No sacred cows

Labour won’t win voters back by denigrating Britain’s past

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

They never learn, do they? Lisa Nandy, the dark horse candidate in the Labour leadership race, has demanded the word ‘empire’ be expunged from OBE honours and replaced with ‘excellence’ because the reference to Britain’s imperial past offends people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME). This would mean its full name would become the Most Excellent Order of British Excellence. ‘The self-confident, empowered country I will lead will be one that is different,’ Nandy announced at a hustings in Bristol. ‘Where people like Benjamin Zephaniah can accept the Order of British Excellence, not reject the Order of the British Empire. That celebrates those who built us, not seeks to alienate them.’

Doesn’t Nandy realise that one of the reasons Labour did so badly at the last election is because working-class voters believe the party under Jeremy Corbyn has become anti-British? These were people who’d either served in the Armed Forces or were related to someone who had, and they were disgusted by Corbyn’s habit of siding with Britain’s enemies.

Does Labour’s MP for Wigan really think she’s going to win those people back by denigrating Britain’s past? Nandy says she wants the honours system to be more inclusive, but 15.7 per cent of those who received an OBE in the Queen’s birthday honours last year were members of ethnic minorities. Given that BAME people make up just 13 per cent of the British population, I’d say the OBE is already pretty ‘inclusive’.

I appeared on Good Morning Britain to debate this issue with Kehinde Andrews, Professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He made some extraordinary claims, including that the British Empire ‘did far more harm to the world’ than Nazi Germany, that it killed ‘probably hundreds of millions of people’ and, most astonishing of all, that ‘whiteness is a psychosis’. I daresay a Labour party led by Nandy would get his vote, but I can’t see this kind of rhetoric persuading the voters of Bishop Auckland to return to the Labour fold. Last time I was in the market town in County Durham, I saw a marvellous piece of outdoor theatre called Kynren that was unashamedly patriotic. It was a two-hour celebration of Britain’s history, including the Empire, which ended with Land of Hope and Glory. Needless to say, the show was wildly popular and is returning for its fourth year this summer.

I’m no great enthusiast of the British Empire. As a Brexiteer, I believe in national self-determination. But I also intensely dislike the demonisation of Britain’s past because it often seems intended to undermine national pride and bring about the dissolution of the United Kingdom. I’m sure Spectator readers need no reminding that Britain’s gifts to the rest of the world include the English language, parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, free speech and the industrial revolution. Of course the history of the Empire includes many terrible episodes, but it wasn’t an unmitigated evil. Britain’s overseas territories experienced social, economic and political gains, including expanded education, improved public health, better administration, the creation of basic infrastructure, and, to complicate matters for people like Professor Andrews, the legal protection and political enfranchisement of women and historically excluded minorities in countries like India and Nigeria. Those are among the reasons why British rule was often preferred by local populations, judging from the numbers who sent their children to British colonial schools and hospitals, joined colonial governments and fought for the British Empire.

Yes, Britain participated in the slave trade, and that is a stain on our history, but we are hardly unique in that regard. More than a million Europeans were bought and sold in the slave markets of Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia between the 16th century and the mid-18th century and after the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in 1807 the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron to suppress the Atlantic slave trade. Approximately 1,600 British servicemen lost their lives between 1830 and 1865 fighting to abolish slavery and that, surely, is a source of national pride, even for Professor Andrews? So please, let’s not remove the word ‘Empire’ from the OBE. Britain’s past, in all its complexity, should be celebrated, not denounced.

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Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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