaica to Sri Lanka, the ideas that fuelled the independence movements were born and nurtured by the tradition of British liberty, going back to Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.
And while the critics are so quick to remind us how much Bristol and Liverpool profited from the slave trade, they are suspiciously slow to rejoice in the fact that more than any other people on earth, it was the British who brought that age-old exploitation of human beings to an end.
It was, after all, British Quakers who were the first to argue for slavery’s abolition in the 1780s. It was a great British politician, the Tory MP William Wilberforce, who secured the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. And it was the Royal Navy, proudly flying our country’s banner, that led the way in suppressing the trade, capturing more than 500 slave ships by 1866.
All of this, incidentally, unfolded while the Americans were not only slaughtering the Indian tribes on their Western frontier, but shipping millions of slaves to work on their cotton plantations — facts that our supposed ‘senior partners’ choose to forget when they are lecturing the world about their allegedly historic commitments to freedom and equality.
On top of all that, there has never been a case in history of an empire dissolving so swiftly, smoothly and — yes — peacefully as the British Empire did in the Fifties and Sixties.
True, there was bloodshed in Kenya, Cyprus, Malaya and elsewhere, with British forces often pitted against Communist insurgents; and as in any war, there were some dark moments.
It speaks volumes about the British imperial enterprise that there was no real equivalent of the U.S. slaughter in Vietnam, the atrocities in French Algeria, the murderous anarchy of the Belgian Congo or the protracted guerrilla fighting in Portuguese Angola and Mozambique.
But it was no accident that when Union Jacks were lowered in Asia and Africa, there was a feeling of friendship and goodwill.
The tragedy, though, is that instead of taking pride in their achievements, British politicians of the day recoiled from the simple patriotism that burned within their predecessors.
Instead of walking tall in the world, they seemed crippled by a pernicious post-imperial cringe.
In this context, David Cameron’s remark about being Washington’s ‘junior partner’ is depressingly characteristic of this cringe.
For since 1945, too many British statesmen have been content to trot meekly behind the incumbent of the Oval Office or to kowtow to the faceless bureaucrats of the European Union.
Of course, there have been honourable exceptions: Ernest Bevin, the pugnacious foreign secretary who insisted that instead of relying on an American nuclear deterrent, Britain had to have its own bomb ‘with a bloody Union Jack on top of it’; or Margaret Thatcher, who stood up for the freedom of the Falkland Islands and made sure that Ronald Reagan treated her as an [intellectual] equal, not a poodle.
Yet at a time when children are no longer taught to love their national story, when the majority of schoolchildren think Churchill is a dog from an insurance advert and when just one in ten students can name a single Victorian prime minister, somehow it is no surprise that our latest prime minister is so quick to slip on the familiar collar and leash.
The great irony — tragedy, even — of all this is that Britain is still a country to be hugely proud of. Yes, our nation’s finances are in a dreadful mess and, yes, we still struggle not only with poverty and ignorance, but with frighteningly high levels of unemployment, crime and family breakdown.
Yet Mr Cameron should have gone to India not in sackcloth and ashes, but glowing with pride that the country we have inherited from our ancestors is a sanctuary of decency and dynamism in an unstable and unhappy world.
For all our financial woes, after all, we remain the world’s sixth-biggest economy and one of its greatest trading nations. Although we tell ourselves that we no longer make anything, we are in fact the world’s tenth-biggest exporter.
Our mongrel [you mean West Germanic] language has become the planet’s lingua franca; our scientists and engineers, such as Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, have a worldclass reputation.
Our national sport has become the world’s favourite game; even our popular culture, from James Bond to J.K. Rowling, delights billions from Boston to Beijing.
We have no need to apologise for giving the world Shakespeare and Dickens, Newton and Darwin. Nor should we apologise for giving the world the idea of liberty, the rule of law, the benefits of order, the wonders of science, the joys of free speech and free trade.
We have spent too long cringing and fawning. We are nobody’s junior partner. And Mr Cameron could do worse than borrow from the greatest prime minister our country has ever produced.
‘Here we are,’ Churchill said, ‘and here we stand.’ They are words that echo through the decades and they remain just as resonant today as they were 70 years ago — when Britain stood alone and saved the world.