Posts Tagged ‘Mau Mau’

Why Did British Public Opinion Turn Against the Empire?

August 10, 2022

The British empire and its history is once again the topic of intense controversy with claims that its responsible for racism, the continuing poverty and lack of development of Commonwealth nations and calls for the decolonisation of British museums and the educational curriculum. On the internet news page just this morning is a report that Tom Daley has claimed that homophobia is a legacy of the British empire. He has a point, as when the British government was reforming the Jamaican legal code in the late 19th century, one of the clauses they inserted criminalised homosexuality.,

In fact this is just the latest wave of controversy and debate over the empire and its legacy. There were similar debates in the ’90s and in the early years of this century. And the right regularly laments popular hostility to British imperialism. For right-wing commenters like Niall Ferguson and the Black American Conservative economist Thomas Sowell, British imperialism also had positive benefits in spreading democracy, property rights, properly administered law and modern technology and industrial organisation around the world. These are fair points, and it must be said that neither of these two writers ignore the fact that terrible atrocities were committed under British imperialism either. Sowell states that the enforced labour imposed on indigenous Africans was bitterly resented and that casualties among African porters could be extremely high.

But I got the impression that at the level of the Heil, there’s a nostalgia for the empire as something deeply integral to British identity and that hostility or indifference to it counts as a serious lack of patriotism.

But what did turn popular British opinion against the empire, after generations when official attitudes, education and the popular media held it up as something of which Britons should be immensely proud, as extolled in music hall songs, holidays like Empire Day and books like The Baby Patriot’s ABC, looked through a few years ago by one of the Dimblebys on a history programme a few years ago.

T.O. Lloyd in his academic history book, Empire to Welfare State, connects it to a general feeling of self hatred in the early 1970s, directed not just against the empire, but also against businessmen and politicians:

”Further to the left, opinion was even less tolerant; when Heath in 1973 referred to some exploits of adroit businessmen in avoiding tax as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, the phase was taken up and repeated as though he had intended it to apply to the whole of capitalism, which was certainly not what he meant.

‘Perhaps it was surprising that his remark attracted so much attention, for it was not a period in which politicians received much respect. Allowing for the demands of caricature, a good deal of the public mood was caught by the cartoons of Gerald Scarfe, who drew in a style of brilliant distortion which made it impossible to speak well of anyone. The hatred of all men holding authority that was to be seen in his work enabled him to hold up a mirror to his times, and the current of self hatred that ran so close to the surface also matched an important part of his readers’ feelings. Politicians were blamed for not bringing peace, prosperity, and happiness, even though they probably had at this time less power – because of the weakness of the British economy and the relative decline in Britain’s international position – to bring peace and prosperity than they had had earlier in the century; blaming them for this did no good, and made people happier only in the shortest of short runs.

‘A civil was in Nigeria illustrated a good many features of British life, including a hostility to the British Empire which might have made sense while the struggle for colonial freedom was going on but, after decolonization had taken place so quickly and so amicably, felt rather as though people needed something to hate.’ (pp. 420-1).

The Conservative academic historian, Jeremy Black, laments that the positive aspects of British imperialism has been lost in his book The British Empire: A History and a Debate (Farnham: Ashgate 2015):

‘Thus, the multi-faceted nature of the British imperial past and its impact has been largely lost. This was a multi-faceted nature that contributed to the pluralistic character of the empire. Instead, a politics of rejection ensures that the imperial past serves for themes and images as part of an empowerment through real, remembered, or, sometimes, constructed grievance. This approach provides not only the recovery of terrible episodes, but also ready reflexes of anger and newsworthy copy, as with the harsh treatment of rebels, rebel sympathisers , and innocent bystanders in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, an issue that took on new energy as demands for compensation were fuelled by revelations of harsh British policy from 2011’. (p. 235).

He also states that there’s a feeling in Britain that the empire, and now the Commonwealth, are largely irrelevant:

‘Similarly, there has been a significant change in tone and content in the discussion of the imperial past in Britain. A sense of irrelevance was captured in the Al Stewart song ‘On the Border’ (1976).

‘On my wall the colours of the map are running

From Africa the winds they talk of changes of coming

In the islands where I grew up

Noting seems the same

It’s just the patterns that remain

An empty shell.’

For most of the public, the Commonwealth has followed the empire into irrelevance. the patriotic glow that accompanied and followed the Falklands War in 1982, a war fought to regain a part of the empire inhabited by settlers of British descent, was essentially nationalistic, not imperial. This glow was not matched for the most recent, and very different, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have led to a marked disinclination for further expeditionary warfare’. (pp. 421-2).

In fact the whole of the last chapter of Black’s book is about changing attitudes to the empire and the imperial past, which Black feels has been distorted. The British empire is seen through the lens of atrocities, although its rule was less harsh than the Germans or Italians. In India the view is coloured by the Amritsar massacre and ignores the long periods of peace imposed by British rule in India. He also notes that the cultural and international dominance of America has also affected British ideas of exceptionalism, distinctiveness and pride, and that interest in America has superseded interest in the other countries of the former empire.

Attitudes to the empire have also changed as Britain has become more multicultural., and states that ‘increasingly multicultural Britain sees myriad tensions and alliance in which place, ethnicity, religion, class and other factors both class and coexist. This is not an easy background for a positive depiction of the imperial past’ (p. 239). He also mentions the Parekh Report of the Commission on the Future Multi-Ethnic Britain, which ‘pressed for a sense of heritage adapted to the views of recent immigrants. This aspect of the report’ he writes, ‘very much attracted comment. At times, the consequences were somewhat fanciful and there was disproportionate emphasis both on a multi-ethnic legacy and on a positive account of it’. (p. 239). Hence the concern to rename monuments and streets connected with the imperial past, as well as making museums and other parts of the heritage sector more accessible to Black and Asians visitors and representative of their experience.

I wonder how far this lack of interest in the Commonwealth goes, at least in the immediate present following the Commonwealth games. There’s talk on the Beeb and elsewhere that it has inspired a new interest and optimism about it. And my guess is that much of popular hostility to the empire probably comes from the sympathy from parts of the British public for the various independence movements and horror at the brutality with which the government attempted to suppress some of them,, like the Mau Mau in Kenya. But it also seems to me that a powerful influence has also been the psychological link between its dissolution and general British decline, and its replacement in British popular consciousness by America. And Black and Asian immigration has also played a role. I’ve a very strong impression that some anti-imperial sentiment comes from the battles against real racism in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the Fascist organisations that founded the National Front in the 1960s was the League of Empire Loyalists.

This popular critique on British imperialism was a part of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip in 2000AD. This was about a future in which Earth had become the centre of a brutally racist, genocidal galactic empire ruled by a quasi-religious order, the Terminators. They, and their leader, Torquemada, were based on the writer’s own experience as a pupil of an abusive teacher at a Roman Catholic school. The Terminators wore armour, and the title of their leader, grand master, recalls the crusading orders like the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages. One of the stories mentions a book, published by the Terminators to justify their cleansing of the galaxy’s aliens, Our Empire Story. Which is the title of a real book that glamorised the British empire. Elsewhere the strip described Torquemada as ‘the supreme Fascist’ and there were explicit comparisons and links between him, Hitler, extreme right-wing Tory politicos like Enoch Powell, and US generals responsible for the atrocities against the Amerindians. It’s a good question whether strips like ‘Nemesis’ shape public opinion or simply follow it. I think they may well do a bit of both.

But it seems to me that, rather than being a recent phenomenon, a popular hostility to the British empire has been around since the 1970s and that recent, radical attacks on imperial history and its legacy are in many cases simply an extension of this, rather than anything completely new.