Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.
“It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true, that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.” So wrote George Orwell 75 years ago in The Lion and the Unicorn.
Orwell’s essay began with a disquisition about the German pilots who were, at that moment “flying overhead, trying to kill me.” That they failed to kill him was thanks, in no small part, to the heroism of the RAF. I suspect that even Orwell, cynical as he could be about his fellow socialists, would have been stunned at the sight of a Labour leader refusing to sing the national anthem at a service to honour those RAF airmen.
In his conference speech this week, Jeremy Corbyn tried to mitigate the damage, saying that he believed in “British values”. Like so many Labour politicians, he then defined those values as being primarily about the NHS – which, of course, didn’t exist for most of our history.
The impression of being ill-at-ease with patriotism lingers. From Hezbollah to the IRA, Corbyn seems prepared to align himself with any cause, however vicious, provided it is sufficiently anti-British. Orwell was familiar that tendency, too, calling it “the peculiar masochism of the English Left”.
Peculiar, indeed. It’s not a pathology shared by the French Left or the Russian Left or the Chinese Left. What makes some British socialists so allergic to their own country they will take up the cause of republican bombers and jihadi murderers? It won’t do to say that they dislike nationalism in general. Neither Corbyn nor his followers seem to have any problem with, say, Venezuelan or Irish or Palestinian nationalism.
I think it has to do with the Left’s eternal desire to identify with the oppressed. You can be a Venezuelan or Irish or Palestinian nationalist while casting yourself as a plucky underdog. But the awkward fact is that, while Britain may well have been a freer and more democratic country than many of its rivals, it also tended to have the upper hand technologically.
This was especially true of its interactions with non-European peoples. Corbyn said last week that he wanted children to learn about the evils of the British Empire and, inevitably given the Empire’s temporal and territorial extent, there were evils. Still, Leftists’ determination to see only the abuses is every bit as partial as the jingoism they decry in their opponents.
If we are determined to judge the deeds of our forebears, we should at least consider the whole picture. It’s true that Britain seized some lands from sheer rapacity. Yet this is only part of the story. Here is how Robert Tombs summarises the imperial expansion from the Napoleonic Wars onwards:
“There was little or no appetite in London for adding to the empire, and some conquests were handed back. Parts of Indonesia were returned to Holland in 1824. The Ionian Islands were ceded to Greece. There was no attempt to regain Corsica, which had previously asked to join the empire, after its reoccupation by France in 1796. Later requests from the inhabitants of Ethiopia, Mexico, Uruguay, Sarawak, Katanga and Morocco to join the empire were firmly turned down.”
Britain’s expansion into Africa at the end of the nineteenth century was driven largely by anti-slavery campaigners who never intended permanent occupation. The plan was to eliminate slavery, and then build the civil infrastructure of African states until they were ready to assume full self-government. With the tragic and sanguinary exception of Kenya, most of these territories were indeed brought to independence without a shot being fired in anger.
It is easy – facile, indeed – to become self-righteous when a past generation offends modern values. But, as Herbert Butterfield put it in the 1930s: “The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the essence of what we mean by the word ‘unhistorical’.”
Niall Ferguson has made the obvious but rarely remarked point that, for most of the countries under British dominion, the alternative was not unmolested evolution towards modernity, but conquest by someone else: France, Germany, Turkey, Russia, Japan or – worst of all – Belgium. We should acknowledge, too, the degree to which most African states were based on slavery – an institution that became more widespread across that continent following the abolition of the Atlantic trade.
Indeed, slavery neatly illustrates what’s wrong with the Corbynite approach to history. Judge eighteenth-century Britain by twenty-first century standards and you can easily become self-righteous. But, in truth, every civilization on the planet has, at one time or another, practised involuntary bondage. What makes Britain unique in the story of slavery is the determination with which it fought to extirpate it.
There are few countries of which Leftists ought to be prouder. Think of the characteristics that tended, down the years to distinguish us from other peoples: equality before the law, without regard for birth, wealth or ancestry; the mass franchise; universal education; jury trials; regular elections.
Like all nations, we have sometimes behaved shabbily. But I stand by my claim: no other country has been so secure a repository for human freedom. Our indigenous radical tradition has deep roots: roots that stretch back through the suffragettes and the Chartists; back through John Wilkes and Tom Paine; back, indeed, to the Levellers, whom Jeremy Corbyn and I both admire, albeit for different reasons (see here).
We gave the world Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and parliamentary democracy; we fought to liberate Europe from Nazism; we raised the prosperity of the ordinary citizen to a level previously unimagined. Who did more? Austria? Persia? Ethiopia? Siam? Against whom are we being so harshly judged?
In his conference speech, Corbyn said he was the first bearded Labour leader since Keir Hardie. I suppose that depends on whether you count George Lansbury: the high-minded pacifist had thick hair on his cheeks and upper lip, but not his chin. Lansbury was, in some ways, a very Corbynesque figure: personally incorruptible, a touch naïve, impatient with public opinion. He was eventually ousted as leader because he wouldn’t drop his commitment to disarmament in the face of rising Nazi aggression.
For all his internationalism, Lansbury thought of himself as an English radical. He gave instructions in his will that he should be buried at sea, because he felt himself connected to all the world; but that he should first be cremated in East London “because I love England very dearly”. I wonder whether Corbyn would say the same.