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Myriam Francois-Cerrah

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Get Over Colonial Guilt? Not So Fast Mr Hague

Posted: 09/09/2012 14:24

In a recent interview with the Evening Standard, William Hague argued that Britain needs to get ‎over its feelings of "post-colonial guilt", stating that we have a "new and equal partnership" with ‎countries unburdened by our colonial past history. Apparently we all need to 'relax', because ‎Britain's empire history is "no longer an issue for the rest of the world." Is that so? In what world ‎do the populations of former colonies, British or otherwise, no longer consider the lasting ‎consequences of decades of exploitation and oppression "no longer an issue." ‎

Presumably, all that post-colonial guilt was washed away with Jeremy Paxman's incondite effort to ‎portray colonial administrators as benevolent public schoolboys on a mission to improve healthcare ‎and education for the darker folk, in his very establishment series "Empire". Owen-Jones has ‎already covered why speaking of 'getting over' our 'post-colonial guilt' is farcical, but to suggest ‎that the UK has an equal relationship with its former colonies is no less bombastic. ‎

There is plenty of inequality in our partnerships with our former colonies. For a start, most of our ‎former colonies remain, as they were under British rule, essentially our larder. They primarily ‎export raw materials, leaving them open to the vagaries of market fluctuations and often depriving ‎local populations from farming crops more useful to their immediate subsistence needs. ‎

As in the colonial era, our former colonies provide us with cheap labour, a destination for obsolete ‎technology, and markets for our goods, in return our large corporations, many of which were ‎established during the colonial period, or periods of dictatorial rule which ensued, have ‎maintained a convenient interface in the form of a small, wealthy local elite, whose economic ‎interests are tied to our own and ensure the perennity of those interests through economic ‎deregulation, underhand deals and at times, even brute force. ‎

Once in a while those sequels, which apparently are not, rear their head in the form of a local ‎protest, typically presented as incensed locals burning or smashing things for reasons left ‎unexplained. In July this year, luxury liner P&O Cruises sacked 150 Indian waiters for protesting ‎wages as low as 75 pence per hour. Uganda, another of our former colonies and one of the most ‎corrupt countries in the world, has been rocked by a series of demonstrations over surging ‎commodity prices -- particularly petroleum, while in July, the country's prime minister, internal ‎affairs minister and foreign minister were all accused of taking money from Tullow Oil, a British ‎company scheduled to complete a $2.9 billion deal to produce Uganda's oil. ‎

And what about India, the 'largest democracy in the world", where a report by the Center for ‎Human Rights and Global Justice found that in 2009 alone, 17,638 farmers committed suicide--one ‎every 30 minutes - as a result of foreign multinational corporations, neoliberalism and cycles of ‎debt. You might argue this has nothing to do with colonialism, or even Britain today, until you ‎realise that the acute poverty facing millions of Indians today was not an inevitable state of affairs. ‎Britain left India's economy in a state of utter disarray - at independence, it was one of the poorest ‎in the world, with an agricultural system designed for exports, not to feed its growing population. ‎The consequences of the tracks laid by colonial administrators have far from disappeared. Without ‎discounting the incompetence and corruption of subsequent leaders, to suggest colonialism is ‎forgotten in India is insulting to those struggling with its enduring effects. According to Indian ‎author and activist Arundhati Roy, "India has more malnourished children than anywhere else in ‎the world, and more poor people in eight of its states than 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put ‎together." ‎

Mr Hague would do well to explain in what way we have an 'equal' relationship with Nigeria, ‎another former colony and a country in which British companies reap bountiful profits off the oil ‎and gas industry whilst most of the population languishes in increasing levels of poverty. According ‎to the National Bureau of Statistics, almost 61% of Nigerians in 2010 were living in "absolute ‎poverty", a rise from 54.7% in 2004. According to the report, Nigerians consider themselves to be ‎getting poorer, despite the Nigerian economy being amongst the fastest growing globally, the bulk ‎of the wealth accruing to foreign companies many of them British.‎

‎The very creation of Nigeria was motivated by the economics of extraction, and nothing there has ‎changed much. With or without formal 'independence' from colonial masters, the pleas of local ‎communities, protesting the impacts of oil production on their land, livelihood and rights, have ‎been not simply ignored but brutally repressed often through a collaboration of the military with oil ‎companies including the part-British owned company Shell. US cables, released by WikiLeaks in ‎‎2010, allege that the company paid hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the deployment of ‎‎350 soldiers in the delta in 2003 and allegations that the police, the air force, the army are paid for ‎with Shell money suggests a worrying complicity in furthering the private company's interests ‎through using state instruments.‎

I don't know what Mr Hague considers to be 'equal', but by any standard the vast enrichment of ‎one partner at the expense of another's wellbeing is surely oxymoronic. ‎

While nationals of former colonies are of course expected to follow the rule of law within Britain, ‎British companies have been complicit in corruption scandals, preventable ecological disasters, ‎ruthless repression and tax avoidance which deprive local people from billions of dollars accrued ‎from the sale of their natural resources. In many former colonies , British economic interests have ‎trumped the basic rights of citizens and belying the very values promoted as at the core of our ‎democracies.‎
If Britain truly had an equal relationship with its former colonies, it would not view the rights of ‎their citizens as any less critical than those of British citizens. It wouldn't sign profoundly unequal ‎trade agreements deeply skewed in our favour and that of multinational companies and which ‎threaten the health of millions of people by depriving them of basic medicines to treat diseases, ‎like tuberculosis, which have virtually been eradicated in our own country. In other words, it ‎wouldn't exploit countries already reeling from the legacy of our colonial rule.‎

What's more, the legacy of a culture in which 'white is best' continues to impact the lives of ‎ordinary people in our former colonies. From skin whitening products which promise to resolve ‎marital woes by lightening women's genitalia through to enduring class structures, forged through ‎an imitation of the coloniser and which places English and all things British above the culture of ‎indigenous people, the impact of colonialism is not such a distant memory for those living with its ‎daily implications. ‎

‎Today, imperial colonialism has been replaced by corporate colonialism and in this, Britain is still a ‎leading player. Rather than underplaying our role in the exploitation of other nations, we must ‎recognise its persistence in new, insidious forms, harder to detect through the ‎veneer of 'democracy', which serves to place the blame for the pauperisation of populations on ‎elected leaders, rather than in an unjust global economic system, into which former colonies were inserted during the colonial era.

 

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