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<< Barely a generation after the ignominious end of the British empire, there is now a quiet but concerted drive to rehabilitate it, by influential newspapers, conservative academics, and at the highest level of government. Just how successful this campaign has already been was demonstrated in January when Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer and Tony Blair's heir apparent, declared in east Africa that "the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over" (1). His remark, pointedly made to the Daily Mail - which is leading the rehabilitation chorus - in the run-up to May's general election, was clearly no heat-induced gaffe.
Speaking four months earlier at the British Museum, an Aladdin's cave of looted treasures from Britain's former colonies, Brown insisted: "We should be proud . . . of the empire" (2). Even Blair, who was prevailed upon to cut a similar line from a speech during his first successful election campaign in 1997, has never gone quite this far (3).
Brown's extraordinary remarks passed with little comment in the rest of the British media. But the significance of a Labour chancellor's support for what would until recently have been regarded as fringe rightwing revisionism was doubtless not lost on his target audience. This is a man who, despite his neoliberal enthusiasms and tense alliance with Blair, has always liked to project a more egalitarian, social democratic image than his New Labour rival. His imperial turn will have given an unwelcome jolt to anyone hoping that a Brown government might step back from the liberal imperialist swagger and wars of intervention that have punctuated Blair's eight-year premiership. By the same token, his determination (in advance of his own expected leadership bid) to wrap himself in the Union Jack - dubbed "the butcher's apron" by the Irish socialist James Connolly - will have impressed sections of the establishment whose embrace he is seeking.
Brown's demand for an end to colonial apologies was part of an attempt to define a modern sense of British identity based around values of fair play, freedom and tolerance. What modernity and such values have to do with the reality of empire might not be immediately obvious. But even more bizarre is the implication that Britain is forever apologising for its empire or the crimes committed under it. As with other European former colonial powers, nothing could be further from the truth. There have been no apologies. Official Britain put decolonisation behind it, in a state of blissful amnesia, without the slightest effort to come to terms with what took place. In the years following the British army's bloody withdrawal from Aden in 1967, there was little public debate about how Britain had maintained its grip on a quarter of the world's population until the middle of the 20th century.>>
Milne's conclusion is: << There has been no serious attempt in Britain to face up to this record or the long-term impact of colonialism on the societies it ruled, let alone trials of elderly colonial administrators now in Surrey retirement homes. The British national school curriculum has more or less struck the empire and its crimes out of history. The standard modern world history textbook for 16-year-olds has chapter after chapter on the world wars, the cold war, British and US life, Stalin's terror and the monstrosities of Nazism - but scarcely a word on the British and other European empires which carved up most of the world, or the horrors they perpetrated.
What are needed are not apologies or expressions of guilt so much as education, acknowledgment, some measure of reparation and an understanding that barbarity is the inevitable consequence of attempts to impose foreign rule on subject peoples. Like most historical controversies, the argument about empire is as much about the future as the past. Those who write colonial cruelty out of 20th-century history want to legitimise the new imperialism, now bogged down in another colonial war in Iraq - just as those who demonise past attempts to build an alternative to capitalist society are determined to prove that there is none. If Brown really wants to champion British fair play, and create a new relationship with Africa, he would do better to celebrate those who campaigned for colonial freedom rather than the racist despotism they fought against. >>