No one who watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II on Monday could fail to be moved by the sense of occasion, the precision with which everything was carried out and the genuine grief of so many, from the relatives and friends of the Royal Family to those who lined the streets of London and Windsor to pay their final respects.
It felt rather strange to put everything on hold for ten days, but it has not taken long for the period of national mourning to pass into history and the grim reality of our normal existence to return to the daily news. Indeed, many of us might soon be wishing that we could have mourned rather longer – ten years, perhaps, rather than ten days – so that we could continue with our avoidance of real life problems for a while yet.
Among many good books that I read over the summer, I particularly enjoyed Sathnam Sanghera’s ‘Empireland’, which provides a fascinating analysis of the benefits and the consequences of the period from approximately 1700 to 1950 when the British Empire waxed and waned across a quarter of the globe. I said last week that Queen Elizabeth referred to ‘our great imperial family’ when she ascended the throne in 1952, though this was probably one of the last times she used such a term in her public pronouncements.
Sanghera does not pull his punches. He says that our empire is one reason why we have a diaspora of millions of Britons spread around the world, it explains the global pretensions of our politicians and the feeling that we are exceptional and can go it alone when it comes to everything from Brexit to dealing with global pandemics. Empire helped to establish the position of the City of London as one of the world’s major financial centres, and ensures that the interests of finance trump the interests of so many other groups in the 21st century. It clarifies how some of our richest families, institutions and cities became wealthy, and explains what he calls our particular brand of racism, our distrust of cleverness and our propensity for jingoism.
In spite of the passionate feelings of those who would have us believe differently, the author makes the point more than once that imperialism is not something that can be erased with a few statues being torn down, a few institutions facing up to their dark pasts or a few accomplished individuals declining an OBE. It exists as a legacy in our very being and, more widely, explains nothing less than who we are as a nation – thereby charting a similar course to many of the pundits and experts who have been filling the gaps in the airwaves in recent days by trying to analyse where we are and where we might be going now that the stability of the last seventy years, the reign of a single monarch, has gone.
We all know from books and television programmes that the British Empire shaped the world, responsible for the international prevalence of everything from cricket to polo, football, racquet sports, snooker, English literature, the English language, the English style of dressing, driving on the left-hand side of the road, parliamentary politics, judges wearing wigs in court, the Anglican Church and the structures of contemporary international finance. It is also well known how empire is responsible for many of our intractable international disputes and crises.
The biggest argument of all, the author contends, is whether the British empire was good or bad. He makes it clear that the so-called ‘balance sheet’ view of history, with ‘colonial crimes’ such as the use of poison gas and the deaths of millions in famines being weighed against the supposed elimination of ‘native crimes’ such as sati, foot-binding, infanticide, slavery and cannibalism, is futile and misleading.
History, he says, and the people who made it are complicated. You cannot apply modern ethics to the past. To read history as a series of events that instil pride and shame, or a balance of rights and wrongs, is as inane as listing the events in your own life as good and bad. It provokes passionate opinions on all sides and cannot be reduced to a simple conclusion. As Simon Schama puts it, ‘History is argument.’ And so is interpreting what are the legacies of history. To say that anything happened at any particular time in history for any particular reason is almost always a matter of opinion, and there will always be someone out there arguing the opposite point.
The book does not hold back when it comes to addressing whether or not we are institutionally racist as a nation – the author concludes beyond doubt that we are. He says that imperial history is routinely omitted in every racial controversy Britain ever suffers, with governments failing to acknowledge centuries of slavery, exploitation, state racism, cultural connections and economic ties when facing up to everything from the murder of Stephen Lawrence to the Windrush scandal. The reason we are institutionally racist as a nation, we are told, is that our society grew out of the racist institution of the British Empire. It does not explain all our racial injustices, but you can hear the echoes of imperialism in the almost daily headlines highlighting racial injustice and inequality.
Sanghera is clear that it is easier, of course, to remember the abolition of the slave trade and the defeat of the Nazis, and sometimes even the success of multiculturalism and our history of anti-racism and the social justice campaigns it inspired, but the point must be made that the British also dominated the slave trade for a significant period, ran one of the biggest white supremacist enterprises in the history of humanity and dabbled in genocide, the stain of which has seeped into many aspects of our contemporary culture, from the jobs market to the sinister re-emergence of violent right-wing extremism.
British politics is shaped and defined by a profound sense of being special, but the idea that we are different from everyone else extends deeper into our culture and psychology. There is a popular view that Shakespeare is the best writer any country has ever had, that we have the best pop music and the most beautiful countryside and that we alone defeated evil into the twentieth century. While those in Germany, France and the US believe that America’s efforts contributed most to the Allied victory in Europe, the British see themselves as key, seeing the Second World War as a time when we ‘stood alone’ against Hitler.
As the former British Museum Director Neil MacGregor once put it: ‘What is very remarkable about German history as a whole is that the Germans use their history to think about the future, where the British tend to use their history to comfort themselves.’ There was undoubtedly much of which our country could be justifiably proud in the last few days; but the mourning and the funeral itself were in effect a period of national self-comforting as we secured the continuity of our monarchy, praised the strength of our traditions and enjoyed our fleetingly temporary role at the centre of world affairs. However, despite all of the effort that went into everything, it remains to be seen how much help this will all be in the coming years as we face up to the enormity of the challenges ahead.