Gobbets of Empire

The following editorial appeared in the Daily Telegraph recently (not alas, on April Fool’s Day, but 2nd April). I thought about giving extracts from it, but these could not fully convey the true jaw-dropping nature of it. So, I reproduce the whole, and, since I am thinking about teaching courses at the moment, I thought I should treat it as what some school and university courses call a ‘gobbet’ – a piece of text set for comment and analysis. Some starter questions are indicated by numbers:

Our proud story

Britain has more cause than most countries to be proud of its past. We have, of course, had inglorious moments. Like every nation, we have sometimes been sordid, ruthless, even treacherous. But, when the tally is made, our ledger is positive (1). That is why we should not be ashamed to tell that tale to schoolchildren.

Properly taught, it will show them that they are not simply a random set of individuals born to another random set of individuals, but inheritors of an old book, and authors of a new chapter that will in time be read by their own children.

This month, we celebrate the abolition of slavery, which must rank as one of the most unselfish acts ever undertaken (2). It stands to our credit, too, that, twice in the last century, we threw ourselves into ruinous European wars, not because we had been attacked, but because the sovereignty of a friendly country had been violated.

Indeed, a sympathy with other nations has been a characteristic of British foreign policy: we backed the national movements of Italy, Hungary, Greece, the South American republics – not for selfish gain, but for love of freedom (3).

Above all, we can be proud that our nationhood was civic rather than ethnic in conception (4). Anyone could be part of it, wherever his parents were born. “Thou must eat the White Queen’s meat, and all her foes are thine,” Kipling’s frontier tribesman tells his son (5). This ideal found superb vindication in the millions of Empire and Commonwealth volunteers who came to fight a country they had never known in the two world wars.

Teach our story as a chronicle of racism and exploitation and it is hardly surprising that youngsters will be alienated – some of them to the extent that they will travel to Afghanistan to fight us (6). But teach it as the story of how parliamentary democracy and the rule of law spread from these islands to bring happiness to mankind, and they will be proud (7). This story shall the good man teach his son (8).

Questions for discussion:

(1) How might one provide evidence to support this assertion? Is there sufficient evidence?

(2) Did Britain ‘abolish slavery’ 200 years ago? If the abolition of slavery was an ‘unselfish act’, what does this tell us about the previous importance of slavery to the British economy?

(3) What national movements are missing from this list? What does this tell us about Britain’s commitment to national movements?

(4) Discuss with reference to either a) the ‘White Queen’, b) the people of Hong Kong or c) the career of Enoch Powell

(5) What happened to a frontier tribesman who did not wish ‘to eat the White Queen’s meat’?

(6) Discuss the effective of patriotic teaching in inspiring loyalty to the British state in the 1930s with reference to either a) Cambridge spies or b) Indian nationalists

(7) Consider any one former British colony of your choice. Did Britain bring ‘happiness’ to it?

(8) (For advanced students) What does the gendered discourse of this text tell us about the Daily Telegraph’s reactions to modern British society?

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2 thoughts on “Gobbets of Empire

  1. (9) What is the significance of the DT’s omission of the fact that much of the British Empire in Asia was financed by the production and exportation of drugs (specifically opium)? Is the only distinction between the East India Company and the Medellin cartel the fact that the former had government backing, fighting wars in order to keep foreign markets open to its drug trafficking?

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  2. “Anyone could be part of it, wherever his parents were born.” Discuss, using specific examples from the history of the British raj. Explain, in your own words, exactly why Gandhi failed to appreciate the open, welcoming quality of British civic life.

    “But teach it as the story of how parliamentary democracy and the rule of law spread from these islands to bring happiness to mankind, and they will be proud.” Explain Britain’s role in spreading democracy to the country formerly known as Rhodesia. For extra credit, explain how this story illustrates the claim that “our nationhood was civic rather than ethnic in conception.”

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