Britain, Great?

This summer has been characterised by big ceremony, applause and cheers in the name of team GB. Many go further to say it is a moment they are proud to be British. Of course, it doesn’t take too much stretching of the imagination to think of something positive about the UK, and frankly, to feel a sense of relief that we’re lucky to be living here. If we are to dwell on the problems and turmoil that faces other parts of the world we always have the option of diverting our attention to the Jeremy Kyle show and considering more domestic issues. Enjoying the Olympics and Paralympics being in London, with the historic ties the nation has to sport, is inspiring. We are happy to live in and to be part of a tolerant, comfortable society.

How about a sense of pride? The adjective ‘great’ has become a tagline, branding our nation’s latest poster campaign. This has struck me as a slightly different sentiment to other national tourist campaigns I have seen. It seems to be implying ours is an exceptional nation, a cut above the others. A Great Britain, as opposed to a humble, plain old Britain. When we think about it, how many nations have that kind of adjective included in their name? The United Kingdom of Great Britain and (plain) Northern Ireland. Is what is implied true? And, if so, where do we see this greatness as originating from?

For some, British pride is narrowly distinguished from a smugness embedded in our culture that neglects shame that ought to be expressed over colonialism. Last week a highly cogent point was raised by Independent Columnist Owen Jones, in response to Foreign Secretary Iain Duncan Smith’s claim that it is time to move on from feeling guilty over Britain’s colonial past. With dark cynicism, Owen Jones writes, ‘Remember all that national soul-searching and self-flagellation over Empire and all the horrors committed in its name? No, me neither.’ The bizarre and chilling fact is that in wider popular culture, and in my time studying history throughout school, the impact of Empire on the British colonies has rarely been a point of discussion, bar one mentioning of Indian contingents who fought and died as part of the Empire during World War One. It was my own background as a British Asian, and my interest in history more broadly, that lead me to look beyond the my teaching at school. The syllabus was composed of the following: the Tudor dynasty, the campaign for female suffrage, World War 1 and World War 2. Of other countries I learned about the powerful ones: America in the Cold War, Nazi Germany, the Russian Revolution and the Civil Rights Movement. I really got a sense of the might of Western powers and their complex relations and was inspired by stories of the courage and determination of ordinary British women and black Americans fighting for rights. Like a well-written story, whatever the strife, order was eventually restored to a reasonably happy ending. Other than the Holocaust, I cannot recall anything establishing a sense of guilt: only victory was the focus.

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At university level, if you chose to, you could look into the massacre, famine, disease and cultural suppression that scarred so many native peoples as a result of British colonial activity. Take America, whose story did not begin in 1492 with Columbus, but far earlier than that, perhaps 12000 BC. Sixteenth century Europeans seeking to claim the West coast was not a mere conquest of uninhabited lands, ripe for the taking. Native tribes inhabited them, with their own customs and ways of living. The British, and of course the Dutch, Spanish, French and other European powers would permanently make their mark on Native American peoples through conflict and spreading disease (sometimes with deliberate intent) that would eradicate thousands. And India provided another source of plenty. Slave labour and the transatlantic slave trade, whether or not we can deem these British inventions, played a major role in propelling Britain to its great heights and making our nation very rich. And the fact that Britain abolished slavery first, an argument sometimes used to make our involvement more palatable, cannot be said to undo history.

To start again or say we’ve moved on would only be possible in a world where all peoples have a fair and equal platform upon which to be judged, something Utopian that is not even achieved in the Olympics, owing to the various circumstances of nations and their funding of sport. Britain was innovative yes, but its success had much to do with its possession of an Empire. We are products of the Empire’s political and economic activity, which also had a tremendous cultural legacy: world business is conducted in the English language, not because it was agreed to be easy or better to do so for everyone, but because of cultural imperialism. The balance of power and the relative distribution of wealth in the world owe a lot to the age of Empire. And the dislocation of so many peoples, and their sense of loss at the hands of British rule cannot be denied. 

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The world has new standards agreed upon now, and growing up after decolonisation it is hard to imagine the brutality of the recent past, nor the scale of the British Empire as the largest in history. This should not prevent us from thinking about its impact as the less we do, the more we may hide under a veil of greatness, a highly unthinking, undemocratic stance that does not bode well for future progress. Britain created some horrible history, but if we are as progressive and great as we’d like to think, ought we as a nation to acknowledge the very nature of the past upon which the present is built, warts and all?