It’s a remarkable length of reign but her 70 years have straddled the end of the colonies and seen a re-assessment of what it is to be British, with racism and even the union challenged.
Yet the red, white and blue fest exhorted by some was a celebration of an age of empire and a belief in British exceptionalism. I’d been reading Kenneth Morgan’s biography of Jim Callaghan, in which he quoted a speech by the former PM, where he stated that “the mistake we made was to think we won the war”.
By that he meant that, of course, Germany had surrendered but the war had also broken Britain’s back. Victory as opposed to defeat meant there was more celebration rather than reflection. That has continued with the empire jingoism being fuelled by Brexit with a false narrative of an imperial past portrayed and an equally duplicitous future of a new golden age portrayed. No wonder I’ve seen comments that Germany’s history allows it to look to the future, whilst Britain harks to the past.
That was highlighted in another excellent book that I read, and which acted as a counterweight to the over-the-top commentary all too pervasive last week. It was Empireland by the journalist Sathnam Sangehra who grew up the son of Sikh immigrants in Wolverhampton. He’s proud of his British identity as well as of his Sikh heritage but he rightly challenges the sins of empire and the damage it can do, whether in racism or exceptionalism.
He started with the Amritsar massacre which is doubtless burned on his psyche as a Sikh. I’d heard of that atrocity but many others that he detailed were new to me. Moreover, the narration I’d heard of others was in many ways vastly different from the reality. India focussed large as you’d expect but the smaller scale of the “Blackhole of Calcutta” I’d heard of as a child, dreadful though it was, contrasted with the far greater atrocities perpetrated in the suppression of the Indian Mutiny.
I confess to having been unaware of Britain’s incursion into Tibet in 1903. The current sins of China are rightly called out in that land tragic land. But maybe we should also reflect on the slaughter perpetrated by Younghusband where some 3000 Tibetans were slaughtered for the loss of a few dozen British soldiers. It was redolent of the worst excesses of the US cavalry against the Indians with machine guns wiping out monks armed only with spears and amulets, which they believed offered salvation.
Going to Westminster, I pass Robert Clive’s statue, an odious and evil man. The empire was robbery and exploitation, which should be admitted not continually denied. There’s much to celebrate over the last 70 years in Britain but equally there’s much more that needs challenged.
If you delude yourself, failing to acknowledge the reality of your circumstances, living in a false past rather than creating a better future, then you’re going to struggle socially, as well as economically. Hurrah for Brexit Britain, it still looks back as there’s little to look forward because of it.
- Kenny MacAskill is the Alba MP for East Lothian