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28 Sep 2022

Constitution

Politics and Society

In the wake of the death of Queen Elizabeth II, Sydney Nash discusses the need to have honest conversations about the enduring legacy of the British Empire.  

In the aftermath of the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the publication of several articles that discussed the history of the British Empire and were primarily published in The New York Times, provoked a strong, and often angry, response by some commentors in the United Kingdom. Is it legitimate to link the death of the Queen – or, to use her full title, Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith – to the history of the British Empire? For some, apparently not.

Maya Jasanoff’s opinion piece, ‘Mourn the Queen, Not Her Empire, was the subject of particular ire, but did little more than state well known facts about the Empire – that it was violent, that some of that violence took place during the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and that the United Kingdom is still to reckon with its bloody past and how that laid the foundations for the country that it is today. The first two points are indisputable facts. The third is an opinion, but a reasonable one (and one that I happen to agree with).

So why the strong reactions? To anyone outside Britain, these responses must seem incomprehensible, especially if you are from a country that was on the receiving end of British imperial violence.

I happen to be from one of those countries. My mother was born in Kenya during the period when the United Kingdom had declared a ‘state of emergency’, which it used as cover while it brutally tried to hold onto a country that it never had any right to claim as its own.

Members of my family were arrested during the ‘emergency’, or the Mau Mau uprising as it is now more accurately referred to, and almost certainly found themselves on the receiving end of a British boot or worse. Those final years before Kenyan independence are not distant history, they sit within living memory, and the horrors of them are enough to make you weep.

The violent acts committed by the United Kingdom in Kenya between 1952 and 1960 have been expertly researched by historians such as Caroline Elkins in Britain’s Gulag, and David Anderson in Histories of the Hanged. They included the use of concentration camps, systemised torture, sexual abuse, and forced castration.

Despite the best efforts of the British colonial administration, and officials and political leaders in London to cover it up, there can now be no denying what the United Kingdom did in Kenya. Indeed, the British government belatedly admitted to it in 2012 following a legal case brought by 5000 Kenyan nationals who had been subject to torture and other forms of ill-treatment. But Kenya is not unique. It is one of a depressingly long list of countries that suffered the brutality of an Empire that was not just violent on occasion but placed extreme violence at the heart of its operations.

And the legacy of that Empire lives on here today. I was born in Kenya but born British. My father moved to East Africa after finishing university. He taught in Uganda and Tanzania, before moving to Kenya and meeting my mother.

The reason he was in these countries rather than any other was because they were former colonies. He was teaching on a UK government funded programme. It was the Empire that paved his way to Kenya and ultimately my mother. Without it, I most likely would not exist. I, like so many others, am a product of the British Empire. Arguably, we all are, as the Empire whether we like it or not, is the foundation upon which the United Kingdom was built.

Yet, when it is raised, many try to shut the conversation down as quickly as they can. This seems to be what happened in response to these articles and I am still grappling with why this is done. What is it that people fear about having an honest conversation about our past?

While she may not have addressed all the wrongs of the British Empire, the Queen was not afraid to look British history straight in the eye and seek to make amends when she was in a position to do so. In 2011, for example, during her state visit to Ireland, the Queen made a number of powerful and symbolic gestures, including laying a wreath in Dublin’s Garden of Remembrance – a park dedicated to the Irish who fought against British rule.

There is much to be learnt from this example. In particular, we would do well to try to create a country that is willing to listen and have an open dialogue, with itself and peoples from right across the world, about the Empire, rather than use its energy to suppress these important conversations.

Our past is our past, and we cannot ignore it.

By Sydney Nash, former Civil Servant and UK-EU negotiator. 

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