15 February 2021

We need to talk about the British Empire


Scotland’s reward for a rare rugby victory over England at Twickenham last weekend was the Calcutta Cup, an object with an interesting history. The English and Scots had played rugby – twenty a side – in India on Christmas Day in 1873, but the Calcutta Rugby Club could not compete with association football or cricket. A few years later, it disbanded, with the 272 silver rupees in the club coffers melted down and transformed by Indian craftsmen into an ornate trophy with an elephant on top. It was intended to become club rugby’s FA Cup, but the governing body decided that England should play Scotland annually for the trophy instead.

Welcome to Empireland – where the legacies of Empire are everywhere, under our noses yet often unobserved. A new book by Sathnam Sanghera makes the case that we are yet to grapple with what that means for the society that we are today. The book asks the right questions – and looks in the right places for some answers. That is an advance on the disappointment of Jeremy Paxman’s lavish five-part primetime BBC television series on Empire a decade ago, as the great inquisitor took a globe-trotting tour across India, Egypt and Palestine. The idea of seeking the legacies of Empire here – not just ‘over there’ – never seemed to stretch beyond the splendid ceilings of the Foreign Office.

Yet almost all of us are products of the British Empire: some, perhaps, more obviously than others. I was born British, in a Doncaster hospital, some 4,000 miles from my father’s birthplace in Gujarat, India. And yet in 1944, four years before Indian independence, he had been born a British subject too, before becoming a citizen of the Indian Republic as a young child, and a British citizen again over here a few decades later.

Sathnam Sanghera’s Punjabi Wolverhampton upbringing saw him start school without speaking English, before graduating with a first in English from Cambridge. A thoughtful, incisive chronicler of the British Sikh experience, and much else besides, his motive for writing Empireland arises partly from embarrassment at not having fully interrogated the history of Empire that explains his life. Sanghera has certainly done the reading since. This slim, well-paced volume, always conscious of a desire to attempt a conversation with the general reader, still comes with a 60-page bibliography. He offers an accessible guide to many big controversies – how the Empire changed the English language, altered the meaning of racism, or how museums start to think about claims and counter-claims about contested collections – that merit whole books in themselves.

Indeed, Sanghera acknowledges that the topic is almost unmanageably big. There was not a British Empire, as such, but many British Empires, taking different forms in different times and places. The arrivals today from Hong Kong of British nationals reminds us that the British were still solemnly lowering flags as late as 1997, but how many of us could give a confident account of how we acquired it in the first place?

One irony is that all of this reading and thinking about Empire could distance the author from his broadly uninitiated audience. What do most people know about Empire? Next to nothing – except that we had one, that it was big, that India and some of Africa were in it, and that it is over now. Would any names from Empire – except Gandhi, Queen Victoria and Churchill, and maybe Cecil Rhodes too – be recognisable to most of the public now? Most people outside Bristol heard the name of Edward Colston for the first time when his statue went into the docks last year. 1857 does not rank with 1066 or 1945, or indeed 1966, as a year whose significance immediately jumps out. Yet knowing what the East India Company did is crucial to spotting how our post-imperial amnesia is related to the narrative of its almost accidental acquisition.

Sanghera makes one of his main points in a long footnote. He has many reasons to be grateful to be British, while regarding the persistent social media demands to demonstrate it as a prejudiced proof that some struggle to accept his equal status, and the democratic freedom to choose whether to praise or criticise. His central prescription is that “more knowledge of Empire” could change that dynamic for the better. Would it? That may depend on how we go about it.

“We are here because you were there” has a good claim to be a historical fact. Yet, if intended as a normative argument, its logic tends to unravel. Do the wrongs of Empire generate rights? Casting post-war migration as a post-imperial form of revenge, retribution or even reparation rests on rather shaky “them and us” foundations, and it’s unhelpful if what we want to develop is a shared sense of the new “us” in today’s multi-ethnic Britain.  Another legacy of Empire is how migrants and ethnic minorities from a Commonwealth background insisted on staking an earlier, stronger and more confident claim to British identity than almost any other so-called ‘migrant communities’ across Europe. That began some decades before German-born Turks, invited as guest-workers but ending up staying on, could establish their claim to be German. The post-imperial identities of minorities in France, Belgium or the Netherlands have had their own distinct national dynamics too.

Imagine that you could push an imaginary button, so that the British Empire had never existed. Would, or should, you press it? Reader, I confess that I could not. Ignoble as it may seem to intuitively act from self interest, I could hardly choose to write myself out of existence. And yet it seems futile to spend too long interrogating the various Rawlsian or utilitarian arguments that might be put on the other side of the argument: none of you will ever be granted access to such a button either. Sanghera goes so far as to suggest that he has written the book in an effort to “decolonise myself” – yet that seems in tension with the central thesis of Empireland, that extracting the egg from the baked cake would be a quixotic and futile quest now.

Could this be a clue about how we have the conversation about Empire that we need? We are all products of this past. You do not need to have parents from the Commonwealth to be steeped in the legacies of Empire, as anybody who lives in Liverpool or Bristol, Glasgow or London would recognise. It is true that none of us is personally responsible for the events and activities of our varied ancestors. But it may be worth taking care, if disowning any possible connection to events that happened before you were born, to check if you are content to sever any sense of identification with Shakespeare or winning World War Two as well (and end up accidentally rejecting the notion of a national community at all).

As David Olusoga argued during Black History Month last year, calls to “decolonise the curriculum” can both misfire and miss the point, if that point is to restore the centrality of the Empire, and its unravelling, to our understanding of modern Britain, in a way that writes all of our stories into this complex, contested history. So an appeal to white liberal guilt about the fact of Empire can feel unproductive in this century too. None of us can change the past now.

What we do share now is a responsibility for how we choose to live with our past today. That includes what we try to remember or forget about it, how new generations are taught about it, and how we relate to others who were involved. That is how we will decide how far the story we tell ourselves – about how we, the British, became us, the people that we are today – is open to hearing and telling all of our stories about how we got here. This Empireland will find it unavoidable to talk more about Empire. It will help if we can be clearer about what we intend that conversation about Empire to achieve.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.