It would seem that one of the favourite pastimes of contemporary politicians is to offer apologies on behalf of their respective parties for questionable decisions and practices (usually when wrongdoings have been uncovered) – Nick Clegg, David Miliband, and David Cameron have all been at it recently (having been around for only a short time, Nigel Farage and the British Independence Party can only excuse themselves for the fact of their miserable existence).
Alternatively, the political leaders, with due personal humility – but without either national prompting or approval, can indulge themselves by apologising for past actions of the British Government.
On a recent visit to India, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologised for the massacre of Punjabi people at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April, 1919. Though popular estimates put casualty numbers in the thousands, the official estimates put the figures at 279 killed and 1,200 injured. The events at Jallianwala Bagh had significant ramifications and became one of the major turning points for the Indian struggle for freedom from the British Raj. By no means, however, was Jallianwala Bagh the worst atrocity committed by the British in India.
During the several hundred years of British involvement in the sub-continent, India was no stranger to horrors of an economic, military, legal, cultural and social nature. Lest it be forgotten, India was a major prize in the British colonial enterprise and some of the actions taken by the British to deliver that prize would now be regarded as major war crimes.
So, should David Cameron have apologised for the events at Jallianwala Bagh? No such license was given to Cameron. Whilst it makes sense for politicians to apologise for their own mistakes, it is another matter for them to apologise for the mistakes of others committed in the past and, probably, long before they were born.
Was Cameron’s apology given out of genuine contrition or political expediency? A major reason for Cameron and his entourage going to India in the first place was for him, his party and British business interests, to develop and cement business deals. Without wishing to be overly critical, that sounds to me like an apology for reasons of political and economic expediency, especially as that apology focused on a comparatively middling , yet no less serious for that, atrocity.
There is, I submit, a better way.
As a former teacher of “British History” in an English secondary school (where the emphasis, somewhat understandably, was on teaching the history of England), I cannot recall ever teaching a unit specifically dealing with the British Empire. It is at least arguable that the development and control of an empire was the most important thing that the British ever did. It did much to shape the modern world.
Notwithstanding, how many people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that is, the whole of the British people, are aware of the details of the empire constructed in their name?
As a teacher of history, I personally lacked enthusiasm for the repetitious teaching about the virtues and venalities of English kings and queens, a Civil War that had little of lasting significance for the people, an Industrial Revolution that enslaved millions but praised industrial and commercial development, the rise of and fall of Nazism that, nevertheless, consolidated the place of other dictatorial political and economic systems.
Yet, there was little, or nothing, included in the curriculum about the development of the British Empire, colonial expansion, and its effects – a considerable sum of which remains to this day and much of it done in the name of whichever monarch happened to be on the British throne.
Therefore, is it any wonder that, in the words of the historian William Dalrymple, “…most people who go through the British educational system are wholly ill-equipped to judge either the good or bad in what we did to the rest of the world.” Perhaps that is also why so many British people still harbour thoughts of grandeur with respect to the UK’s position in the world – “Britannia” ruling the waves, and so much besides!
There is no doubt that, as well as the horrors committed by military might in the sub-continent, the British did many worthwhile things in the sub-continent, e.g., the Indian railway and the rule of law. What is needed is a critical appraisal of the overall effects of the British Empire in India and for this to be a compulsory component of the teaching of history in, most appropriately, the later years of secondary education in the UK.
So, the task is not that of the apologetic – by David Cameron, or anyone else – but is one of enlightenment through education. Not the kind of education that the current Minister for Education, Michael Gove, seems to be misguidedly in favour of, that is, “give ’em the facts”. What is needed is more than factual information. There needs to be genuine educational purpose, that is, critical analysis, evaluation, and application.
Truth never resides simply in mere fact and information. Truth involves humility, investigation, critical appraisal of oneself and others, and the requirement to put the needs of others before one’s own.
A Jewish rabbi, to whom the birth of Christianity is wrongly attributed (but that is another story), is reported to have once said, “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” When we know the truth behind the facts of the British Empire, then perhaps we can be freed from the bad conscience, indeed, the “false consciousness”, that offers only a simple apology for the reality of empire. Only then can we and turn our horizons more towards recommissioning our efforts to further reconstruct, rejuvenate, reshape, and reintegrate, in order to enhance the lives of those individuals, communities, and nations affected by it.
This is more than the giving of international aid; it is the changing of hearts and minds and a re-examination of British institutions.
Only in this way can there be a realistic appreciation of what the British did in building their empire. Only then can genuine apologies be made to those people defeated, enslaved, and reduced by the need and greed of British colonial expansion. What is relevant for India will be the same for other nations of the former British Empire.
When that situation comes about, then perhaps the time will have arrived when there will also be no further need for royal honours “in the name of empire”.