26 July 2020

Colonialism is central to Britain’s past – but it’s not the whole story


This is the CapX Weekly Briefing

Are those applying to become British citizens learning a false version of this country’s history?

That was the charge levelled this week by a group of academics, who wrote to the Home Office to complain that the Life In The UK test offers a rose-tinted version of Britain’s past, with fleeting and inaccurate references to colonialism and the slave trade.

Reading some of the extracts from the handbook, they do seem to have a point. The claim, for instance, that there was “for the most part, an orderly transition from Empire to Commonwealth” is stretching the historical record to breaking point, while the idea that slavery was illegal within Britain in the 18th century is tenuous at best.

There’s a separate question about the value of making would-be Britons pass what is essentially a poorly conceived pub quiz in order to gain citizenship – but if there is going to be a test it should at least be accurate.

Rather more contentious, however, is the idea that we owe our present day prosperity to that same legacy of colonialism and slavery.

Among the proponents of this view is University of Manchester historian Anindita Ghosh, who in an interview this week argued not only that Britain had “benefited tremendously and beyond measure from slavery and colonialism”, but that there “cannot be any debate” on that score. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, voiced a similar sentiment when he recently said that “much of our wealth was derived from the slave trade”.

That argument has a superficial appeal – after all, the legacy of colonialism is all around us in street names, buildings put up with slaving money and, of course, statues.  Khan’s remark, however, does not bear much scrutiny.  As Sam Ashworth-Hayes has noted even in its heyday slavery was not a particularly important part of the British economy. Though it massively enriched a small group of people, the overall impact on national wealth was relatively minor.

As for the empire, from Adam Smith to Marx, Cobden and Hobson there has been a long and lively scholarly debate as to just how much it really benefited Britain economically. Though colonialism undoubtedly involved industrial-scale pillage, the costs of administering such a large area were also substantial. The historian Patrick K O’Brien, for instance, has noted that “the majority of the English people cheerfully and even proudly shouldered a tax bill from an empire from which they derived very little in the form of tangible pecuniary gains”. Others have argued that in the latter decades of the 19th century Britain lost substantially from capital flowing overseas that could have been more profitably invested in the domestic economy.  Regardless of whose views you favour, to argue, as Professor Ghosh did, that there “cannot be any debate” on this issue appears at odds with the reality of her own field.

None of this is to offer an apologia for the many crimes of colonialism, or to deny its centrality to both British and world history. Nor is it to suggest that we should adopt some kind of ‘positive’ or ‘patriotic’ version of history which airbrushes out Britain’s flaws.

But it is to caution against an overly simplistic narrative about why Britain today is one of the world’s most prosperous countries. Education, the legal system, the embrace of free trade, military prowess and, yes, colonialism all had their part to play. To single out one factor is to underplay the complex interactions of the whole. And it’s eminently possible to acknowledge the evils of the past but still contend that this country and the ideas it has birthed have been a force for good in the world.

So, while the historians who complained to the Home Office are right that colonialism and slavery are part of the British story, let’s not pretend they are the whole story.

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John Ashmore is Editor of CapX