Commonwealth Day: Why Britain Needs To Be Honest About Our History

Marlborough House, from where Commonwealth institutions are administered.Wikimedia Commons

The Commonwealth of Nations – formerly the British Commonwealth – has had its ups and downs over the years. Countries have left (like South Africa and Zimbabwe) or been suspended (like Fiji, Nigeria and Pakistan – the latter twice). There have been times when people have wondered whether the whole thing was really worth doing at all; other times when people have wondered whether it will survive the inevitable loss of its head, Queen Elizabeth, whose immense personal prestige is a key ingredient in the glue that holds it together.

It probably will. But on this Commonwealth Day, with the Queen about to attend a service at Westminster Abbey which includes her message to 2.4 billion citizens, it's worth reflecting on the oddity of there being a Commonwealth at all, and on the importance of memory.

The Commonwealth, after all, is the successor body to the British Empire, and empires are – we would now say – self-evidently a bad thing. They involve one country exercising authority in and over another without its consent. It's just wrong. So why on earth would so many countries – 52 of them at the last count – want to associate themselves with their former colonial oppressor, and indeed with each other?

The answer probably has a lot to do with self-interest – it's quite useful – and a lot to do with institutional persistence. It's been around for a long time and institutions tend to preserve themselves. How much of a genuine family feeling there is probably varies between countries, and is influenced to a surprising extent by how Anglican they are – because alongside Britain's victorious armies marched legions of missionaries who brought the faith of the Church of England with them. Anglicanism is a world-wide faith because of the British Empire, and if it's a fractious and splintered one, it still recognises its family relationships.

There is, however, a particular, inherent challenge from the Commonwealth to Britain. Its existence allows us to assume that, since our former colonies generally seem to want friendly relations with us, the Empire wasn't all that bad after all, particularly in its later expression. That's a view rather controversially expressed by the secretary of state for international trade, Liam Fox, who tweeted: 'The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history.'

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Delightfully, when pressed on this during a TV interview he denied saying it even as the offending tweet was shown on a screen behind him.

As ever in history, the facts are rather more complicated than Fox might admit. Britain has plenty to be ashamed about, during the 20th century as well as the previous two. Think the torture of Mau Mau suspects in Kenya; think Suez; think the squalid treatment of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia between 1968 and 1973, kicked out so the Americans could build a naval base there. And going further back, there's much to regret. A powerful article by Shashi Tharoor on the British in India says: 'The simple truth is that the British seized one of the richest countries in the world (accounting for 27 per cent of global GDP in 1700) and, over 200 years of colonial rule, reduced it to one of the poorest countries in the world. They did so through practices of loot, expropriation, and outright theft, enforced by the ruthless wielding of brute power, conducted in a spirit of deep racism and amoral cynicism, and justified by a staggering level of hypocrisy and cant.'

Tharoor, a former Indian MP and former under-secretary-general of the UN, says he wants Indians to be able to forgive, but not to forget.

His version of history, of course, is not the only one (he refers, for instance – critically – to Niall Ferguson and Lawrence James, whom he regards as apologists for the Empire). In any case, such broad-brush treatments don't do justice to the totality of the experience of British India, or Britain anywhere else; granted that empire is wrong in principle, the picture on the whole is more mixed than he might allow. But he's absolutely right about the importance of truth-telling, and one of the startling absences in the curriculums of British schools is the history of the Empire. It is a foundational part of our national identity. We don't really understand it or talk about it much – and the existence of the Commonwealth allows us to assume that it doesn't really matter, because we're all friends now. But truth always matters. We should be honest about what we did, and why, if only because what actually happened – the facts, as opposed to the alternative facts – continue to shape politics today. Without the Empire, we'd never have voted to leave the EU.

It's fair to say that Commonwealth Day will pass most Brits by. That's a pity; we have given the world a great deal, and we have taken a great deal, too. Remembering that once a year doesn't seem much to ask.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods

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