Should I be embarrased to be British and ashamed of the British Empire?
I am not ashamed
By Quentin Langley
Dateline 05 September 2001
There is a cosy state of semi-sleep one can often attain between the alarm first going off and the need to actually get up. On Monday, as so often before, mine was disturbed by the very pressing need to shout abuse at a speaker on Radio Four’s Today Programme. This time it was Rev. Jesse Jackson. He wants me to apologise. He wants me to feel ashamed. And, naturally, he wants me to give him money.
Jesse is upset about slavery. I am not surprised. The subject angers me, too. But Jesse thinks that slavery is something I did to him. He thinks I am responsible for it because I am white and British. He believes he is a victim of it because he is black and American. I have, of course, never owned a slave and Jesse has never been owned by anyone. No-one now living has owned a slave anywhere in Britain or America. It is 170 years since every slave in the British Empire was emancipated and almost 140 years since the campaign to end slavery in the USA helped to trigger the bloodiest war in America’s history.
Now, I do not believe in the concept of blood guilt. I am sure that when Martin Luther King called for people to be judged by the content of their character, he meant their own character, and not the character of other people, long dead, who happened to have been born in the same land.
But even if I believed that I inherited the guilt of my ancestors, then Jesse Jackson would still be wrong. For the history of slavery in Africa is not as he portrays it. The slave trade is not something inflicted on Africa from the outside by Britain and America. Slavery existed in every ancient society: not just Greece and Rome. It is recorded in every chapter of the Bible and every verse of Homer’s. There was slavery in Babylon, Persia and Egypt. The land of the Pharaohs was already ancient when Socrates taught in Athens. And its records show there was slavery throughout its history. When Herodotus visited the Egyptian slave markets they were already thousands of years old. This same Herodotus, who knew Egypt so well, had heard wild sailors’ stories about mysterious tin islands off the north west coast of Europe, but he did not believe they were real. He had not even heard of America.
The African slave markets not only predated, by thousands of years, the brief Anglo-American involvement in the trade but, thus far, they have outlived that involvement by two centuries. Two hundred years after Britain not only pulled out of, but actively fought to suppress, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, it is still possible to buy slaves in The Sudan.
Am I concluding, then, not no-one in Britain or America should have any guilt at all over slavery? Not quite. Certainly I believe that no-one should be paid any reparations unless they were personally ever enslaved. But guilt is a somewhat different matter. I did not choose my parents or the land of my birth, and cannot be guilty of things that happened before I was born. But I do choose my own voluntary associations. If I had ever joined a voluntary organisation which had a clear continuity of existence to the time of slavery and which had promoted, fostered, encouraged, defended and advocated slavery, I would feel guilty about that. Naturally, I have never joined any such organisation. Though Jesse Jackson, as a Democrat, has.
So, as far as I am concerned, there will be no apology, no guilt, and no reparations. But my declaration does not stop there.
Not only do I utterly refuse to apologise for being British. Not only do I decline to urge my American friends to apologise. But I will encourage British and American people everywhere to say very clearly that we have every reason to be proud of our history and culture: both that portion that is shared and the later, parallel, histories. Let us consider how that shared history and culture has changed the world.
The title for the ancient rulers of the Hebrews was Judge, for the ruler was the lawgiver. We have tales of how the law was given, sometimes with exceptional wisdom, but always given by the rulers to the ruled. It was no different in Macedon, China or Byzantium. The Roman Republic was little different in its tyranny from the Roman Empire. The Greek city states were the same. Despite the well-recorded efforts of Socrates, the Athenian Demos could, and did, authorise the most monstrous acts of tyranny. Law was the whim of those who governed.
Between 1152 and 1189 Henry II, the French King of England, changed all that. He established for the first time the idea that the law was not whatever the King happened to think at the time but was a clear and justiciable set of principles available and common to all. This Common Law is the basis of liberty in every jurisdiction that follows the Anglo-Saxon model. At the heart of the Common Law is the principle that everything is allowed unless it is specifically illegal.
But the reign of Henry’s son, King John, saw an even more remarkable innovation: the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta of 1215 still forms a part of English Law today and, through the Ninth Amendment of the US Constitution, of American Law too. Its details are unimportant. Its principle is fundamental. It establishes the idea that, not only is the law something separate from the government, but that the government itself is subject to the law. What a remarkable and wonderful idea!
In many lands around the world kings have been set aside and killed because a subject grew to be more powerful than the king but in England in 1649 something even more remarkable happened. The King was put on trial for his breaches of the law. And in 1688 another King was deposed for infringing the liberties of his subjects.
This notion of limited government is breathtaking in its importance, and far from being ashamed I would, even if this were my country’s only legacy, be terrifically proud to be British. That these ideas have spread beyond this island, and see their strongest and clearest representation in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution simply makes me even more proud.
But limited government is not the only English liberty which has spread. Consider the idea of representative government. Or the presumption of innocence. Or the idea that the state’s evidence at trial needs to be tested to destruction in adversarial combat.
I hope my American friends will not consider it an impertinence that I take as much pride in the works of Jefferson and Madison as I do in those of De Montfort and Burke. The seeds of liberty are always sure to sprout many flowers. The American colonies left the Empire not because they wished to abandon the traditional liberties of English Law, but because they wished to enforce them more strongly.
In the years that followed the American Revolution it would have been easy to assume that the coming global alliance would be between America and the French Empire. France had, after all, sent troops to assist the colonies and within a dozen years France had its own revolution. But the French Revolution took a dark path that was very different to America’s. At the heart of the French Revolution liberty was relegated to being one part of the troika with equality and fraternity. And French “liberty” is of a kind unrecognised in the Anglo-Saxon world, for it does not depend on the concept of limited government. Quite the reverse. The French Revolution glorified the role of unlimited government to bend individuals to the aims of the state. France then began to forcibly export these ideas across Europe, along with the Civil Law of the Code Napoleon. Civil Law is the opposite of Common Law. Its fundamental assumption is that all activities must be licensed by the government. Nothing is legal unless the government says so.
And the policy of Britain? It was to patiently build continental alliances until the tide of the French aggression could be rolled back and Bonaparte’s conquests could be undone.
Despite the hideous sidetrack of the French Revolution the enlightenment proceeded anyway. The Anglo-Saxon cultures spread the ideas of liberty, including the forcible abolition of the slave trade and then slavery itself.
None of this is to say that either Britain or America is perfect. Or that no valuable ideas have come to us from elsewhere. Britain was not the first country to abolish slavery. All countries have been led at different times by knaves or rogues. And even well-meaning leaders sometimes make horrendous errors. The seal on the Magna Carta did not mean that abuse of human rights in England came to a sudden stop. Even America’s written constitution has not always been – and is not currently – applied as it is written. But the balance of advantage seems to me to be clear. The English-speaking peoples have contributed much to the cause of human rights and the dignity of people everywhere.
And in the world’s most turbulent century yet the British Empire and the USA formed an alliance. It was diffident at first, and during the course of the century power within the alliance shifted dramatically. But the fall of Prussia’s Imperium in Germany, the defeat of Japan’s East Asian Empire, and the defeat of the evil twin ideologies of National Socialism and Soviet Communism were all made possible by the Anglo-American alliance. The two brightest moments of that roller coaster century – the Nuremberg trial and the collapse of the Berlin Wall – were triumphs for the Anglo-Saxon world.
The allies have had their differences. But by patient diplomacy, the measured use of force, and most importantly by providing beacons which show that the power of government can be restrained, the Anglo-Saxon powers have slowly made the world a better place and the lot of humanity a more dignified one.
So, not only am I not going to apologise for being British, I am going to encourage all my British and American friends to take a justified pride in the achievements and values of our culture.
Copyright © Quentin Langley 05 September 2001