Labour, ‘gongs’ and the British Empire

Recently Shadow Cabinet Minister Kate Green was asked by Nick Robinson on his podcast whether she thought that honours should maintain the name of the Empire on them. She said no. They were divisive and insulting. In this she was repeating what Lisa Nandy had said in the leadership election when she called for the Empire to be removed from them. Asked about this Keir Starmer said he disagreed. He would “have a word” with Kate Green. The Daily Mail said he had ‘slapped her down’.

On what grounds does he support the handing out of honours with the name of the British Empire attached to them? None of us are responsible for Empire or slavery, of course. But failure to recognise what it represented is one of the main reasons for nostalgia in relation to Britain’s ‘great past’. There still lingers a great deal of national chauvinism in Britain, more particularly in England. At the extreme end this can take the form of racial superiority or white supremacist ideas. We saw the example a radio phone-in on LBC, with Keir Starmer. The wife of a Millwall supporter complained about the fact that he had been called a racist for booing the players ‘taking the knee’. Her connection to the far right was clear when she complained that it was ‘indigenous’ Brits who suffered discrimination, and that ‘we’ would be in a minority in 2066; that is white people. Astonishingly Keir Starmer failed to challenge this racist outlook and a spokesperson had to issue a statement to rectify his silence.

One of the myths of Britain, cultivated by the ruling class and all its attendant hangers-on, is that the country led the way in eradicating slavery. The hypocrisy of the ruling class is boundless. Parliament didn’t compensate the slaves, it compensated the slave owners for the loss of their property, to the tune of £20 million, 40% of government expenditure at the time. Moreover, slavery in the British West Indies continued under the form of “apprenticeship”.

The apparent ‘benefits’ of British rule (whitewashing its oppressive and barbaric nature) were expressed by none other than the Mayor of London in 2014.

“I think (Churchill) would be proud of the continuing legacy of Britain in those places around the world…a stark contrast of course, with other less fortunate countries that haven’t had the benefit of British rule.”

Yes, benefits like having your textile industry wiped out by the British (in the case of India) in their rapacious quest for filthy lucre. Black people were less than human. They were cargo on the slave ships.

The abolition of slavery did not stop Britain from bloody repression of black and brown people. From the killing of hundreds in the Morant Bay rebellion1 in Jamaica to the Amritsar massacre2 in 1920. The end of slavery did not cease the misery of the former slaves, even after the “apprentice” system was ended.

A Royal Commission in 1945 described the Caribbean as a region which “was crumbling under the weight of disease, malnutrition, depression and poverty”. These were the benefits of British rule, and one of the reasons for the Windrush Generation’s exodus to Britain for work.

The Labour Party’s recent document on international policy says that Labour has “always been an internationalist party”. This is not true. Labour Party leaders have had an imperialist mentality albeit a paternalistic one. None other than Clement Attlee, in The Labour Party in perspective, in 1937, could write:

“Over a large area the peoples are not ready yet for self-government, and in these territories the Labour Party considers that the British Government must act as trustee for the native races.”

He wrote of “the backward races”, which it was the role of Britain to educate like children to the point where they could be allowed to govern themselves. His colleague Herbert Morrison said that Britain’s withdrawal from black colonies would be “like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account, and a shot-gun.”

The awards, signed off by Her Maj, or ‘Gongs’ as they are known, are a means of stroking the egos of people who cannot resist the allure of being ‘recognised’ by the establishment, even if they have the name of the Empire appended to them. Starmer accepted a knighthood, and his rendezvous with the hereditary monarch was purportedly his parents proudest moment.

They are handed out to ‘ordinary people’, of course, but they have been used to award cronies, not to mention a few crooks. In defence of them it is said that some black people accept them. True. But other black people refuse them. Benjamin Zephaniah felt insulted by the offer of an award in the name of the British Empire, as have many others, white and black.

A political party which lacks the courage to detach the name of an Empire which no longer exists, from any awards, is unlikely to challenge the historical baggage which is revered by the Tory press. If we cannot admit publicly that the British Empire is something to be ashamed of, exploitative, rapacious and murderous, how can all the myths associated with Britain’s ‘great’ past be challenged? Echoes of the ‘civilising mission’ can be found in the quote of Boris Johnson above, and elsewhere. Weren’t they lucky to have been ruled by Britain!

The British state has attempted to cover up the crimes of Empire. We know that ‘Operation Legacy’ saw MI6 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office destroy millions of documents associated with the former colonies. In the case of Kenya thousands of Mau Mau were beaten, sexually assaulted, castrated and murdered. The Colonial Attorney General deemed this abuse to be “distressingly reminiscent of Nazi Germany or communist Russia.” He advised the colony’s governor “If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly.” The government made a £19.9 million settlement with victims of those atrocities.

Our imperialist past still hangs like an albatross around the necks of much of the population. Just as an individual must know themselves, be self-critical to be able to develop and mature as a human being, so a country must know its past, what it has done, what is good and bad, if it is to improve the quality of life of its population and strive for equality. The Empire informs the racist remnants that still exist and impact on the lives of black people and how they are treated by the state today. The shame of the Windrush scandal was no accident. Black people are treated differently to white people, by state institutions, and in employment.

The labour movement had to struggle against racism within its ranks. Think of the Bristol bus boycott which had to overcome the resistance not just of the bus company but the trade union branch, and the Imperial typewriters dispute in which the work place trade union leaders accepted job discrimination.

The Labour leadership cannot talk of ‘zero tolerance of anti-Semitism’ and at the same time be less sharp in relation to anti-black racism. When the woman on LBC referred to the Israeli Nation State Law, and asked why can’t ‘we’ have something like that over here, Keir Starmer froze, and gave no response3. His failure to challenge the views of a white supremacist only confirmed the doubts of many black members that Labour leaders operate a hierarchy of racism, and racism against black people is somewhat down the pecking order.

Both Kate Green and Lisa Nandy were right to speak of taking reference to the Empire out of the awards system. Those like Johnson who think johnny foreigner was damned lucky to be ruled over by the British need to be challenged. Talk of ‘changing our history’ is nonsense. It is a question of telling the truth about Britain’s imperial past. The flack from the right wing media should be challenged head-on, together with the remnants of national chauvinism. There is nothing to defend in the Empire for Labour.

Martin Wicks

January 9th 2021

1Jamaica’s Morant Bay Rebellion: brutality and outrage in the British empire – HistoryExtra

2Jallianwala Bagh Massacre | Causes, History, & Significance | Britannica

3He could have said, that’s a racist law, we can’t have something like that over here. After all many Jewish people in Britain have opposed it. Yet he was clearly frightened of saying anything which might be criticised by Jewish ‘leaders’.

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