Cast off the shackles of Empire victimhood

Blaming modern woes on past empires stokes infantilisation—condescension is colonialism’s last legacy. I’m proud of my CBE

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Imperial echoes: “The Second Lieutenant who took the CO’s savoury”, by H.M. Bateman, 1933 (© Illustrated London News Ltd/Mary Evans)

Recently, I was interviewed for a BBC documentary and I made some disobliging observations. Disobliging because they did not sit comfortably with the opinion of both the presenter and the other interviewees. The programme addressed the question of BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) attitudes to receiving a “gong”. Almost all the participants wrestled with the honour: should they accept something where the letter “E” stood for Empire? Many thought long and hard before accepting or rejecting. I was asked how long I had thought before accepting my CBE (for services to “Television and Heritage”). I said: “One nanosecond.” Not the right answer, I’m afraid. The solecism was worthy of a Bateman cartoon.

I was an outlier among an overfamiliar cast of practised virtue-signallers, taking turns disinterring ideas that secured their desired victim status, a position that sits well within their milieu. Had the programme interviewed the many BAME people who had received recognition for their work in science, medicine, economics or technology, I might not have been on my own.

I did acknowledge that personal experience of Empire varies. The Afro-Caribbean story is vastly different to that of South Asia. If my ancestors had been slaves, or slave owners had assigned my family its name, I might take a different view. I do not speak for them but, importantly, they do not speak for me. I fail to feel the burden of Empire on my shoulders as I pass a statue of Clive of India. I get that Britain’s 19th-century Industrial Revolution was in part built on the de-industrialisation of India and that Indian farmers were the victims of the Raj. But today I am not a victim of that policy. Invidious imperial policies, designed to keep subject nations in vassalage to the colonial power, have passed into history.  As has the phrase “British Empire”.

The letters “BE” in MBEs, OBEs and CBEs may stand for British Empire, but the connection to that polity is over. No-one would argue that the letters “VW”, which stand for Volks-wagen, have any connection to the fact that Adolf Hitler created the company  to produce a people’s car. 

This desire for victim status is one of the defining features of modern Britain. There are some perfectly rational reasons for this. It helps secure funding for communities and groups deprived of resources.  But there are costs to these benefits. And these costs are not to be measured in cash. They are messing with our minds.

This mental slavery, this reaching too readily for victim status, acts as an impediment to freedom of thought and action. I recall thinking this when, a couple of years back, I was talking to then Indian High Commissioner Yash Sinha, a career civil servant, about the many documentaries the BBC had made to mark the 70th Anniversary of Partition. I had asked him what India thought about Partition. He replied, “We don’t. We think about the future, not the past.” Sinha went on to point out that India—and Indians—were too busy trying to become a superpower to be hamstrung by memories of Empire. Don’t forget, he added, the vast majority of Indians were born long after independence.

This desire to keep seeing things through the lens of Empire thwarts any attempt to understand the forces shaping the modern world. A recent article, in Foreign Policy magazine, argued that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s military intervention in Kashmir was the “grubby legacy of imperialism”. I don’t want to dwell on the sheer historical ignorance of that remark but on the insistence of seeing events through the lens of an imperial legacy. No matter that Modi may be pursuing his own Hindutva (Hindu-supremacist) agenda and playing to his Hindu voting base, not to mention delivering on a manifesto commitment. Oh no. The poor man doesn’t realise he is just the plaything of the forces of history. Indian politics has no agency of its own, it’s just a victim of Britain’s messy imperial legacy.

You might be forgiven for thinking that this determination is no more than a desire for self-flagellation—a constant and collective apology for the evils of the British Empire.   

But I think this is too generous a reading. A more telling motive, it seems to me, is that it gives Britain a role in world affairs. If global events are a consequence of our past imperial actions, then we, the British, have a part to play. We finally have an answer to Dean Acheson’s 1962 West Point speech: we may have lost an Empire, but we still have a role—atoning for it. We can continue to be a player on the world stage, meddling in the domestic affairs of other countries, because it’s “our” fault not “theirs”.

This infantilisation of grown-up, independent countries is not confined to world affairs. Here in Britain, it is applied to various minority groups to account for why they appear to have their own agenda, agency and motives. Quite simply, they haven’t “grown up” yet.

In 2016 Trevor Phillips and I made a documentary about attitudes within Britain’s Muslim communities on a range of topical issues. I wanted a definitive survey and not one of those conducted by telephone call or among a pre-selected panel. Those surveys cost around £30,000. The one I wanted cost over £100,000—face to face interviews with the sensitive questions left behind for the respondent to fill in and send on later. To their credit, Channel 4 coughed up.

The results were a real surprise to anyone who lives outside the British Muslim world and, inevitably, there was faux shock by those Muslims who make a living “speaking for” British Muslims. The survey revealed that a “moderate majority”, so beloved of the commentariat, didn’t exist when it came to the distribution of British Muslim values, attitudes and opinions. Moderate views did exist, but they were in the minority; the majority did not have moderate views. The programme went down like a pork canapé at a Muslim wedding. Another Bateman cartoon.   

The most telling critique came from Polly Toynbee on a TV chat show. Asked to comment on the finding that a majority of British Muslims appear to take a dim view of homosexuality, Toynbee put forward a defence that was common among many who objected to the programme: the views expressed were simply ones that we all had—once upon a time. Fifty years ago, Toynbee said, a similar survey of British attitudes would have come up with a similar result on homosexuality.

So, here we have it. The only problem with British Muslims is that their views are fifty years “behind” us. The implicit argument seems to be this: the sophisticated, rational, secular, liberal, tolerant and democratic way of life is so manifestly the best way to be, that exposure to this value system will lead inevitably to its adoption by communities who currently don’t share those mores. Just give them time to grow (up) and they will embrace our world view. 

To play the victim card is to play into the hands of this infantilising opinion. We have them where they want us: devoid of agency and the wherewithal to act on our own volition.

As with Modi and his Kashmir policy, the idea that British Muslim communities may have their own values, attitudes and opinions, simply didn’t compute. How could this possibly be? Our liberal, tolerant and democratic world view offers up a model way of life which everyone, surely, would wish to emulate.

Where does one begin with this position? Its breath-taking arrogance? Its lack of correspondence to the real world? The Hegelian nonsense of it? Its absurd Whiggish mindset? Have the proponents of this view noticed the direction of travel of the world recently? Orbán, Putin, Trump, Salvini, Bolsonaro and . . . Modi.

The values by which the 21st-century world is being re-made are no longer a given and we cannot continue to judge events by the ideas that have made modern, liberal and democratic Britain. It’s time to ditch the normative position given to this set of values, norms and attitudes.

I am not suggesting that progressive values are not a good thing. They are. But if we want them to prevail, we need to argue the case. And it needs to be an argument that is not predicated on the assumption and assertion that our way of life is the only and inevitable way forward.    

There is good news here: it will free the world from our condescension and liberate us from beating ourselves up every time one of our former colonies behaves in ways we disapprove of. And back home, our minority communities may also, I daresay, be able to survive without our patronising attitude to their values and attitudes. Best of all, actions, attitudes and behaviours will no longer be seen as the result of forces beyond one’s control. The debilitating and passive notion of victimhood will become redundant.