I spend a fair bit of my retirement reading history and biography ( both of which we , as a nation, do rather well). I also travel fairly widely (or did until last year’s hiatus) – and not just to beach resorts. I haven’t in my seventies decided I need to pass more exams – it’s just that I realised how much I didn’t know, not least about my own country. And I’ve come to an uncomfortable conclusion – most of Britain’s history sucks.
Now I’m not trying to create a league table of awfulness here, though if I did Britain would be pretty close to the top of it. A position we are honourably maintaining today helped by tendentious polemics like Mr Liddle’s latest rant here in today’s Sunday Times. Empire had little if anything that was commendable about it seen from the perspective of today. Whether we apologise for it is a fair question but far more important is to learn.
A book that has really made me think is that by Susan Neiman called “Learning from the Germans” an American academic at Berlin University. Her position is to contrast how badly America has been at confronting her recent past compared with post war Germany. It took a while, but the Germans in modern times pull no punches in confronting their hideous first half of the twentieth century history. Very often the facts speak for themselves as visits to Berchtesgaden in Bavaria or the Holocaust museum or German Historical Museum in Berlin will show you. Only very slowly is America confronting slavery and institutionalised racism in a similar way.
If America has been slow in “learning from the Germans” Britain has hardly bothered. We have no “Museum of the British Empire” and the teaching of our imperial history in schools is patchy at best. On the contrary all too many of us are ignorant, flag-waving apologists for an Empire on which the sun never set. And which was responsible for unspeakable atrocities.
Very recently the Bristol statue affair and the closely linked but belated recognition of the fact that “black lives matter” has helped raise our awareness – but frankly they scratch the surface. Take the Boer War as an example. This comparatively recent event (my Grandma remembered it) has almost disappeared from our consciousness. And yet white Britons treated white Afrikaners as if they were sub-human. The innovation of concentration camps in which thousands died was uniquely British.
Amritsar was another event of recent memory which added an extra layer of murderous horror to British history. Even (just) in my own lifetime the imperial arrogance of we Brits killed a million or more in the botched partition of India and later still in the period before withdrawal from Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya.
Dig deep and you can find out about our imperial history and there have been some successful attempts to tell it in popular culture – Jeremy Paxman’s TV Series “Empire” was excellent. But in the main we just don’t bother and when we do we get accused by the likes of Mr Liddle of being “Anti history”. The reverse is the case. We are very much “Pro history” because those who refuse to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. The Germans have learned, America is slowly learning. High time we did the same.