Dirty Legacies – Usmaan Amin
Acknowledging the uncomfortable fragments of the end of the British Empire which have recently been released by the Foreign Office is vital to the foundation of our democracy
The story of the British Empire continues to be tremendously provocative. It is still bundled with powerful emotion: anger, nostalgia, guilt and often shame. It is a story that is intimately tied to Britain’s past, and in some ways, continues to map our future trajectory. The release of a trance of files from the de facto end of Empire in the 1960s, which had been ‘migrated’ from former colonies back to Britain, helps to expose a history that it has been easier to forget or repress, but must now be fully acknowledged in order to bolster the foundation of our democracy.
The notion that Britain’s Empire was essentially benign, simply instituting the rule of law, improving education, sharing technology and so forth – the so-called ‘civilising mission’ – is of course unmatched by reality. The release of these files officially confirms the long-held suspicions that were previously rooted in speculation.
Such files may have been left moulding in the bowels of the Foreign Office’s communication centre in Hanslope Park were it not for a court case brought against the British Government by a group of Kenyans who alleged that they were tortured during the Mau Mau uprising. The landmark case could have seismic implications, as there is strong evidence from the documents that war crimes did take place during the uprising. Caroline Elkins, a professor at Harvard, spent ten painstaking years compiling evidence of systematic detention and torture in Kenya in her book, Britain’s Gulag, and this release helps to confirm her position. The crucial question is whether the current British Government is responsible for the actions of those who came before them. If the court sides with the Kenyans, it could spark a raft of further litigation from those places where the imperial eclipse was bloodiest – such as Aden, Malaya and Cyprus.
There are of course, many further questions that remain to be answered, given that colonial officials destroyed many of the most sensitive files during the transfers of power. The archival record will only hint at those areas that are the most scandalous and potentially criminal. It seems likely that the Foreign Office dragged its feet on the release of these files in order to escape culpability for colonial transgressions. Indeed, it is already clear that the Government is not releasing every file it holds, because some records deemed top-secret, are mysteriously absent from the forthcoming release. Therefore, whilst it is highly unlikely that a ‘smoking gun’ will emerge from these papers, historians will finally be able to piece together the final days of Empire in territories where decolonisation did not come easily, and at times was exceptionally brutal.
This is a tremendously important project, as the history of Empire has increasingly been forgotten, or at least, selectively remembered. Despite its central place in our past, Empire history plays only a bit part within the national curriculum, with the more comfortable Euro-centric triumphalist narrative of World War II generally taking precedence. The fact that the war played a major part in the final eclipse of Empire is essentially ignored. Even worse, popular imperial historians, the likes of Niall Ferguson, tend to take a problematic apologist position on the Empire, in explaining extravagantly how Britain Made the Modern World. If Britain did indeed achieve this lofty goal, it certainly did it at the expense of many along the way. Acknowledging those most uncomfortable parts of the imperial rise and fall is especially important for the current generation of children, who will have to operate in a world where the pace of change is accelerating rapidly.
Democracy remains the best method to navigate peacefully through change, and as a political system, it is intimately rooted in a capacity to understand the past. There is a need to understand human action and agency, and assign responsibility to the successes and failures of previous generations. It is through this process that we improve our democracy and embed it more deeply in society. Therefore, as Empire is such a fundamental part of Britain’s past, a fuller understanding of its implications serves to strengthen our democratic ideals, through incorporating difficult fragments of the past into the wider narrative of our history. As William Faulkner has so poignantly pointed out, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past’. His words remain as true as ever.