According to YouGov, 59% of British people are proud of the British Empire.
I don’t think they’re actually proud of the torture of the Mau Mau in Kenya, or of the 10 million deaths in Bengal that happened as the direct result of the East India Company’s decision to force local farmers to grow opium poppies, or of the millions of people enslaved in Africa and forced to work in horrendous conditions in the Americas, or of the genocides of indigenous people committed in Australia and North America. I think they probably just don’t know about these things.
This is a profound problem for our public life. The British Empire is probably the episode in British history that has done the most to shape modern Britain as it exists today, and it is a period of our history of we which seem to be collectively ignorant.
And it is this ignorance that sustains the fantastical thinking around Brexit, and the desire to build an Empire 2.0 that have no basis in the real world and are doomed to failure. It is this rose-tinted, shallow version of the history of the empire, of plucky chaps in pith helmets venturing into the back end of beyond and building civilisation from scratch, which has sustained the baseless ‘have your cake and eat it’ politics of the Brexiteers.
Our public discourse is poisoned by our popular ignorance about the history of Empire, which is preventing us from collectively making sense of the position of Britain in the world in the 21st century.
This level of collective public ignorance is sustained by the fact that the history of the Empire is not taught to young people as a matter of course. Cambridge Assessment’s 2014 survey of A Level History choices found several permutations of Tudor history making the top 10 but few teachers opting to teach their students about the British Empire.
You could attempt to put the history of the Empire on the national curriculum, as Jeremy Corbyn has previously suggested.
But I don’t think that this would be nearly enough to redress this issue. Notwithstanding the fact that only local authority maintained schools are obligated to teach the National Curriculum, meaning that no academies or free schools could be compelled to follow such an instruction, it also wouldn’t secure much. Currently the only topic on the History National Curriculum as a compulsory topic to teach at KS3 is the Holocaust, which often gets shunted into a brief few hours at the end of Year 9. This is clearly not sufficient, and is probably a large part of the reason why a recent survey carried out by the Centre for Holocaust Education at UCL found that only 37% of young people in Britain know what the term ‘anti-semitism’ means.
Instead, in order to put an end to our public ignorance about the history of the empire and to provide the conditions for an honest, well-informed public discussion about the position of Britain in the world today to take place, the next Labour government should make History GCSE compulsory and make a unit on the British Empire a compulsory component of the History GCSE.
The Conservatives have shown how the content of exams can be used efficiently to ensure that teachers teach desired content in a rigorous way, as has been the case with phonics and grammar at primary school. Their desire to ensure that teachers teach a knowledge-rich curriculum at secondary school led them to reform GCSEs and A Levels to be extremely rigorous, testing vast amounts of knowledge and difficult, unfamiliar texts that children need strong subject knowledge to access. Labour should do the same by making History GCSE compulsory and making the British Empire a compulsory component of it as the most effective way of ensuring that most children get access to knowledge about the history of the British Empire.
The new History GCSEs are excellent and allow students to study a broad range of different topics from different periods and places. They are a far cry from the bad old days of Nazi Germany and 20th Century International Relations. It would not be hard to rejig how topics are offered by exam boards to ensure that all students study one unit on the British Empire. A Labour government could enlist leading historians and history teachers to produce a standard textbook of the history of the British Empire that could be used by all of the exam boards and which could represent a shared basic knowledge of the history of the empire that everyone in society would have access to.
This would go some way to enabling the next generation to understand their own history that much better. It would foster an honest understanding of the way in which the Empire shaped the world today and the way in which Britain destroyed the lives of indigenous people across the globe in order to enrich itself. Without a widespread and popular understanding of this history we have no chance of making sense of the position of Britain in the world today. The recent history of education in England shows that this would be one of the most efficient and effective ways a future Labour government could ensure that the next generation has that knowledge.