After the pomp and circumstance of Queen Elizabeth II's platinum jubilee and a historic gathering of Commonwealth countries in Rwanda, Indian-born journalist and author Salil Tripathi reflects on Britain’s colonial past, its present political challenges, and its prospects for a global, post-Brexit future.
Regal ride: The Queen and head of the Commonwealth takes to an elephant on her visit to India in 1961 (Credit: Keystone on Alamy)
When Elizabeth Windsor was a child, the map of the world looked pink. Britannia ruled the waves. Vast parts of Africa and Asia and some parts in the Americas were under British rule. Some of those countries had been taken over through stealth, some through open warfare, and some as the prize booty acquired after Britain defeated other colonial powers.
But after India in 1947, one after the other, those colonies sought – and obtained – independence. Elizabeth ascended to the throne in 1952, and in May this year, her platinum jubilee was celebrated with much fanfare in the United Kingdom and among royalists abroad, including in Britain’s former colonies.
One of the enduring mystiques of the post-colonial world is how Britain (unlike other colonial powers) has managed to emerge relatively unscathed from criticism over its rule. The Brits are supposed to have had a civilizing mission – Belgium ravaged parts of Africa, Spain had its inquisitions, the French fought wars. Britain did some of that too, if not the inquisitions, but it is remembered for the trains it built, for the educational institutions it established, for the game of cricket, and for the edifice of democratic governance, even if it left behind a legacy of colonial-era laws, such as those pertaining to sedition and official secrets and those that criminalize same-sex relationships and defamation, which the former colonies not only kept on their books but as in the case of Bangladesh and India, made stricter and sharper (although India has decriminalized same-sex relationships after an enlightened Supreme Court judgment).
Curiously, and appropriately, Elizabeth does not get the blame for much of this, nor should she. For she is a constitutional monarch, a symbol of continuity, who meets her elected prime minister once a week, delivering advice that is very rarely if ever revealed. The Netflix series, The Crown, offers speculative versions of those conversations, but there is no way to know if that is what transpired. Her longest-serving prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who served for over 11 years, famously said of herself that “the lady is not for turning” – Her Majesty is certainly not one for telling.
This is in spite of the enormous curiosity the British royal family generates – tabloids and even broadsheets have royal correspondents who eagerly await gossip passed their way by helpful (often mischievously indiscreet) courtiers; their photographers vie to get some candid shots that might get splashed across the front pages; the love lives of her children get chronicled, and the idiosyncratic and frankly racist views of her late husband were picked up eagerly. But she remains impervious.
She can get her tone wrong sometimes – her unwillingness to show emotions when her estranged daughter-in-law Diana died failed a grieving nation, but her stoic demeanor in the face of the wayward behavior of her sons (in particular, third child and reputed favorite, Andrew) has earned her sympathy. Twenty-five years ago, following Diana’s death in that car crash in Paris after a frenzied chase by paparazzi, in one-time British colonial outpost Singapore (where I lived at that time), I remember my astonishment at the sheer number of people across all walks of life, from Sri Lankan domestic workers to Singaporean Chinese bankers, who were affected by the tragedy.
Tony Blair, a Labour Party politician with an acute sense of the pulse of the people who was prime minister at the time, correctly canonized Diana as “the people’s princess”. This was one occasion when Elizabeth’s stiff upper lip failed, just as more recently her silence over Andrew’s escapades and granddaughter-in-law Meghan Markle’s anguished criticism of racism within the royal family has disappointed her supporters.
Making Britain great again
The beleaguered incumbent British prime minister Boris Johnson, the 14th head of government during Elizabeth’s reign, knows when and how to exploit national institutions. Having latched his fortunes on the Brexit bandwagon, Johnson attempted to excite his constituents by promising to make Britain great again. After the Falklands War in the early 1980s, Thatcher had promised to put the “great” back into Britain. Johnson, who had only shown disdain towards former colonies, hoped that one way Britain could remain a global economic powerhouse was by striking new trading relationships with the former colonies after Britain decided to leave the European Union.
But Johnson seemed to have failed to understand that former colonies saw the colonial period differently from how Britain did – for Britain, it was a time of free trade; for the colonies, it was exploitation; Britain thought it bequeathed law and order, the colonies saw it as a time of injustice and cruelty; and upon their independence, Britain sought to attract the attention of the United States and joined what was then the European Common Market (later the European Union), while the colonies developed their economies by forging ties with other nations.
Britain sees itself as a trading country, and as it left the EU, its pro-Brexit politicians argued that leaving would be easy. Global Britain would forge new trade deals with the United States and China, and ministers spoke eloquently about re-establishing old ties with the members of the Commonwealth of Nations, a political grouping of countries most of which had been British colonies. This showed the triumph of naïve hope over experience, for it assumed that the states of the Commonwealth, of which Queen Elizabeth is the head and her eldest son Prince Charles has been her designated successor since 2018, were eager to forge new ties with Britain, instead of strengthening ties with the EU. (Elizabeth is the head of state of only 15 of the Commonwealth’s 56 members.)
Britain sought to seek its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as the countries that make up the grouping were not exactly sure what Britain wanted and whether Britain is what they need, as they have all gone their separate ways. Among the bigger economies, Canada is entwined with the United States or the Pacific; likewise, Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. India is growing but wishes to be seen as a major power at the head table and would not wish to jeopardize ongoing negotiations with the EU over a trade pact with the UK. British politicians are going to find navigating fresh agreements with dozens of countries and rewriting many laws hard. Other Commonwealth countries have grown into economies bigger than Britain’s (e.g., Singapore) or have a different set of priorities (as with much of Africa).
Before Elizabeth’s coronation, British citizens could travel wherever they wished at will, without needing visas; today they must plead with and pay a handsome amount (by some accounts, £150 million) to Rwanda, to process refugees seeking asylum in the UK.
The colonizers and the colonized
Johnson has made much of revitalizing relations with Commonwealth members. At the recently concluded Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, Johnson spoke eloquently of reviving older ties, but some countries that can be part of the Commonwealth (being former colonies) have no interest (the United States never joined; Ireland left in the 1920s; the Gambia more recently), and with the addition first of Mozambique, then Rwanda, and now Togo and Gabon, it is no longer a family of nations that were once part of the British Empire.
Indeed, the Commonwealth is threatening to become another large body of disparate countries with few real links with one another and no cohesive ideology binding them together, or ties with Britain, for that matter, except, perhaps, a vague acceptance that English is an important language. It might arguably be less cohesive than the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie, the grouping of countries and regions where French is the lingua franca.
Clearly, the former colonies look at the past quite differently. Three books published over the last decade – none by a native-born British writer – have revealed how the colonized see the colonizer. The Indian politician (and former diplomat) Shashi Tharoor took part in, and easily won, a debate on colonialism at the Oxford Union in 2015. There he said India did not ask for compensation or reparation but was owed an apology. The house voted with him.
His speech had an electrifying effect in the age of social media, and virtually every Indian, regardless of party affiliation, cheered Tharoor. The debate led Tharoor to write the book, An Era Of Darkness: The British Empire in India, published in 2016, which refuted British claims of superiority, questioned the benefits of British rule, castigated British governors and their subordinates for their profligacy and arrogance, exposed their corruption, and ridiculed the conceit which has taken root in Britain – that the British rule was a divine dispensation, which civilized the natives.
Priyamvada Gopal, an Indian-born academic who teaches at Cambridge University, wrote Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, published in 2020, in which she showed not only how colonial rule was cruel but also how leaders in former colonies resisted the power and even influenced radical politics in Britain. And in yet another scathing indictment, Caroline Elkins, who teaches at Harvard, wrote Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, published this year, which meticulously reveals the violence of the empire on its subjects, robbing Britain of the sheen it had cultivated to distinguish itself from other European colonial powers.
Two British-born authors have also critiqued the empire in recent years: William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, released in 2019, shows how the East India Company’s unrestrained pursuit of profit attempted to undermine an older civilization. British-Indian author Sathnam Sangera’s 2021 book, Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, showed exactly that – that just as Britain tried to transform the world, the world it briefly conquered transformed Britain.
Johnson’s cabinet boasts of several leading ministers of Asian origin. Two of them, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer or finance minister, and Sajid Jawid, the health and social care secretary, resigned on July 5, unable to continue under the PM’s wayward and undisciplined leadership. (Sunak was replaced by Iraqi-born Nadhim Zahawi. On July 7, Johnson announced in an address to the nation that he would resign as Conservative Party leader, which would trigger a process to determine a successor.) The English cricket team has been led by an Indian-born Muslim in the past and others – black and Asian, as well as a few white South Africans and Zimbabweans – have played for the country. Its athletes have included children of Britain’s colonies. London can arguably claim to be one of the better cities in the world to enjoy good curry.
What the colonies remember the most, however, is the notorious divide-and-rule policy: The map of the world is full of arbitrarily-drawn boundaries, of nations carved out to accentuate ethnic differences – Cyprus, Palestine and Iraq – reminding language groups and religions of how different they are from one another and how they can live together only under British rule. A video by the Singaporean historian PJ Thum shows how the British created the Malay identity essentially to distinguish the native people from settlers from India and China, perpetuating racial differences that plague the politics of Malaysia and to some extent Singapore even today.
The British decreed that these groups could live at peace only when kept apart, with clearly defined boundaries, and that these boundaries would be carved and administered by officers of the empire even if they were often too young or inexperienced about the geography or society that they were called upon to control. The colonized subjects are emotional and unruly; the colonizer brings order to a society that would otherwise become anarchic, as though the colonizer had no role in accentuating the divisions which spawned the violence.
While Britain’s global influence has waned in recent years, nostalgic romance of the empire has sprouted in some quarters. During the 2019 street protests in Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese sovereignty 25 years ago, some activists waved the colonial-era standard and the Union Flag, hearkening back to pre-handover times but perhaps forgetting that London introduced democratic political reforms in the territory only at the eleventh hour after 156 years of British rule. The lack of moral high ground has not stopped the UK and figures such as Christopher Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, to lead the chorus of castigation against Beijing for the way China has behaved as post-1997 sovereign. To be fair, Patten did try his best to cement what little democratic form Hong Kong had during his brief tenure and, for those sins, he has been severely criticized by Beijing.
There is nostalgia too among some British historians – notably Niall Ferguson, but others of weaker intellectual heft, as well. Some of those works provide a comic-book version of the empire where the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in India or the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya were shown as aberrations. Particularly galling is the amnesia over the Bengal famine during World War II in which millions died mainly because Winston Churchill required food to be diverted to where British soldiers needed it, as author Madhusree Mukerjee showed in her pathbreaking work, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II.
Those colonies also remember the mythmaking back in Blighty, where Britain is shown as a plucky, lonely island fighting German aggression, erasing the contribution of soldiers from its overseas possessions. In The Raj At War: A People’s History Of India’s Second World War, historian Yasmin Khan showed how the British war effort was collective – it was the British Empire that fought the war, not Britain alone. Britain indeed suffered enormously but its defense was vastly boosted by the largest mobilization of a voluntary army from the colonies, many from India but from elsewhere, too. They saw action in Anzio, El Alamein, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Singapore, Kohima and Dunkirk.
Many Britons believe that the Empire was a good thing. A 2014 YouGov poll of 1,741 people across Britain showed that 59 percent were proud of the colonial record, while only 19 percent thought it was something to be ashamed of. Almost half the respondents felt that the colonies were better off for being colonized; only 15 percent felt they were worse off. Not surprisingly, Ferguson tweeted those results, saying, “I won,” because he has asserted that the empire was, on balance, a good thing for the subjects. To me, those statistics actually showed how poorly history has been taught in Britain.
Oddly, it is not an elected leader (Johnson) but an unelected hereditary prince, Charles, who has a closer understanding of some of the values Britain has claimed. While Johnson’s aides have denied it, British media has reported that when the Prince of Wales learned of the plan to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, he was “appalled”. That may not mean much and may not do anything to influence British political choices one way or another, but it shows how the values Britain claims to aspire towards or personify are probably present; it is just that those articulating those decent, civil values may not be elected, but are those who have a symbolic appeal, much like the British royal family.
The extent to which the House of Windsor will maintain its charms and continue to marvel royalty-watchers around the world is not known. The royal family, with all its shenanigans and scandals, has an appeal that is difficult to quantify. Its souvenirs get snapped up, on royal anniversaries British citizens hold street parties, and tourists spend millions of pounds annually to get a glimpse of regal properties, including art from their own countries acquired in often suspicious and questionable circumstances in their name. There is pomp and circumstance in what the royal family represents, even if it has no effective political power. Like children, the royal family is seen, not heard. It gives a sense of continuity to a small island some of whose leaders have delusions of grandeur, but what Dean Acheson, the former US Secretary of State, said in 1962 still holds true: “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role.”
The countries of the Commonwealth do not necessarily share interests – they do share a language but it is not the only language they speak. Some have twisted the fine traditions of English law into forms dissimilar from the original. At the People’s Forum at the CHOGM summit in Kigali, some activists called for colonial reparations. In March, when William, the Duke of Cambridge and second in line to the throne behind father Charles, and his wife Kate arrived in Jamaica, where grandmother Elizabeth is still head of state, the couple were met by protesters who accused them of benefiting from slavery and called for restitution and an apology for colonialism.
True atonement goes beyond financial assistance and technical cooperation to the least developed countries, welcome though they are, and calculating real reparations for the harm caused may well be impossible. But educating a new generation of Britons about the past will prepare them better as global citizens when they meet people whose nations were once part of the Empire.
The Commonwealth does not have the resources of the World Bank; it does not include many dynamic economies, as does the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its countries are not geographically close, unlike other regional groupings like ASEAN or the trio bound by the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the successor to the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). There is little ideological coherence or consistency among its members. But it can be a consequential force if its charter, which speaks of non-discrimination, equality, human rights and democratic governance, becomes a meaningful document. Doing that requires a different kind of leadership than what Johnson and perhaps any British political leader can provide. It may also require the royal family to play a more visible role but with humility, not nostalgia. It will not be easy.
Dalrymple, William. (September 10, 2019) The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.
Elkins, Caroline. (March 29, 2022) Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire, Knopf, New York, NY, USA.
Gopal, Priyamvada. (June 2019) Insurgent Empire : Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent, Verso Books, London, UK.
Khan, Yasmin. (June 2, 2016) The Raj at War: A People’s history of India’s Second World War, Vintage Books, New York, NY, USA.
Mukerjee, Madhusree. (April 15, 2008) Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II, Basic Books, New York, NY, USA.
Sanghera, Sathnam. (January 28, 2021) Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain, Viking Press, New York, NY, USA.
Tharoor, Shashi. (October 27, 2016) An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India, Aleph Book Company, New Delhi, India.
Journalist and author