Article excerpt


IT is not the job of the British Prime Minister to go abroad and do Britain down.

Yet that is what David Cameron was up to when he suggested in Pakistan this week that Britain was responsible for "so many of the world's problems" - and, as such, had no right to intervene in conflicts like Kashmir.

The UK is certainly not the cause of Pakistan's current instability.

But in the week which saw four elderly Kenyans take the Government to court over their treatment in British detention camps in the 50s, David Cameron was right to highlight the unpleasant edges of Empire.

What is true is that Britain's rapid retreat from former colonies exposed historic fault-lines which now cause wars and unrest across the world.

The expansion of the British Empire brought many advantages.

Hong Kong island might have remained a barren rock had it not been for the Royal Navy in the 1840s.

Their desire to trade - mostly opium - with the Chinese mainland turned this "fragrant harbour" into the "pearl of the orient" - the booming free-trade emporium we know today. In West Bengal, in north-east India, the foundations of Calcutta were laid by the East India Company.

Exports to the West turned this settlement on the banks of the Hooghly into a commercial metropolis and cultural powerhouse.

The British presence in India led to the development of legal systems, transport infrastructure and, of course, the English language - which is a vital part of India's competitive advantage today.

ACROSS the world, we might point to the laying of railways, digging of canals, the rule of law, and the spread of Christianity as the fruits of Empire.

However, the ledger on the debt side weighs equally heavy. In India, the British built up the great cities of Bombay (Mumbai), New Delhi, and Madras (Chennai), but stood idly by as millions died in famines.

In India, as well as Africa, human rights were abused and attempts at independence brutally snuffed out.

The suffering of the Mau Mau in British camps was an echo of concentration camps in which the British had imprisoned the South African Boers in the 1900s.

The wealth from Empire was also drawn from ugly sources. The traffic in humans from Africa to the Americas ensured the prosperity of sugar-cane planters in Barbados and Jamaica. Yet it left millions dead from the "middle passage" across the Atlantic or, if they survived, enduring untold suffering as slaves.

Few Empires - from the Romans to the Ottomans - end well. And the decline and fall of the British Empire was no exception.

Of course, the so-called "White Commonwealth" countries of Australia, Canada and New Zealand enjoyed stable paths to independence from the late 1800s, as dominions and then free nations.

However, colonies without a history of mass European migration - in Africa, India and South-East Asia - were not granted liberty so easily.

Despite the activities of parties such as the Pan African Conference and the Indian Congress Party, the British were reluctant to give up control.

The Second World War and American demands for an end to imperialism meant colonial liberation was soon a necessity. Britain could no longer afford its Empire and the Americans did not want to subsidise it. …