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