Boris Johnson and Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi visit the Westbury-on-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol Boris Johnson and Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi visit the Westbury-on-Trym Church of England Academy in Bristol. Photo: Andrew Parsons - No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / cropped from original / shared under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 / license linked below

Nadhim Zahawi’s demand that teachers teach about the ‘benefits of the British Empire’ is not about teaching a balanced view – it’s about using history to support the Tories’ patriotic narrative, argues John Westmoreland

Minister for Education Nadhim Zahawi has said this week what Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch said last week: “That pupils should learn about the benefits of the British Empire.”

Of course, and with absolute impartiality, both of them took care to stress that the “terrible things” should be taught too, but “we should tell both sides of the story.”

This invitation to never-ending whataboutery is being touted as a “balanced education.”

A new history curriculum is being produced as part of a “wider scheme to tackle racial inequalities.”

Kemi Badenoch claims that it will be decided by experts and will ensure that the teaching of topics such as the British Empire and slavery “weaves in all the different facets of different ethnicities into the story of Britain, without making it seem like one particular ethnic group or skin colour owns this type of history.”

Both Zahawi and Badenoch want to proscribe any viewpoint associated with Black Lives Matter. Without any sense of irony, they demand that “politics be left at the classroom door.” If you listen carefully you can hear the voice of the slave master echoing down through the ages.

This brings us to the alleged benefits of the British Empire.

Who should judge the benefits of an empire?

The Tory claims that the British Empire brought benefits to the peoples it conquered is dubious.

Tories are inclined to say that the British brought the rule of law, modern technology, and democracy, among other things, to the countries it ruled. Keeping a straight face while saying it is the tricky part.

The rule of law meant the imposition of British law on non-British people. As British law rested on rights over private property it automatically criminalised any people who did not hold with private property. In defence of the rights of private property whole tribes were annihilated. Disrespect for private property was akin to barbarism and savagery. This led to ethnic cleansing in North America and Australia in particular.

Ethnic cleansing of peoples from tribal lands that could be exploited for profits can only be considered beneficial to those who benefited. It was then, and is now a crime, and therefore not the rule of law.

The Indian railways are often cited as one of the technological benefits bequeathed by British rule, and at first glance, this might seem valid because we all benefit from modern transport infrastructure.

However, there is no evidence that railways, roads, and irrigation canals were built for any other reason than enriching the British. Indians were not consulted in any democratic sense. Furthermore, the Indian famine of 1876-8 reportedly killed over five million Indians, largely because the food that could have fed them was being taken by rail to Indian ports for export.

Claiming democracy as a British value is a bit of a stretch. Throughout the nineteenth century, the ruling class did everything they could to stop British workers from getting the vote. Policy in Britain’s colonies was never about winning a democratic majority. ‘Divide and rule’ was the policy of choice and the scars left by it are still visible.

The division of Ireland and the Indian subcontinent along religious lines has caused, in the words of James Connolly, “a carnival of reaction” on both sides of British imposed borders. War and terror in Kashmir and as close to home as Belfast, demand to be explained. Promoting democracy was never the reason and the body count damns anyone who claims it.

Democratic rights, such as they were in the British Empire, were only for people with white skin. The view of all British imperialists was that black and brown peoples were unsuited to democracy or indeed the necessary requisite for democracy – equality before the law. South African apartheid makes the point.

There are plenty of educated voices from historians in Britain’s former colonies to judge the ‘benefits of empire’ and their judgment is almost always negative.

When Gandhi visited London in 1931 he was asked by a journalist, “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of British civilisation?” Gandhi replied, “I think it would be a good idea.” There’s gratitude!

As a child in the 1960s, I remember being told by a teacher that “Africans would still be living in mud huts if it wasn’t for us.” That sort of thing was common back then, and the Tories will bring it back if they can.

Legacy of empire

The Tories want to impose their defence of British imperialism on the rest of us.

This is part of the legacy of the empire. A curriculum that confines itself to looking at competing narratives, and narratives that must have equal weight if the dominance of one is to be avoided, will not get us far. And that is what the Tories want, because the anti-imperialist narrative will be just one, and it can be cancelled out by another.

This is far less the case when history students study the Third Reich or Communist Russia. Death camps and gulags, racial murder, and enforced industrialisation were indeed wrong and it is fine to teach that. But these evils also feature in the history of the British Empire and Britain set the standard for newer imperialist countries to aim for. A balanced curriculum?

The whole purpose of studying history is to answer the question: Why did this happen?

In the case of the British Empire that means what started it, and what gave it a dynamic force that led to it becoming the empire on which the sun never set and the blood never dried.

This is particularly relevant for students from former British colonies. They too are concerned with the legacy of the empire. For too long they have been written out of history, and their homelands have often been devastated by British rule.

The stripping of resources, both material and human, and the imposition of unfair trading practices have had devastating effects on former British colonies, and teaching a full history that explains how and why it happened is necessary.

It is a democratic right, and one that we all benefit from, to be able to investigate history from the point of view of the oppressed. If black students, teachers, and historians also happen to subscribe to the politics of Black Lives Matter that is of no consequence. History is about discussion and argument and this has to happen in the classroom.

Instead of history being an empowering and liberating subject the Tories want to make history teachers into the ideological gatekeepers for narrow Conservative views. This looks like a culture war in the classroom, but thankfully the NEU has anti-racist teaching policies in place around which teachers can fight back.

The ruling class wants a history that raises as few objections to their rule as possible, but today’s ruling class has inherited their wealth and privileges from rulers past.

Any objective study of the British Empire will reveal that British capitalism is rooted in slavery, genocide, and theft. It will teach the next generation about the kind of people who drove imperial expansion.

And that is a stone the Tories want to leave unturned.

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.