To be “proud of empire” as Matthew Parris declares he is in The Times today is frankly astonishing and one would not expect such a remark from someone usually as sensitive as Parris. As his article has not even a modicum of balance – to say the Empire’s “motives were mixed” is almost laughable in its insouciance – it’s up to us readers to tell him what offensive bunkum he’s peddling.
If you believe in Empire you believe that it is right for a nation and it’s citizens to travel to another place, sequester its land and subjugate its people. There are no ifs and buts about this – that is what you believe. Further you believe it’s right that you introduce a system of government that concentrates power in the hands of the conquerors, along with their culture and even religion.
If you believe in Empire you do not believe in the rights of man, what you believe in the rightness of power. The collateral damage of your power – spreading diseases and destroying First Nation cultures and way of life – you shrug about. And if you find, as mostly was the case, that your sequestered land has value you exploit that value by theft. Whatever the riches are you mine them greedily and enrich yourself and those who enabled you to commit the larceny.
Then there is the value of the human assets that your imperialism discovers. You don’t have to go the whole hog of colonisation in order to capture people and ship them to one of your other possessions to work as slaves. Slavery and later indentured Labour was a direct consequence of imperialism – indeed they drove it.
In the Empire there was a racist hierarchy which placed white Britons unequivocally at the top. The native peoples were just a factor of production – the workers that avoided the necessity for the white man to do any physical work themselves. And the smarter of your subjugated peoples could help you with the administration of your illegally acquired assets – so long as they spoke English and conformed to your norms of dress and behaviour of course.
To exploit assets – physical and human – you do need infrastructure. Railways and roads (etc.) need to be built but let’s be clear. We are not in “What did the English do for us?” territory here – it was what the English did for themselves. Every imperial action was for the benefit of the imperialists even though there may have been some consequential benefits for the local people. Far too high a price to pay for subjugation surely.
That the Dutch and the Spanish and the Portuguese and even the French were at the same game as the Brits is irrelevant. You don’t justify having a criminal gang by saying there’s another one up the road.
We need to come clean about the past not indulge in flag waving about it. We need, as Susan Neimann called it in her book, to “Learn from the Germans”. You cannot unravel the past but you can reveal the truth about it and be contrite. Imperial symbols matter and if they “honour” slavers you do need to consider whether they should still stand in modern times.
Matthew Parris and other modern day apologists for Empire are indulging in the defence of the indefensible – I’m surprised that Parris chooses to do this.