THE BLOG

British History Requires Us to Be Ignorant Above All Else

21/09/2015 11:43 | Updated 19 September 2016

Ignorance is an essential part of a national identity of false victimhood and absurd superiority.

Whether it be the exporting of penal codes to the empire that criminalised homosexuality, an entire social establishment invested (monetarily as well as morally) in the trade of human beings, or countless attempted destructions of language and culture (notably of Ireland), a significant proportion of Britons must either be unaware of these shameful abuses or simply take them to be acceptable. If it's the latter, it's about time these people simply admitted it.

But the problem is that there is a central contradiction in British identities (emphasis on the plural), as well as European identities. If there is a collectivising sense of ourselves it is as a 'civilised' group, apparently remarkable for our humanity as well as our prosperity. This often translates directly into racist, Eurocentric slurs, but more often it is peddled in subliminal references in public discourse to us, 'the civilised world'. The unspoken implication being that there exists an 'uncivilised' world, which denotes everybody else.

To reconcile the disgraces of our history with our desperate need for moral self-affirmation, we have repressed that which is irreconcilable - exploitation and moral supremacy - and replaced it with mythology.

Those who air their supremacist views openly are roundly (and rightly) condemned as fascists with no place in our society. But they merely express a latent view which manifests in other, more socially acceptable, ways.

This is the perspective which sees Britons as benevolent, donating aid to less wealthy countries, despite being part of a political and trade alliance (the EU) which bans many of these countries from exporting their goods to our market. Yet when China wanted to insulate itself from British opium exports in the nineteenth century, it was absolutely Britain's right to be able to trade with whosoever it pleased. Mass bloodshed would prove that point. It was much the same with America which forced Japan to open itself up to American goods at canon-point.

And still we are exposed to the British philanthropic myth. Recent talk of refugees has us self-aggrandising about our kindness and generosity in the '70's when we welcomed exiled Ugandan Asians.

What the narrative excludes is that Britain was the first country to recognise Amin's military junta when it overthrew the elected government earlier in that same year. By July, Amin was undertaking ethnic cleansing of Langi and Acholi communities in the North, with mass slaughter of those not loyal to the regime.

Britain's support for Amin wasn't for the betterment of most Ugandans, but because Milton Obote's first government threatened to nationalise British-'owned' commodities businesses. The Obote government also criticised the British for their arms sales to apartheid South Africa, and increasingly allied itself with Arab states during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Amin, though initially a loose ally of Israel, would go on to do the same.

This is not to mention the pernicious and destructive impact of British colonisation from which Amin derived. The history of Britain's relations with Uganda is so often erroneously reduced to the expulsion of Ugandan Asians by Idi Amin in August 1972.

And what of our Irish neighbours? Of course, we are just the victims of a Republican movement which manifested in the loss of British lives, that's all. But did we not attempt to outlaw the use of the Irish language and culture on pain of death? Did we not refuse to give food during the famine, when the whole of Ireland was (reluctantly) part of the Union anyway, and we had a food surplus? Did we not say that we should not help the countless starving and destitute because that would be rewarding failure? Of course not. Some things, for the sake of national identity, are not allowed to be true.

We hear about those with moral objections to slavery: Coleridge, Pope. But our overwhelming history is distracted from: in 1720, the royal family, 462 MP's, 100 lords, Isaac Newton, Jonathan Swift, and Pope himself, and vast swathes of the population were slavers, many invested in the South Sea Company and others.

The £20m compensation paid to slave-owners (equivalent to £1bn in today's money) and the vast sums gained through the trade, still forms the basis of our prosperity today. The Gladstone family - of prime minister-fame - being one of the most prominent beneficiaries.

James Thomson's telling words, 'Britons never, never, never shall be slaves,' displays his telling awareness of the disgraceful suffering that we inflicted (and continue to inflict) on others - and our express desire not to face the same fate.

So wave a union flag to the jolly good tune, glorify the enslavement of Africans and the oppression of countless others, and celebrate our collective ability to be at once supreme and victim.

But know that this is a choice between narratives and not the undeniable truth.

If the above is wounding, it is less than a pinprick of what we collective responsibility to acknowledge and offer reparations for.

But the problem is that all of this and much more is so easily imagined away, and so it is.