IIf the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge needed some comforting lessons after their awkward Caribbean tour, they could do worse than go back to Tony Blair’s autobiography. In 1997, Britain’s new prime minister traveled to Hong Kong to oversee the handover to China. Many years later, Blair recounted how he fought with Chinese President Jiang Zemin in a conversation about UK-China history, because, in his own words, Blair “had only a fairly dim and sketchy understanding of that past.” The history that is being discussed is the Opium War, which is why Hong Kong became British in the first place. Yet there was a boarding school and an Oxbridge-educated prime minister who had no knowledge of the history of the event that made up the trip under his supervision.
The idea that many ministers give today is that students in the British classroom are being bullied with endless stories of British imperialist crime. This is why the government now seeks to re-balance the scales with a new curriculum that highlights the “advantages” of the British Empire, as well as its negative aspects. Based on last year’s controversial Seville report, the plans promoted by Equality Minister Kemi Badenoch are part of a broader campaign to push imperial education away from the culture of persecution and identity politics in schools that the government fears, rather than structuring legacy. As for the empire and as a debate of inconvenience. Was the empire wrong? Was that right Which bit of the empire was naughty or beautiful?
But far from being inevitable, it is even more common to find a well-polished omerta about empire in our curriculum. This amnesia about Britain’s imperial past creates a widespread ignorance of what is happening in the world, which William and Kate recently discovered. Since protests over welcoming the couple during a Caribbean trip, the British media has been confused as to why Jamaica and other Commonwealth countries are seeking to release the Queen as their head of state.
Badenoch’s remarks on imperial education in schools were in response to a growing call from students for greater involvement with Britain’s imperial legacy. But his vision only reinforces the culture war that he claims he is trying to overcome. Learning about empire, according to his plan, giving equal weight became a game of positive and negative discussion. This endless back-and-forth argument over the morality of a century-long process will be endlessly propagated, eventually making the issue seem like a meaningless dispute in the long-distant past. Yet the empire is something other than ancient history. The British Empire only ended in the 1950s and 1960s. Earlier, the empire shaped the life of the island for about 400 years. Establishment of the Virginia slave colony in England or its colonial rule over Barbados The Act of Union, the Glorious Revolution, and even the English Civil War.
It would be amazing if this whole period of history had no lasting effect on today’s political, cultural, economic or legal system. Yet for many people, it is not uncommon for schools, colleges and even universities to be completed in the UK without even hearing of the empire mentioned once. Recently, issues such as the royal visit to the Caribbean, the Windrash scandal, or the Russian oligarchy benefiting from the privacy protections of British foreign territories have pushed Britain’s imperial legacy to the forefront. Such incidents remind us that empire is not a question of moral judgment about a bygone era. The empire is still shaping our world.
How can we reflect this reality in the curriculum? One answer would be to take imperial education beyond the history class and into other subjects in the humanities and social sciences. Currently, students cannot study for their GCSE in citizenship knowing that all people in the British Empire, from Lagos to London, had the same citizenship status as “British subjects” until 1948. In an A-level law course, students may find that in places such as Jamaica, the Bahamas and Bermuda, the Queen is still introduced into the British constitutional system without any mention of the head of state or her secret council acting as the supreme court of these countries. Students of English literature can read canonical books such as Jane Eyre or Mansfield Park, regardless of the colonial setting that provides the background to these stories. Economics students read a complete textbook on development without discussing how the subject originated from the colonization of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. This type of imperial amnesia raises relevant questions in a number of disciplines beyond the limits.
There is no reason why the Windrash scandal should not be the subject of study throughout the citizenship curriculum or why offshore Britain and global tax avoidance should not be discussed in economics classes. Expanding the avenues for students to become involved in the legacy of the empire would go a long way in moving the issue away from divisive identity politics, rather than Bedenoch’s plan to renew the debate over who is “good” or “bad” in history. Indeed, his commitment to highlighting the “advantages of the empire” is exemplary identity politics. It is designed to turn the empire into a totem that people are proud of, not as a lens to think critically about the world.
We shouldn’t expect anything less from a politician who told his colleagues last year that he “doesn’t care about colonialism.” Previously, Badenoch described the growing call for curriculum in schools, colleges and universities as a “recent fad” that is “not just misguided, but actively opposed to the basic purpose of education.” He even threatened that those who teach race and empire in school “without behaving in a balanced manner” are at risk of “breaking the law”.
In a climate where the government’s legal threat is backed by newspaper attacks on “Week Schools” accused of teaching “critical race theory”, it would be understandable if teachers chose to avoid the issue of empire altogether. The government’s recent guidelines on political neutrality in education specifically highlight “imperial issues” while reminding teachers that they “could be subject to a restraining order if their actions or conduct violate basic British values”. Such a charged environment does not encourage fearless and creative learning on a complex but important subject.
This recent campaign appears to be primarily intended to renew the silence on the empire in British schools. If this succeeds, students will receive an education that trains them to remain ignorant of the main issues that inform the world in which they live. And like Tony Blair or William and Kate, they have to navigate the global community with “just a faded and sketchy understanding” of Britain’s role in creating it.