Tuesday 24 July 2007

Imperial dreams and nightmares

I’m probably the last person in Britain to observe Empire Day, which falls on May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday. So I’ve naturally been heartened by the revival of media interest in imperial history this year. We’ve had Victoria Wood’s global travels in search of the legacy of her namesake; various retrospectives on the Falklands War and the handover of Hong Kong; and a current Channel 4 series, Empire’s Children, in which assorted worthies relive their colonial childhoods.

Of course, no self-respecting TV producer would lose an opportunity to point out the strangeness of a small, wet island off north-west Europe dominating so much of the planet. (“Barmy” was Miss Wood’s searing insight.) Or to point out how appallingly we treated the people we once called “natives”, who were clearly morally superior to ourselves.

Yes, greed and cruelty were involved in the creation of the British Empire. But for most of its history, those who ran it truly believed that they were doing good; and it is widely acknowledged that our history as colonisers compares favourably with those of the other European imperial powers, or indeed with the United States in its treatment of native Americans. Writing of the archetypal, well-intentioned Englishman in 1922, the philosopher George Santayana concluded “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master.”

He could so easily have been describing Tony Blair. It was exactly that old, imperial spirit of Christian do-goodery which inspired his many overseas interventions, from Kosovo to Iraq. One of the more successful, in Sierra Leone, even took us back into a West African colony which had fallen into chaos since our departure.

It seems hugely ironic that, just a decade after abandoning our last great imperial possession in the Far East, we find ourselves part of another empire. At least according to European Commission president José Manuel Barosso, who sees the European Union as just that. The parallels are certainly striking. Fans of the EU are always telling us how tiny the Brussels bureaucracy really is. Where have I heard that before? Oh yes, when just 1,500 British civil servants ruled over 300 million Indians.

Even more chillingly, there is the same patronising sense of superiority that did so much to get up the noses of our former subjects. Every European leader except ours is bragging about how they have managed to smuggle through every essential feature of the rejected EU Constitution in their new treaty. Luxembourg’s PM helpfully advised Gordon Brown to avoid a public debate here, as it would draw attention to the transfers of sovereignty involved. A former Italian PM has spoken of how the treaty has deliberately been made unreadable so that it will be harder to conduct popular referenda.

Empires can survive only through collaboration and consent, or the application of terror. The new imperialists of Brussels are fortunate to have secured the collaboration of virtually the whole British political class, who have cast themselves in much the same role as the former maharajahs of India: keeping their status and perks, while real power resides elsewhere.

As for the terror option, Britain is consistently the most sceptical country in the EU about political integration. It is also the one that has gone furthest in creating the Big Brother apparatus of CCTV surveillance, DNA testing and databases. Is that coincidence or forward planning?

Let us freely admit that many supporters of the European Empire are genuine idealists. But their vision is old-fashioned, inward-looking and obsessed with pettifogging regulation. Precisely because Britain once ruled so much of the world, we are uniquely well placed to be open to all of it. It looks certain that Mr Brown won’t give us the referendum we were promised. Where should we look for a Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela with the vision and determination to lead England on its own long walk to freedom?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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