After a tumultuous summer of Black Lives Matter protests and statues being toppled, arguments over the legacy of the British Empire in Britain haven’t been as politically explosive in decades. And yet rarely have we seen much nuance in the debate, from either the left or the right.
Debate maybe a strong word though. Culture war is more accurate, as Sanghera notes. Was the British empire a good thing, or a bad thing? Did we help the world, by outlawing the slave trade, bringing railways and democracy, or did we harm it, but profiting off slavery for so long, destroying and subjecting civilisations and cultures, and putting profits before people?
These questions are still raw to many who suffered at the hands of British tyranny and I agree with Sanghera’s analysis that Britain’s empire fell too recently and too quickly for Britain to really come to terms with what it meant for us, and what our new role is in the world. He suggests this has caused a multitude of political problems for us – and it’s hard to disagree.
As a Sikh Briton, Sanghera has a unique perspective on empire, and it’s fascinating to read his thoughts and experiences travelling India, and the impacts the British empire had on him personally. The book covers a lot of ground. Sanghera explores the loot British soldiers and officers pilfered from the civilisations we invaded, still displayed, seemingly with no remorse, in British museums.
His conclusion that the dark underbelly of racism has been fuelled by our imperial past is undeniable to me. From our incessant debates about immigration and the EU, to our politicians obsession with being ‘world-beating’, British exceptionalism has undoubtedly been fuelled by the fact we once ruled an empire larger than the surface area of Pluto.
This situation is made worse by our lack of education around empire, as Sanghera points out, and our collective amnesia about the atrocities Britain has committed. However, every viewpoint is considered here. Sanghera recognises that empire wasn’t all bad, even if the ‘balance sheet’ view of history is unhelpful.
I don’t quite agree with every conclusion here. I think Britain’s love of travel may have imperial roots, but we’re not exceptional here when compared to other countries. Empire has undoubtedly had an impact on the British psyche, but as Sanghera does note, World War 2 seems to be the defining moment in British history, masking the fact the Empire was to a (debatable) extent an international enterprise rather than a nationalistic one.
The book is well researched, with some fascinating insights. There is extremely interesting history throughout, even though it isn’t the focus, including some stomach churning facts about Britain’s despicable slave traders. Some forgotten moments of Britain’s past are highlighted here, including some interesting insights on how Britain’s political leaders were been educated and indoctrinated into their views on Empire.
I’d highly recommend this book for those interested in understanding the arguments around Britain’s empire, the sad history of our relationship with race, and perhaps those interested in exploring how we can fix it.