Philip Murphy: Rule Britannia?

Geschichte ist Gegenwart! Der History & Politics Podcast der Körber-Stiftung

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  • 24 min.
  • 4. episode

Colonial legacies of the British Empire in times of Brexit

Is Britain’s vision of reinvigorating its global position within a “Commonwealth 2.0” a misconception of past colonial greatness? What impact does the notion of Empire have on current British politics and how does it influence discourses on identity? Historian and director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies Philip Murphy sheds light on how Britain is confronting its dark past and whether the Commonwealth offers a framework for reconciliation and dialogue between former colonies and colonisers.

Körber History Forum



Heiner Wember: Welcome Philip Murphy. We are glad that you are one of the Körber History experts in our Podcast. In the next 25 minutes we will try to answer the following questions: Is there a discourse on colonial injustice in Great Britain? Is there a discussion about compensation, and what role does the colonial history play in Post-Brexit-Britain. Mr. Murphy, you are also Professor on British and Commonwealth history at the University of London. But before we start with history, let´s talk about the future. Some Brexiteers in Britain hope that the Commonwealth could be the solution for the UK in the time after Brexit. A Commonwealth 2.0. A golden opportunity. You declared that to be nonsense. Why is that nonsense?

Philip Murphy: Because there would have to be a huge realignment in British trade. You have to remember: Historically, Britain was always, certainly in the 20th century and the 19th, late 19th century, a tremendously open economy. And you look at the years immediately before the First World War, at the height of Empire, you would think Britain was still importing 40 percent of its goods from Europe, only about 30 percent from the Commonwealth and Empire. I mean, trade with the Commonwealth peaks in the middle years of the 20th century, partly because of protectionism, partly because of the consequences of the war. It peaks at around 50 percent in 1950. But then, even before Britain joins the European Community, it's on a steady decline. And so now Britain does about 44 percent of its trade with the European Union and less than 10 percent with the Commonwealth. Now there would have to be a huge realignment in British trade to compensate for even a small loss in that EU trade. So it's nonsense, it's moonshine. And in fact, most Brexiteers know that it's moonshine and I don't think the Commonwealth really played the significant part in persuading the British public to vote to leave the EU.

I see. What is the original colonial background idea of the Commonwealth when it was founded after World War II?

Well, the Commonwealth likes to pretend it was founded after World War Two, because they are very keen to distance themselves from Empire. But the term Commonwealth is used for the first time by British statesmen in the 1880ies. The real foundational moments happened in the 1920ies and 1930ies, when the so-called dominions Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Southern Ireland, as it then was, really established their own complete right of self-government, both domestically and control over their foreign policy. There was a very important conference in London in 1926 and the so-called Statute of Westminster of 1931. So the idea of the Commonwealth was firmly established. What happened in 1949 was that up until that point, loyalty to the Crown, common sovereignty had been the constitutional fact that bound the Commonwealth together. With 1949, the so-called London Declaration of April 1949, India was allowed to remain in the Commonwealth as a republic. And then King George VI was recognized by India as the head of the Commonwealth, but not as their sovereign. So really, the British monarch gained a new constitutional title, but not one that had any real constitutional substance to it. So it really signalled the fact that the Commonwealth from then on was going to become principally a developing world organisation. As soon as India is allowed to remain, the majority of the Commonwealth citizens live in the developing world. And that tendency has only increased with rapid decolonisation. But although it is a large organisation, it is a very weak organisation with very weak links between its members. And that has limited its utility, both to Commonwealth members and the United Kingdom itself.

If one says: We brought a railway to Africa and India, a common language and school system and we guarantee the kind of Pax Britannica, Peace in the British Empire, doesn't that hinder a sense for the dark and cruel side of history?

It's an endless argument, which will never be resolved. Defenders of Empire could say: Yes, we brought school, civilisation, education, roads, trade, Christianity. Well, they might not say that anymore. Critics of Empire would say: You brought oppression, you brought racism, you brought slavery, you brought small states that are barely viable. Think about the Commonwealth itself, the majority of its nation states are defined as small states, so less than about two million people. Those are not particularly viable states. And attempts at federation towards or in the in the closing years of Empire and early years of independence were largely unsuccessful. So the colonial powers are again accused of balkanising Africa and then rightly or wrongly accused of trying to maintain near colonial economic and political control over them. So there is a firmly drawn set of battle lines. And that battle will never be resolved. And it's not what historians are interested in. Historians are not interested in: Was Empire a good thing or a bad thing? Any more than they are interested in whether the Battle of Hastings or the Battle of Waterloo were good things or bad things. They want to know what happened, how it happened, why it happened and what its consequences were.

Do you personally feel a kind of British guilt for what happened in the colonial Empire? Was there more horror than honour?

I have to tell you a story: On the day that the Brexit referendum result was announced, I, like a lot of people of Irish descent, immediately got onto my computer, found the website of the Irish embassy and tried to find out how easy it would be to apply for an Irish passport. And it would be very easy for me, my grandfather was Irish. So no, personally I don't feel any sense of guilt and I think, most people in the UK don't. People who pressed the cause of reparations would say: Well, even if your family wasn’t involved, even if your ancestors weren't, you live in a society which was made wealthy on the proceeds of Empire and colonialism. This is true. But I think it would be a very difficult job to persuade the people of Britain as a whole. Many of whom don’t regard themselves as rich, many of whom haven't had the privilege of attending very wealthy elite institutions, they don't feel that they owe the rest of the world a huge debt. And I don't feel, they are not overburdened with guilt either.

There are not so many people who want to become Irish. In history it was the other way round, wasn't it?

Yes. Being Irish means, you have freedom of movement and freedom from imperial guilt, which is not a bad combination.

Do you already have a passport?

No. Indeed, I haven't gone through the process of actually getting an Irish passport, because it feels like running away from the key battle of the moment, which is to keep Britain in the EU. And not until that battle has been lost will I actually make the application.

Is that your battle?

That's my battle at the moment, yes.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic?

I'm optimistic. One has to be optimistic. I think that the referendum was won by the Brexiteers on lies, muddying the waters. And I think the logistics of withdrawing from the EU were never worked out, they were never explained to the British people. And what we are seeing now is the consequences of this, of the British government rashly and irresponsibly asking the question that it couldn’t in practise answer.

Is there a kind of common sense on the issue of the history of the colonies? Or is Britain separated into two blocks?

I think you have to distinguish between the historical community and the wider political community. I speak as the co-editor of the “The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History”, which is the leading scholarly journal in the field. The field of colonial history is incredibly rich and incredibly vibrant at the moment. There are many, many younger talented early career scholars from around Europe and North America and around the world working in this. The quality of the work being produced is outstanding and improves every year. So it's rich, it's vibrant and there is a kind of broad consensus about what we regard as good and bad history, based on our own sense of our craft as historians. Beyond that, it certainly seems that politicians, that journalists see imperial history in terms of a simple right-wrong-dichotomy. And in a way, social media, many things have contributed to this. I think in the last 30 years, really since the end of the Cold War, the idea of the history of the colonial empires has become politicised. It has become more mainstream as well, which is a very good thing. When I began my work as a graduate student in the 1980ies, I think colonial history, imperial history was a fully marginal aspect of the field. And it seemed to be studied almost in isolation from the history of the United Kingdom itself. Over the last few decades, it has been recognised as incredibly important and it has been recognised as an important part of the history of the United Kingdom itself and of the other European colonial powers. Greater attempts have been made to show the connections between those two fields. So that has all been incredibly positive. I think there has been a politicisation of imperial history. It has come partly from scholars working in the postcolonial studies tradition, who have a particular take on the nature of the European power structures, what colonialism was, how deeply it penetrated the mentalities of people in Europe, in the West. Opposing that has been kind of a resurgent interest on the right in the histories of empires. Really almost using it as a stick with which to beat the left, to attack their kind of sacred nostrums of the importance of antiracism, the importance of anticolonialism. And certainly the right wing tabloid press have taken that up. To an extent, you know, again looking at the broadest span of history, since the late 19th century pride in the Empire became an important part of what the British right wing regarded as patriotism. That really continued into the post-war period. And you can still see residues of this in British popular attitudes. Notoriously in 2014, YouGov, a public opinion survey, asked people whether they felt proud or ashamed of Empire. Fifty-nine percent of respondents in the UK said that they felt proud. That has been consistently seized on by people who would say: The history of imperialism, the history of colonialism has not been taught properly, it has hardly been taught at all in the UK. People in the UK don't understand how destructive and oppressive colonialism was. One could say a number of things about that, including that only two years later in 2016 a similar question was asked. And a much smaller proportion of people said they were proud, about 44 percent. So the question itself is perhaps too vague, too easy to be interpreted in many different ways to really point to a strong strain of public opinion there. But certainly people on the left would say that attempts had been made by the government to whitewash the Empire, to disguise its wrongdoings, the abuses committed in its name, to hide documents even. Again, that conversation continues.

Let's talk about politics. Has the British government taken any steps to encourage such a process?

The British government is very nervous about engaging with this. It does so when it has to. Largely around anniversaries, state visits, visits abroad by prime ministers. If a British dignitary is going to be put in a position where they are confronted with historical memorial or there is an anniversary, the Foreign Office will think very carefully about how the politician, how the political leader should respond. Sometimes there had been expressions of regret, for example, the bicentenary of the abolition of slavery in 2007, Prime Minister Tony Blair expressed regret about slavery and the legacy of slavery, on a visit to India in 2013 at the site of the Amritsar massacre of 1919, David Cameron again condemned the incidents, said what an appalling thing it was. On the whole, though, the government won’t engage with these things if it can possibly help it, it has avoided straightforward apologies for former historical events. And when it has actually paid out compensation, as it did to a number of veterans of the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in 2013, it has done so because it has been forced to do so, because a number of representatives of Mau Mau detainees had brought an action against the British government in the High Court and it very much looked as though that might go to a full trial and the British government might lose. So, they made that settlement in order to avoid going through an embarrassing trial. I think you could say that the British government had been nervous about making any grand gestures, it may be that that has partly to do with the political composition of British governments over the last nearly ten years, as these calls for reparations and for apologies have taken ever greater momentum. You have had Tory led governments. I suspect that if Jeremy Corbyn and Labour got into power, apologies and gestures of solidarity with colonial peoples would proliferate like mushrooms. I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very keen to do this, here, there and everywhere. That tends to be the case in terms of European governments. Some governments at the left tend to be more inclined to make apologies than governments at the right.

Are the German reconciliation attempts regarding its former colonies recognised in the UK?

I think they are. I mean, I think there is a dialogue going on amongst scholars, who are interested in this area, which draw upon the German experience particularly towards Namibia and the return of historical artefacts, the return of records as well, which is an important part of the dialogue and something that the German government have taken a lead in. There is interest in how the French deal with this, particularly since the creation of the museum of immigration, the Porte Dorée, in 2007. And there are calls for the British government to do more in that area.

What about the US and its colonial and racist parts of history? Is the denial of the dark side of history comparable to the discourse in Britain?

I think this is interesting. I think that for people of Afro-Caribbean descent in the UK, certainly political activists, they tended to look to the United States for a kind of model of how to organise. The Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the Black Power Movement, had a huge influence on Black politics in the UK. But, in a sense, in the UK the Afro-Caribbean population has a much smaller proportion of the total population. It's currently only around three percent. And it doesn't really have this kind of heroic history of struggle that it can point to in the same way that the Americans can point to Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. That, in a way, I think, is why. And it doesn't have a huge domestic grievance in the way that slavery was.

I see. Where do African countries stand in that discourse on compensation today?

I think in a sense the Caribbean states are found better than African states at speaking with one voice and organising themselves around this issue. Certainly when I have been to events in London about reparations, it's really been the Caribbean community who had been speaking up and making most of the running there. Africa is more divided. It has different sets of interests, its states are closely aligned to a number of different developed states, not just in Europe, but also China for example and India. And Africa of course is the recipient of a huge amount of foreign aid. Certainly a very large portion of the British aid budget goes to Africa.

You described the Commonwealth as a smoke screen. What is the idea behind that?

It's comforting to think that the Commonwealth still exists and still means something. Of course it does in terms of 53 states around the world belonging to this one organisation. But, the organisation is not at all effective in coordinating common action. In fact, it's very difficult, almost impossible to point to anything really concrete that the organisation has done for the last 25 years. To that extent, it's the ghost in the machine of the British national psyche rather than a genuinely serious international organisation.

What is left of the Commonwealth are the Commonwealth Games.

Yes. And you know, you can see in the Commonwealth Games how the idea of Empire and Commonwealth worked, how that transition worked. It starts out in the 1930ies, as the Empire Games, in the 1950ies it is rechristened as the Empire and Commonwealth Games, it becomes the British Commonwealth Games in 1970, and only the Commonwealth Games in 1978. It's a perfect example of the slow and almost imperceptible change from Empire to Commonwealth.

But the British, they don't need the Commonwealth Games anymore because they have got the Champions League.

That's right. Now they have started to win serious numbers of medals in the Olympics, I think this could possibly be the end for the Commonwealth.

But the most important is the Champions League in the moment?

Yes. I mean, someone said recently that the one way to stop Brexit would be for UEFA to declare that only EU countries could compete in European football. And I think that may be true.

If the Commonwealth is so unimportant, it could cost you your job.

Well, it doesn't need to. There were many Soviet studies departments in universities in the west, when I started my career in the 1980ies, whose directors were not fervent communists. We are the only institute in the world, which studies the Commonwealth. But we are far more interested in the broad set of legacies which the British Empire left behind. If something called the Commonwealth, an international organisation called the Commonwealth ceased to exist, people will still use the term Commonwealth as a term of art, to describe the countries that were once part of the British Empire. And many other legacies of Empire will remain and remain to be studied.

Thank you very much, Philip Murphy, for this instructive interview.

Thank you.

Murphy, Philip: The Empire’s New Clothes: The Myth of the Commonwealth (Hurst, 2018)
Murphy, Philip: Monarchy and the End of Empire: The House of Windsor, the British Government and the Postwar Commonwealth (Oxford University Press, 2013)

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