With Brexit on the horizon, there’s a chance the new prime minister’s actions will change the course of our country forever. (Or he may go down in history as the man who blew it.) With that in mind, we asked our contributors to pick an individual who did change the course of history — even if, these days, we underestimate their legacy.
When my generation was growing up half a century ago, we were taught the basics of history in terms of heroic British figures painting the planet pink. So we were told about “Clive of India”, whose battles consolidated our rule of the sub-continent that became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. We learned of Cecil Rhodes’s ambition to draw a “ribbon of red” to subjugate citizens from Cape Town to Cairo. And of other colonial heroes such as James Wolfe, the daring conqueror of Quebec, and “Kitchener of Khartoum”, who seized Sudan after initial setbacks.
Such teachings drove home the belief that there was something glorious about our imperial past, that we should be inspired by the idea that our island nation once ruled one-quarter of the world’s land. Never mind that Rhodes was a grasping racist and Clive looted India.
Today our honours system still clings to this imperial past. The Queen clutches on to the Commonwealth. And many of her subjects fall for the fantasy our empire was more benign than rivals for all the bloodshed, the concentration camps, the destruction of cultures, the famines, the pillaging and the repression. Polls have found a majority of Britons saying we should take pride in our colonialism, while a much smaller number believe that seizing other countries might be a source of national shame.
Politicians love to wrap themselves in a cloak of imperial nostalgia as they pretend Britain still rules the waves. Gordon Brown argued that Britain should stop apologising for its colonial past. As prime minister, David Cameron stood in Amritsar, scene of the horrific 1919 massacre, and said we should “celebrate” imperial achievements.
Boris Johnson went even further, saying “the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Liam Fox claimed Britain was “one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history”.
The enduring strength of such delusions — especially among older generations such as mine, although still fostered by nostalgic films and television shows — lies behind corrosive myths of British exceptionalism that fed into the toxic Brexit debate. It was even referred to by certain Whitehall officials as “Empire 2.0”.
So my history-maker is a remarkable man whose name is little known in Britain today, yet who was a political pioneer at Westminster, a role model for our multi-racial society and who helped shape one of the most crucial debates of modern times.
Dadabhai Naoroji was the first Asian MP elected to Parliament, a Liberal who made his initial appearance in the House of Commons in 1892 as William Gladstone returned to power. To place this achievement in context, bear in mind there were only four non-white MPs elected before a Labour quartet arrived in parliament in 1987 — and they were the first for more than half a century. Now there are four in our latest cabinet.
By the time that Naoroji won his seat, he had already been a professor, a businessman and founder of the Indian National Congress, later the party of Mahatma Gandhi and independence. Yet when he first stood for Parliament in 1886, losing in Holborn, the Conservative prime minister Lord Salisbury said that England was not ready to elect a “black man”.
His success holds immense symbolic importance given the more recent arrival of millions more Asians and other peoples to transform and revitalise our nation. He was a progressive politician who supported votes for women, abolition of the House of Lords and pensions for old people, aided in his parliamentary work by a young man called Muhammed Ali Jinnah, later the controversial founder of Pakistan.
But three years later, Naoroji lost his Finsbury seat, failed to win another in Lambeth at a subsequent contest and then returned to his birthplace of Bombay where he died in 1917 (five years before my own father was born in the same city, now Mumbai).
Yet what makes this Parsi intellectual such an important figure is not his brief role in British politics, nor even his promotion of issues such as female emancipation and free schooling, but his influence in challenging conventional wisdoms of colonialism that still cling to our country today. At the time even The Manchester Guardian, in an editorial responding to his electoral triumph, claimed that Westminster’s rule over much of the world was so noble “it has an open ear for every appeal that reaches it from India and… it knows no difference between the people of Bengal and the people of Lancashire”.
Naoroji pointed out the truth: Britain was abusing, crushing and pillaging countries such as his own with a brutal imperialism built on racism. Back when he was born, in 1825, a private firm ruled over 200 million people, the East India Company having plundered a successful civilisation that, according to one estimate, accounted in the 18th century for a bigger percentage of global GDP than the whole of Europe. As its rule faltered, ending after a revolt that my teachers called “The Indian Mutiny”, the new rulers followed a similar pattern of extortion to enrich their nation. As Lord Salisbury himself declared: “India must be bled.”
Naoroji, nicknamed “The Grand Old Man of India”, played a key role in countering the prevailing view of white superiority and firing up the fight for independence, little knowing that Britain would bungle this in such tragic style when it finally arrived in 1947. He even mentored Gandhi.
Most importantly, he pointed out that London’s colonial rule was imposing poverty by stealing India’s riches while deliberately undervaluing its labour.
His landmark 1901 book, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India, outlined the “drain of wealth” theory, highlighting how even the costs of occupation were funded by the over-taxed and oppressed Indian citizenry. This exposed the giant gap between liberal talk in London and the cruel realities of the British Empire.
The impact on Africa of the same arrogant interventionism by Britain and other European powers was even more destructive, as cultures, traditions and political systems were wrecked. So many people were sent into slavery that the population of the continent remained static for 150 years instead of doubling, as demographers believe might have been expected without such barbarism.
Even after Britain abolished slavery, the traders and owners were given compensation worth £13 billion at today’s prices – but nothing went to the victims. Yet economists say the impact can still be detected in modern poverty patterns. Meanwhile historians have shown the appalling tactics used to kill, maim, torture and imprison people as Britain tried to cling on in Kenya, inflaming divisions that still torment that east African nation.
Our empire was a system of repression based on brutality, greed, theft and white supremacy – and Naoroji pointed out this truth. His theories have been picked up by modern writers such as Shashi Tharoor in his brilliant polemic Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India. Yet they are brushed aside by most Britons, since our country has failed to confront its tawdry past. William Easterly, the economist and aid sceptic, even argued that Britain invented “development” as a substitute for its racist imperialism – and certainly our aid policies smack of a haughty form of neo-colonialism.
Sadly we have not had the courage to challenge the enduring myths of our “benevolent” empire — and this myopic vision of our history leads directly to the morass of Brexit, fostered by fantasies of exceptionalism, that is now tormenting our nation. How much better if we had listened to this sage.