Magazine article Geographical

Jeremy Paxman

Magazine article Geographical

Jeremy Paxman

Article excerpt

Jeremy Paxman is a journalist and broadcaster who often returns to the themes of British institutions and identity in his books. Following the release of his latest title, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, Olivia Edward met up with him and discovered why he feels more comfortable referring to himself as English than British, and the reason he thinks it was "ridiculous" for Tony Blair to have apologised for the Irish famine

I wrote Empire because I was interested in what the experience [of having an empire] did to us. I think the influence is quite profound. I grew up in a time when Britain was largely divesting of empire, and so much of the furniture of one's mind, one's sense of the rest of the world, was informed by imperialistic adventures of one kind or another.

I don't think we can simply dismiss the whole exercise as something morally reprehensible and beyond consideration. Some of it was morally reprehensible--there is no way you can justify the opium wars, for example but there were other parts of it that seem to me to have been rather noble.

We wouldn't do it now of course; we wouldn't have the means to do it now, the instincts, the energy, and all the rest of it. But there's an easy judgement made about [the British Empire] that irritates me.

I think to see the narrative as entirely exploitative is unfair. [The exercise] was quite scrutinised, and once we got beyond the buccaneering days, there was quite an acute consciousness of the responsibilities of having an empire.

The Scramble for Africa suggests that if Britain hadn't colonised some areas, other European countries would have. And I would rather have had my life in the care of a [British] district officer than have had one of King Leopold's officials coming around and chopping my hands off because I wasn't harvesting enough rubber.

I think colonial history should be taught because it informs so much of what we do in the world, what we think is our place in the world and how we behave. Palestine recently bid for recognition at the UN. We didn't create that situation, but we certainly bear some responsibility for it, and we should be cognisant of that.

I think British people have been confused about who they are since the end of the Second World War. The Empire gave a defining sense of purpose and a defining sense of identity. But since the war, the withdrawal from India and Palestine, and the colonies going down like nine pins, we've been unsure about who we are, and the shambles over our relationship with the rest of Europe is an expression of that.

Working as a BBC reporter in Belfast during the 1970s brought me face to face with this idea of the British the British Empire, 'The Brits', the behaviour of the Brits, the resentment of the Brits--for the first time. …

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