When I was at school I had a somewhat interesting history teacher. Most people I’ve met through my life seem to look at Britain’s entry into the Second World War as something almost altruistic. ‘Oh, we did it to protect all those other countries’ they proclaim. That’s not the way I was taught. I was taught that Britain basically looked at the evidence and decided that we were just as screwed as those other countries were, despite Hitler’s alleged fondness for us. That we would likely end up subservient to a new German empire, if they were allowed to continue to build it.
Yes, we weren’t, as a nation, exactly happy with the mass genocide being inflicted. Indeed, the public would probably have been very unhappy if they’d’ve known exactly what was going on. Yes we had a bunch of treaties with other places. But as a government, it was more a survivalist trait, combined with a marked dislike of the idea of Germany having an empire. If anyone was having an empire, it was us.
I was taught to criticise and compare historical sources. I was taught to try and consider why, in historical narrative, a particular perspective was being put forward. I was reminded that history is written by the winners. Kind of weird, now I look back, for a GCSE course. At GCSE you usually just regurgitate facts, but our history teacher wasn’t fond of that concept.
And perhaps because my mother is from a country that the British empire pillaged, where they were forced to import a workforce because the people of that island refused to be servants. And perhaps because my grandfather on my mother’s side hated the English but made an exception for my father (who, incidentally, was Welsh ;) ) because he seemed like a good – and peace loving man.
Perhaps in part because of all of that, and perhaps in part because of my education, I’ve always had a wary attitude towards unfettered love of my country.
I love England, or at least, think that it’s a pretty nifty place to have grown up. It’s beautiful. It’s had some really great concepts over the years and has been responsible for some pretty stunning technological leaps for such a small island. It has an odd affection for the underdog and for the quirky. It had the NHS and a social system that for its many sins had a good heart*. There is/was much to love.
But until I got past my 20s, I believed that everyone had the same education I’d had and had a good understanding of the good – and the bad – that the English (and the UK) had done. I had both pride and some shame with the UK’s behaviour and history. I could look at things like the Bristol suspension bridge and be proud, and know that it couldn’t have had that bridge without slavery, without exploitation.
I was also aware that the UK had undoubtedly done other things wrong, just like every other country on the planet. Things that we didn’t know about yet. Things where there was no documentary evidence, where the people involved had just died… But so has every country. Let that country without sin cast the first stone and all that.
But recently I heard something incredibly affecting. And since then I’ve been unable to shake this feeling that I am truly ashamed of my country’s behaviour around one thing. I listened to a Radiolab podcast about the Mau-Mau. I really recommend you listen to it (TW: torture)*. I knew we’d done some spectacularly awful things. Hell, slavery’s a pretty f’kin low point. I remember in teenhood listening to a radio discussion about Britain-as-empire having discussed building gas chambers and concluding that it was far cheaper just to shoot the natives.
Financial imperatives keeping you from being the originator of something so horrific? Well done us.
But it’s not so much the fact that we tortured and imprisoned so many, many people in our colonies. That is horrendous to listen to and just unutterably awful. It’s not that that really makes me feel ashamed. It’s that even now we can’t own up to it. That the documents exist and rather than critically look at our history, go back and apologise to those that we have harmed, learn from our mistakes, we have put in place barriers to stop anyone else proving that they were harmed by the age of empire. So we can keep wandering around preening and telling everyone else how to behave like we’re some f’kin prize.
That is deeply shaming.
* Tangential side point – talked to my mum about this and she was completely unsurprised. She was just ‘Well, yes, I know. That was all in the newspapers in Sri-Lanka when I was growing up. Britain tortured loads of people’. Very matter-of-fact.
* Past tense, because all of the recent ‘reforms’ have been intended to destroy and undo those things.