Last week a culture war erupted in Britain over its colonial history.
Ostensibly the debate revolved around how to respond to publicprotests against the memorialising in city streets, squares, andpublic spaces of those involved in slavery. More profoundly, however,what happened and was said illuminated the need for Britain find waysto rebalance the nations understanding of the role played byconquest, exploitation, and empire in creating its wealth.
The matter achieved prominence because of events on June 7 in Bristolin the West of England. There, protestors had taken to the streets tojoin the international condemnation of the death of George Floyd inMinneapolis, and to make clear that Black Lives Matter in Britain too.
In events eerily reminiscent of other turning points in history fromSouth Africa to Eastern Europe, a group of protestors pulled down astatue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth century slaver and citybenefactor, and threw him into the harbour. Captured on social media,the moment was significant in a yet to be fulfilled way, as itillustrated the need to change the trajectory of Britains history.
It was an act important for its symbolism, not least because many ofthose attending the protest there and in many other British citieswere not just young people of Caribbean and African descent, but alsonumerous others who were white. Their actions reflected a passion tohave their voices heard on racism, inequity, social injustice, andtheir common fears about employment and the future. Tellingly, thecountys police service decided not to intervene, accepted thatColston should fall, and that the greater public good in amulti-racial city was in not provoking a confrontation.
In contrast, a similar Black Lives Matter demonstration in London, sawa small minority indulge in violence and the mindless defacing of thenational war memorial and a statue of Churchill, who in Britainremains an understandable if unnuanced icon as the wartime leader ofan island that stood alone, and then with the US and Russia defeatedfascism in Europe.
The subsequent political and media reaction to events was predictable.The focus was on protecting property, achieving outcomes by democraticmeans, and calls for punitive jail sentences; only for such commentsto be followed by a backlash from menacing groups of ultra-right thugsmasquerading as protectors of statues and history.
Far more important, however, is the sense that the toppling ofColstons statue, marks the identifiable point at which significantparts of British society began to recognise that a more balancedfact-based understanding of the past is required if the country is tobecome more cohesive.
Colstons fall confronted the central un-spoken myth in much of UKsociety about the unremittingly positive nature of its history andmany of its citizens consequential and surprisingly commonplace senseof global superiority.
What happened in Bristol was in its own small way a revolutionary actchallenging the view that Britains future can continue to be based onan uncritical view of its past.
More generally, it highlighted the failure of the Britainseducational system to create an awareness that Britains wealth andeconomic development was built to a significant extent on thetransatlantic slave trade and the exploitation of other human beingson plantations in the Caribbean.
It pointed too, to the need for the teaching of economic and socialhistory rather political history; explaining the present-dayimplications of the acquisition of empire; where the funding forBritains early industrialisation came from and its subsequent socialconsequences; the more recent role played by the thousands from thethen colonies who fought and died for Britain; and how migrants afterthe second world war played a vital role in Britains economicrecovery.
Why none of this has yet happened requires holistic explanation, butthe simple answer could be because much of history shows that thewinners sit back, learning little from their victory, while thelosers learn from their defeat, manage to innovate, and eventuallyfind new ways to rise.
The reaction to Colstons toppling also indicated the absence of anyleading government politician with the courage to recognise how abetter national perspective on English history and a country atcultural peace with itself might channel honesty about the past intogreater global influence.
Shortly after Colstons statue came down, Prime Minister Johnsonannounced a new policy initiative to have a commission identify thedisparities in treatment experienced by minority ethnic groups andmake recommendations.
The problem was that this was not only behind the pay wall of anational newspaper in an article about Churchill, his hero, but itignored four recent and related national reports which have not beenacted on. Appearing to lack understanding, Prime Minister Johnsonsaid, What I really want to do as Prime Minister is change thenarrative, so we stop the sense of victimisation and discrimination.
In a hard-hitting public response, clear and to the point, DavidLammy, an opposition Member of Parliament of Guyanese parentage, whosegovernment-commissioned report is one of those not yet implemented,said that to distract from his inaction, Mr. Johnson was now seeking aculture war.
Britain of course continues to play an important role in the world,but to succeed post-Brexit, it will have to do much more than signtrade agreements and promote nostalgia. To retain its influence in theCaribbean and elsewhere, it will have to project soft power, enhanceits global standing, and cultivate a modern national image worthaspiring to.
Without genuinely addressing issues like racial inequality, injusticeand its history, Britain is likely to become more volatile, making itdifficult for its diplomats to explain its present and future place inthe world, let alone the relevance of Global Britain or the jingoismthat surrounds Brexit.
History cannot be changed, but it deserves to be better understood andexplained, not just in its original context, but in relation to todayand the future. The Caribbean has an important role to play in this.
It needs to remind Britain directly and through its Diaspora that itshistory is the regions history as well. It should find ways to warnabout the dangers inherent in provoking a culture war.
See the article here:
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