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Get over ‘colonial guilt’? Not so fast Mr Hague

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An abridged version of this piece can be found over at my Huffington Post blog, here.

In a recent interview with the Evening Standard, William Hague argued that Britain needs to get over its feelings of “post-colonial guilt”, stating that we have a “new and equal partnership” with countries unburdened by our colonial past history. Apparently we all need to ‘relax’, because Britain’s empire history is “no longer an issue for the rest of the world.” Is that so? In what world do the populations of former colonies, British or otherwise, no longer consider the lasting consequences of decades of exploitation and oppression “no longer an issue.”

Presumably, all that post-colonial guilt was washed away with Jeremy Paxman’s incondite effort to portray colonial administrators as benevolent public schoolboys on a mission to improve healthcare and education for the darker folk, in his very establishment series “Empire”. Owen-Jones has already covered why speaking of ‘getting over’ our ‘post-colonial guilt’ is farcical, but to suggest that the UK has an equal relationship with its former colonies is no less bombastic.

There is plenty of inequality in our partnerships with our former colonies. For a start, most of our former colonies remain, as they were under British rule, essentially our larder. They primarily export raw materials, leaving them open to the vagaries of market fluctuations and often depriving local populations from farming crops more useful to their immediate subsistence needs.

As in the colonial era, our former colonies provide us with cheap labour, a destination for obsolete technology, and markets for our goods, in return our large corporations, many of which were established during  the colonial period, or periods of dictatorial rule which ensued, have maintained a convenient interface in the form of a small, wealthy local elite, whose economic interests are tied to our own and ensure the perennity of those interests through economic deregulation, underhand deals and at times, even brute force.

Once in a while those sequels, which apparently are not, rear their head in the form of a local protest, typically presented as incensed locals burning or smashing things for reasons left unexplained. In July this year, luxury liner P&O Cruises  sacked 150 Indian waiters for protesting wages as low as 75 pence per hour. Uganda, another of our former colonies and one of the most corrupt countries in the world, has been rocked by a series of demonstrations over surging commodity prices — particularly petroleum, while in July, the country’s prime minister, internal affairs minister and foreign minister were all accused of taking money from Tullow Oil, a British company  scheduled to complete a $2.9 billion deal to produce Uganda’s oil.

And what about India, the ‘largest democracy in the world”, where a report by the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice found that in 2009 alone, 17,638 farmers committed suicide—one every 30 minutes – as a result of foreign multinational corporations, neoliberalism and cycles of debt. You might argue this has nothing to do with colonialism, or even Britain today, until you realise that the acute poverty facing millions of Indians today was not an inevitable state of affairs. Britain left India’s economy in a state of utter disarray – at independence, it was one of the poorest in the world, with an agricultural system designed for exports, not to feed its growing population. The consequences of the tracks laid by colonial administrators have far from disappeared. Without discounting the incompetence and corruption of subsequent leaders, to suggest colonialism is forgotten in India is insulting to those struggling with its enduring effects. According to Indian author and activist Arundhati Roy, “India has more malnourished children than anywhere else in the world, and more poor people in eight of its states than 26 countries of sub-Saharan Africa put together.”

Mr Hague would do well to explain in what way we have an ‘equal’ relationship with Nigeria, another former colony and a country in which British companies reap bountiful profits off the oil and gas industry whilst most of the population languishes in increasing levels of poverty. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, almost 61% of Nigerians in 2010 were living in “absolute poverty”, a rise from 54.7% in 2004. According to the report, Nigerians consider themselves to be getting poorer, despite the Nigerian economy being amongst the fastest growing globally, the bulk of the wealth accruing to foreign companies many of them British.

 The very creation of Nigeria was motivated by the economics of extraction, and nothing there has changed much. With or without formal ‘independence’ from colonial masters, the pleas of local communities, protesting the impacts of oil production on their land, livelihood and rights, have been not simply ignored but brutally repressed often through a collaboration of the military with oil companies including the part-British owned company Shell. US cables, released by WikiLeaks in 2010, allege that the company paid hundreds of thousands of pounds towards the deployment of 350 soldiers in the delta in 2003 and allegations that the police, the air force, the army are paid for with Shell money suggests a worrying complicity in furthering the private company’s interests through using state instruments.

I don’t know what Mr Hague considers to be ‘equal’, but by any standard the vast enrichment of one partner at the expense of another’s wellbeing is surely oxymoronic.

While nationals of former colonies are of course expected to follow the rule of law within Britain, British companies have been complicit in corruption scandals, preventable ecological disasters, ruthless repression and tax avoidance which deprive local people from billions of dollars accrued from the sale of their natural resources.  In many former colonies , British economic interests have trumped the basic rights of citizens, belying the very values promoted as at the core of our democracies.

If Britain truly had an equal relationship with its former colonies, it would not view the rights of their citizens as any less critical than those of British citizens. It wouldn’t sign profoundly unequal trade agreements deeply skewed in our favour and that of multinational companies and which threaten the health of millions of people by depriving them of basic medicines to treat diseases, like tuberculosis, which have virtually been eradicated in our own country.  In other words, it wouldn’t exploit countries already reeling from the legacy of our colonial rule.

What’s more, the legacy of a culture in which ‘white is best’ continues to impact the lives of ordinary people in our former colonies. From skin whitening products which promise to resolve marital woes by lightening women’s genitalia through to enduring class structures, forged through an imitation of the coloniser and which places English and all things British above the culture of indigenous people, the impact of colonialism is not such a distant memory for those living with its daily implications.

To suggest it is our place, as former colonisers, to ‘relax’ concerning the legacy of our foray into the world, is like a rapist telling his victim to ‘get over it’.

Today, imperial colonialism has been replaced by corporate colonialism and in this, Britain is still a leading player. Rather than underplaying our role in the exploitation of other nations, we must recognise its persistence in new, insidious forms, harder to detect through the  veneer of ‘democracy’, which serves to place the blame for the pauperisation of populations on elected leaders, rather than in an unjust global economic system, into which former colonies were inserted during the colonial era.

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Written by Myriam Francois

September 7, 2012 at 14:28

Posted in all

12 Responses

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  1. Asalaam walaykum sista, mahshALLAH everytime u write a blog or article u put your points of view so articulatly with so much wisdom and truth its a breath of fresh air and may ALLAH swt bless u junnuth, u need to get on to mainstream TV with ur views and let the world and other sistas herei spk so u can inspire other sistas like urself2 b brave and speak the truth witout selling our souls to the establishment for duniya purposes, keep up the wonderful work my muslim sista

    Kadafi

    September 7, 2012 at 14:44

  2. Salaam, very well put.

    mozibur ullah

    September 7, 2012 at 15:25

  3. Well said!

    M W (@mahstick)

    September 7, 2012 at 16:11

  4. In the words of Nathan Mayer Rothschild who in 1815 said, “I care not what puppet is placed upon the throne of England to rule the Empire on which the sun never sets. The man who controls Britain’s money supply controls the British Empire, and I control the British money supply.” Yet we remain distracted about colonial history and even forget to remember any useful lessons from our past. The majority of people till this day do not understand the trick that enslaved nations and subsequently themselves and their future generations. They do not understand this trick of magic called the creation of money. You could be born in London and lived all your life in its streets and never know that the ‘City of London’ is a seperate state with its own constitution. Add the Vatican City and the District of Columbia in Washington DC and then you would have ‘The Empire of the City’. The intellectual minds that have no time for history but actively work to analyze the world’s current affairs also fail to understand the implications of the conspiracy that is the ‘Petrodollar’ or the facade that is the US-China tense relationship. China is the biggest investor in the US. I will say no more.

    Myriam, people have praised you by saying you are an inspiration to Muslim women. I disagree. You are an inspiration to Muslims. Both male and female. The feminist might trap you into one category, the true Muslim who is a humanist will understand your greater appeal. Bless you.

    Top Cat

    September 7, 2012 at 19:11

    • As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

      You could be born in London and lived all your life in its streets and never know that the ‘City of London’ is a seperate state with its own constitution.

      Sorry but that is a myth. The City of London has a system of local government which is unique (the council is elected by guilds which mostly represent companies, not local residents of which there are a very small number, mostly in the Barbican and Petticoat Lane estates), but British laws still apply, the residents share an MP with Westminster and are also represented in the GLA (as part of east London) and in the mayoral elections.

      Yusuf Smith

      September 8, 2012 at 15:21

      • 1694

        Top Cat

        September 8, 2012 at 16:08

  5. Assalamu alaikum.
    I agree with brother Kadafi.
    Jazakallah khairan.
    Wassalam.
    SS

    SS

    September 7, 2012 at 20:59

  6. Reblogged this on Heightened Senses and commented:
    What a great post! How treacherous is it that the elite white men from the Global North are able to continue to escape from their guilt and turn a blind eye to their ongoing crimes.

    Though the ability to forget can sometimes be a mercy, choosing to forget is quite the sin.

    Imraan

    September 8, 2012 at 15:23

  7. There is so much about English colonialism that English historians either avoid altogether or barely touch upon – see: J Newsinger’s “The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire” for details. And I doubt yer average boink walking down the street knows or cares much about the subject, beyond Ghandi and the odd headline about the Mau Mau. Guilt requires at the very least admission and facing the facts. We are not even there. That’s assuming, of course, that you actually believe the baton has not been passed to the USA, whom we now acquiesce to in almost every foreign policy matter. In which case one can hardly claim to feel guilty about something we are happily continuing to do, albeit as a junior partner.

    Yakoub Islam

    September 8, 2012 at 18:19

  8. You can apply this concept to every empire that ever existed in history from the time of the stone age. Do Britons still whine about being occupied by the Romans? By the Saxons and the Angles by the Normans? I mean you have to, at some point, draw a line and move on. No one carries the sins of his parents or their grandparents.Also this idea that India was a peaceful prosperous unitary state before the British started to take control from the late 18th century to the second half of the 20th is of course complete nonsense. Poverty has always plagued the Indian subcontinent , empires came and went,and this goes for Africa as well.The USA is a former British colony as are Canada , New Zealand, Australia, Hong Kong,Singapore, and they are among the most prosperous nations/places in the world they are also not all majority white and most like Canada and Australia,economies are largely based on the export of raw materials.The responsibility for these former territories lies with the current rulers not with the British or with “rich white people” again a racist and narrow historical view of imperialism which excludes all other peoples and cultures that practice/practiced and took part in imperialism and turns white European peoples into unique perpetrators and eternal oppressors.

    Sander

    September 10, 2012 at 03:37

    • you draw the line when the former occupied decide they have recovered, not when it is politically (and economically!) expedient to do so – as for India not being prosperous – why do you think we occupied the place? because it has huge natural resources and in particular very fertile lands. so no, it wasn’t “always plagued by poverty” – if you want to bring America or Australia into this, why don’t we refer to American Indians or the aborigines and their current situation to determine how well colonialism worked out for them…ahh-not so well it would seem.

      myriamcerrah

      September 11, 2012 at 18:04

      • From personal relationships to organizations, conflict is an integral part of life. Still, when conflict arises, especially for the first time in any particular grouping, we recognize in ourselves and know in others a kind of disappointment, a loss of some hope that maybe this time we can have it be different — to support ourselves and others in taking the steps forward in those moments of acute pain that feels impossible to handle? How can we maintain the longing for openness and truth alongside the commitment to attend to everyone’s needs, including the person who feels afraid? This is no simple task. In the context of a group, or more so in the community, the expression of lack of safety has an effect on others, too.

        “Love” and “War” seem to be the two most misunderstood words in the world. Nevertheless, every leader and wannabe leader uses them to manipulate the simple minds to achieve their own end at whatever cost. The victims are invariably the innocent folks.

        To quote our dear brother, George Galloway: ‘I believe that on judgment day, people have to answer for what they did’

        abuhaniffahenley

        September 20, 2012 at 06:11


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