Britain Has Never Faced Up to the Shame of Empire

Nearly half of Brits think we should be proud of our colonial heritage.

Ministers have had a tough time working out who Britain’s new trading partners will be after it leaves the EU. At one point it was reported that the British government was hoping to reach out to countries that were once part of the British Empire. The idea is that, now the blood has dried and the dust from the cannonballs settled, the nations of the Commonwealth will be only too happy to jump into a vigorous new age of trade with their former colonial master. Some civil servants doubted this, dubbing the government’s plans “Empire 2.0”.

These imperial crimes – and many more – are either not known or glossed over, lost in the tide of colonial nostalgia and the fog of ignorance.

On the same morning these plans for a colonialism reboot were announced, I spoke to Shashi Tharoor, an Indian MP and the author of a new book, Inglorious Empire. The book details the enormous economic damage done to India by the Empire, takes apart the hypocritical notion that some of what the British did in India was for “the good of India”, and calls for an end to the monumental ignorance surrounding the subject.

Tharoor laughs when I ask him about Empire 2.0: “Well, Empire 1.0 was a bad idea, to put it mildly. Why would you want a second version?” And yet, to listen to several leading members of the British government and to the fantasies of Britain’s great importance conjured up during the Brexit campaign, a second version of the empire is exactly what a lot of people want.

It’s understandable, in a way. Once upon a time, the sun never set on the lands Britain controlled. Those nostalgic for empire still dream of having the union flag ironed by a Nigerian servant, or getting an Indian boy to make them a nice, cool G&T. Read More