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DIFF: Britain needs to understand the Empire, not feel pride or shame – Sanghera

  • 15/11/2021
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DIFF: Britain needs to understand the Empire, not feel pride or shame – Sanghera
Britain should increase awareness and educate about the British Empire and how it informs modern society rather than use it as source of pride or shame, author and journalist Sathnam Sanghera has said.


Speaking at Mortgage Solutions’ Diversity and Inclusivity Finance Forum (DIFF) leadership event, Sanghera said: “You can either use history to divide people, which is what is happening now, but I think this is a story that unites most ethnic groups in Britain. If you celebrate the fact that there are deep links going back centuries and if you understand that we don’t have to use it to feel pride or shame. 

“It is not our fault that any of this happened, I am not blaming all white people or all brown people. It is complicated and it is over, but all we need to do is understand it rather than use it as a source of feeling of pride or shame.”

He added that there was an “obsession” on whether the British Empire was good or bad, and said the idea was very “toxic”. 

Sanghera said: “We need to just understand Empire and not go on about our feelings, your feelings don’t really matter.”

He said it would be a good move for the Empire to be taught in schools more consistently and added there was change coming as this generation was the most racially diverse and were going to schools asking to be taught about it. 

He said: “I feel like whatever the government do, things are changing for the better, people are finding out about it by themselves, but it would be better if there was some national curriculum pressure behind it.”

Sanghera added that historians who were people of colour, such as David Olusoga, were increasing awareness of the role of the Empire but in discussing it they got “endless racist abuse” as they were “inverting the natural hierarchy of Empire”. Sanghera said he also got death threats and letters.

Sanghera explained: “You’re a brown person telling the story. You’re not Michael Portillo in red trousers in a big city, and that triggers some people, and they’ve got real connection to the Imperial story because their parents or their grandparents were involved. So it gets very personal very quickly. I think all we can do is to try to reasonably talk about it, but I think it’s a mission of a lifetime.”

Britain should view itself as an immigrant country  

Sanghera said in the UK there was little knowledge about the Empire or how it shaped lives and communities in Britain, whereas this was not the case in countries that were part of the Empire. 

He said: “The one thing I realised is that the average man on the street in India knows a lot about Empire, which is a weird thing. In Britain we don’t think about Empire very often, but you often go to Hong Kong, America or India and they see us through this prism of Empire, because that was the defining thing for them. That’s how we dealt with them was through Empire.”

He added: “In general I would say that there is not a huge amount of nostalgia for the British Empire. The problem is that we think there is.

“In Britain we look at our history and we want to be comforted, whereas in Germany they look at their history to try to understand themselves, and that is the problem with Empire.”

Sanghera continued that his identity and other British identities could be explained by the Empire, as citizens would not be in the UK today if it had not happened. 

He said “The reason we have a multicultural country is because we had a multicultural Empire. It is not just because of the 1948 Nationality Act, the fact is there are relationships going back centuries between the British and different ethnic groups across the Empire.”

Sanghera cited examples such as the fact that the first Bengali boy was born in London in 1616 and Queen Elizabeth I moaned about there being too many black people in London, which showed immigrants have been coming to the UK for centuries. 

He said: “I think the level of knowledge about why this country become multicultural, even in Asian and black communities, is pretty low. If you ask people of my parent’s generation why did you come here they will say we wanted to better jobs and to help build the NHS. They don’t give the actual reason that the 1948 Nationality Act made citizens of Empire citizens of Britain.”

This was equivalent to around 600 million people, which was an “insane piece of legislation”, and Sanghera said it was done because the British didn’t want to be accused of being racist following World War Two and that they knew they were going to lose Empire. 

He said this made Windrush even more upsetting as they were “literally deporting brown citizens”. 

He said over the next four decades legislation got softened and altered, which created different rules for those from the white commonwealth, like Australia, compared to Africa, Caribbean and India. 

“We don’t see ourselves as an immigrant country, and we should,” he said. 

Sanghera continued that there were crucial events of Empire that British people would not be aware of, including the Tasmanian genocide in the 19th century by the British, which is considered the “first genocide” and informed the definition of the word after World War Two.

He said there were 800 or more Aboriginal Tasmanians living in the country when the British arrived, many were killed by disease, but some were used as target practice and enslaved into prostitution. 

Another example he gave was the Amritsar Massacre, otherwise known as Jallianwala Bagh massacre, in 1919. Here, General Dyer with British and Sikh troops in the Jallianwala Bagh park shot at a crowd of protestors. Estimates of those who died vary from 369 people to up to 900, with some including women and children who were not involved in the protests. 

Britain as world-beating  

“I think it goes back to the fact we literally beat the world at one stage and we have to keep subconsciously reminding ourselves of the fact.”

He added this was something that all politicians did, with Keir Starmer and Boris Johnson all claiming that Britain was world-beating in some way. 

Sanghera said during the pandemic especially the term “world-beating” was used hundreds of times. 

He said: “There are ways of being proud of Britain. I am very proud of so many things about Britain, about pop music, NHS. You can be proud of these things without being jingoistic about it and saying we have beaten everyone else.”

Institutional racism  

He said while the idea of institutional racism was “rejected” by the government with a report earlier this year stating it did not exist, there were multiple examples of institutional racism in British society.

He pointed to the way Sikhs and Irish people were treated in the 19th century, which echoed how they were treated in Empire. 

Sanghera also pointed to the Civil Service graduate scheme, which had 339 black applicants in 2018, but no roles were given to any of them.

“Are you telling me that out of 339 black applicants not one of them was good enough for the test? That is institutional racism,” he added. 

He also pointed to Yorkshire Cricket Club, which was hit by a racism scandal in recent weeks after a report found Yorkshire player Azeem Rafiq was the victim of racial harassment and bullying. 

“They literally find examples of racist abuse, they have a report, they sit on it. No one is fired and it takes two years before the news comes out and then everyone resigns in disgrace. This is 2021, but that is institutional racism,” he said. 

Government apologies can be very ‘healing’ 

Sanghera said government apologies for previous events of Empire could be very healing and said Britain had already demonstrated it was capable of such apologies. 

He said: “Politicians often say, if you apologise for that you’re gonna have to apologise for so many other things. The thing is, the British have apologised. They apologised as part of the Good Friday Agreement. Tony Blair made a bunch of apologies about what happened in Ireland, including the Great potato famine, so we are capable of doing it.”

He added that the British also apologised for the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s, where the British tortured and terrorised those fighting for independence. Britain lost a court case and had to pay compensation. 

Sanghera said: “I think it’d be a very healing thing to for us to do. It’d be a very wise and humane thing to do. I don’t think it would mean that British people have to apologise for 500 years worth of events, but actually it would have enormous power I think, as it has done in Ireland.”

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