IN CASE anyone missed it, the Labour Party launched a race and faith ‘manifesto’ on Tuesday. Jeremy Corbyn would like us to know that it will ensure that schools teach pupils about the ‘role and legacy’ of the British Empire. This should be good news.
The Empire’s greatest legacy is, after all, the 53-member-state Commonwealth of Nations. Almost all of these countries were once British possessions. They spread across the six inhabited continents, cover 20 per cent of the globe’s land surface and constitute around a third of the world’s population. Sixteen of them share Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. Only six member states have ever left the Commonwealth. Three of those rejoined and two have applied to do so. The Republic of Ireland, the sole lost sheep, was part of the UK before it achieved independence and joined the Commonwealth. Nearly all of Britain’s former imperial territories have chosen to remain within the family of nations that the Empire created.
This legacy is extraordinary by any measure and young people should be taught about it. The Commonwealth Charter (2013) sets out 16 core beliefs which constitute that legacy. These include democracy, human rights, tolerance, the rule of law, freedom of expression, sustainable development, gender equality and access to health, education, food and shelter.
Few societies in the past have been free from empire, whether as rulers or ruled. Being a subject of the British Empire, the largest, would be the first choice of most people. Why? Jeremy Corbyn appears unwilling to face up to that question, let alone to answer it. Instead he is planning to create an ‘emancipation educational trust’ in order ‘to ensure historical injustice, colonialism and role of the British Empire is taught in the national curriculum’. The focus will be on the legacy of slavery and how it ‘interrupted a rich and powerful black history’.
For Corbyn, the Empire seems to be defined only in terms of the British role in the transatlantic slave trade. He seems unwilling to face up to the fact that enslavement is an evil that human beings have perpetrated on each other throughout history, regardless of colour or race. In a reversal of usual perceptions, the British, too, were once enslaved, and a chief enforcer of this enslavement was Rome’s African emperor, Septimius Severus, who died in York (AD 211) before he could carry out a genocidal promise to wipe out all of those on the northern side of Hadrian’s Wall.
The enslavement of others is, sadly, a characteristic of human nature. To imply otherwise is racial and national stereotyping on a large scale. Slavery is as colour-blind and universal as it is evil.
The British Empire was exceptional only in being the first empire to abolish the slave trade (1807) and slavery (1833). Somersett’s Case (1772) had already confirmed that slavery was illegal in England and Wales. In his summing-up, Chief Justice Mansfield stated that slavery is ‘so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’.
It is remarkable that England’s national curriculum for history relegates both the British Empire and the transatlantic slave trade to the status of ‘Examples (non-statutory)’ that teaching ‘could include’. This optional status contrasts with a statutory requirement to teach about either ‘early Islamic civilisation’, ‘Mayan civilisation’ or the history of ‘Benin (West Africa)’.
Jeremy Corbyn is right to seek statutory rather than optional status for teaching about the British Empire and the transatlantic slave trade. He should, however, also be seeking statutory status for other landmarks of our history including the two world wars. More importantly, he should be seeking to restore some balance to the guilt-ridden way in which both Empire and slavery are presented in the classroom.
Instead, his plan is to promote the ‘injustice’ side of the story and thereby stoke the fires of grievance. The Commonwealth of Nations, the greatest legacy of Empire, should be at the heart of teaching children about our imperial past. The insight it offers, though, does not fit with the Labour’s desire for national self-flagellation. A dark cloud of despair and doom hangs over children in Labour’s vision of Britain.
The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has sounded an alarm regarding anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. ‘British Jews are gripped by anxiety,’ he observes. They are not alone. All who adhere to the values of our Commonwealth of Nations should be worried. ‘Be in no doubt, the very soul of our nation is at stake,’ warns the Chief Rabbi. He is even more right, perhaps, than he realises.