Should Britain apologise for its racist past?

Australia has a National Sorry Day. Should we do the same?

28th May 2019

This week marks an important date in Australian history.

Sunday was Australia’s National Day of Healing, previously known as “National Sorry Day” an annual day of remembrance for the Stolen Generation. These were the children of Aboriginal People and other Indigenous Australians seized by the authorities between 1905 and 1967. This was done in an attempt to better assimilate them into white Australian society; or in their words, to “civilise” them. As a result, whole families and communities were torn apart, and many of the children taken became victims of physical and sexual abuse.

National Sorry Day is a day of mourning and contrition for this and the wider history of conflict and persecution of Aboriginals by white Australians. Resulting in the total extermination of the indigenous population in places like Tasmania, it’s this conflict which led many Australians to see the destroyed families of the Stolen Generation as being the most civilised option.

Australians have a day of contrition for the crimes against Aboriginal people 📸 Michael Davies, butupa

It should be pointed out that National Sorry Day is simply an event to be commemorated by those who wish to. It’s not a nationally recognised public holiday (unlike Australia Day, the celebration of Australia’s initial colonisation by British settlers), and it was only in 2008 that it was finally accompanied by an official government apology.

These shows of remorse have also not done much to alter the way of life for modern day Aboriginals, who remain far poorer than other Australians, with huge inequalities in levels of poverty and incarceration, as well as in life expectancy. Nevertheless, the day does at least mark some recognition by both the government and the public of what was done and who was responsible.

Despite the calls for such by many in both Britain and India, there has never been any official apology for the Amritsar massacre

This makes a stark contrast to Britain, which has been facing its own calls for apologies over the last month. April marked the centenary of Jallianwala Bagh, one of the most notorious atrocities of the British Empire, in which colonial troops open fire on hundreds of civilians in Amritsar, India; only stopping when they ran out of bullets.

The centenary was marked by the laying of a wreath at the site of the massacre and expressions of “regret” from the British government. However, despite the calls for such by many in both Britain and India, there has never been any official apology for the massacre; nor for almost any of the similar acts committed during the history of the Empire. As Australia openly draws attention to the darker sides of its past, it’s worth asking why Britain rarely does the same, and whether we should.

Skeletons in the closet

Certainly, Britain has done plenty for which many would argue an apology is more than warranted. With an Empire that spanned 400 years and a quarter of the globe, we’d be here all day if we were to list everything done which would shock most people today. This was the real, underlying issue in the debate surrounding the centenary of the Amritsar massacre, and the reason why any kind of unreserved apology from Britain is probably unlikely. To apologise for Amritsar would be to open up a much bigger can of worms surrounding the whole of the Empire and how it’s remembered.

Even when just talking about India, Amritsar pales in comparison to some of the other consequences of British colonialism; whether it’s the second-class status of Indians at the time, or massive disasters like the Indian Mutiny, the Bengal Famine and Partition, which cost millions of lives.

There was a time when Britain “owned” large parts of the world map 📸 Walter Crane

The British Empire is often remembered as being a “benign” empire, one which may have involved invasions and colonisation, but which also helped advance many parts of the world technologically or culturally. It’s often compared positively to other empires, such as Belgium’s, whose ruthless exploitation of areas like the Congo resulted in the deaths of millions of the people living there.

However, Britain still has its own record of war crimes and human rights abuses during this period. It was a major participant in the slave trade and even had its own concentration camps; first in South Africa during the Boer War, and then again in Kenya and Malaysia during the 1950s, as part of the conflicts that emerged during decolonisation. But of course, it’s not exactly a brilliant thing to have to own up to and while they were nothing like Nazi death camps either in scale or effect, it says something that most Brits today would never associate the term “concentration camp” with their own country.

Many of the so-called ‘ethnic tensions’ in the Middle East and other areas have often been created or exaggerated by the carving up of territories in Africa and Asia

The impact of British colonialism is still being felt today in many ongoing conflicts around the world. Many of the so-called “ethnic tensions” in the Middle East and other areas have often been created or exaggerated by the carving up of territories in Africa and Asia and the favouring of one local group over another by various British administrations. These sorts of policies were significant contributing factors to conflict in Sri Lanka and Palestine, for example. Countries like Nigeria meanwhile, which was described by former British Prime Minister David Cameron as “fantastically corrupt” inherited colonial systems which consolidated all the wealth and power in the hands of a select few from particular ethnicities. Closer to home, the decades-long Troubles across Ireland and Northern Ireland also stemmed from divisions exaggerated by British rule and by atrocities like Bloody Sunday.

And yet, aside from Bloody Sunday, and the camps in Kenya, few of these have ever been met with an official apology. Even in those two cases, the process of getting any recognition of wrongdoing were long, protracted affairs which were drawn out over decades.  

The wrong approach?

Many have argued that these are things we shouldn’t have to apologise or feel guilty for. The past is the past, and to ask for an apology does seem wrong to many, considering it’s not those culpable who would be doing the apologising. Almost all those people are now dead, and most people living today, both in the government and among the general public, cannot be held accountable for stuff that happened way back in our history. Why should people today be having to make up for things that were done before they were born?

Furthermore, no amount of apologising can ever undo what happened. It would be easy, it’s argued, for the government to give some brief meaningless statement acknowledging what happened way back when. At the end of the day, it wouldn’t change anything, nor bring back the people who died. It might make the government look good and progressive but that’s about it.

When we’re talking about these massive historical events, with such huge death tolls and long-lasting consequences, is it not insulting to think that just saying “oops, sorry, my bad” can mean anything?

The sun never sets

There is also a tendency to portray any recognition of past mistakes and crimes as “talking Britain down”, or even as being anti-British. Michael Gove, for example, had a go at Blackadder a few years back for portraying WW1 as the pointless catastrophe it was. You have the same thing with debates on Winston Churchill. Any discussion of the dodgy stuff he did and said is almost invariably met with the likes of Piers Morgan sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting about him single-handedly saving us all from Hitler.

As noted by Dr Christopher Fear, a politics lecturer at the University of Hull, one inescapable reason why Britain so rarely apologises for its colonial past is it’s still a hugely contentious issue. While the most ardent defenders of Empire usually attract a good deal of controversy, there are plenty of people who do argue the Empire was a largely positive force in the long run, helping to spread liberal ideals and economic advancement.

Only back in February, Jacob Rees-Mogg was arguing that prisoners of the camps in South Africa were there for the prisoners’ own good, downplaying the death toll by comparing it, incorrectly, to Glasgow’s at the same time.

YouGov meanwhile found that as many as 59% of people still take great pride in the Empire and around 49% maintain it left its former colonies better off. As many as a third meanwhile actively wished there was still an Empire (that’ll be the Brexit voters). The prevailing attitude is still very much that the Empire did have many positives and did help advance huge areas of the world.

Many Tory leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher, have done well out of evoking Britain’s imperial past

To openly condemn Britain’s history of colonialism, therefore, might be unwise for either main party if they want to win support from voters. As Fear notes, this is perhaps particularly true of the Conservatives, since Conservative voters are far more likely to look favourably on the Empire. The Conservatives were often seen as the Party of the Empire at the time and many Tory leaders since, such as Margaret Thatcher, have done well out of evoking Britain’s imperial past. But, he adds, opposition parties face just the same pressure.

For example, while Tony Blair’s Labour government offered apologies for Bloody Sunday, many of the working class voters Labour relies on are just as attached to the Empire as more traditionally Conservative voters. The apology for Bloody Sunday was likely as much a result of Blair’s efforts to end the Troubles as it was anything else, and it was his government which ignored calls by South Africa for a similar apology over the Boer War. For all politicians of the two main parties, any outright rejection of Britain’s imperial past is “very unlikely”, according to Fear.

Regret, not guilt

Of course, it’s hardly just Britain which has this tendency to avoid apologising for their past. Not many countries like to confront the worst chapters of their histories; as seen with the debates in America over Columbus Day and the statues of Confederate generals, or in the hero worship Stalin still gets in Russia.

Professor Thomas Berger, of Boston University, points out how those countries that have issued unreserved apologies for their colonial pasts are relatively few. He cites Japan as one, as well as Italy under Berlusconi as another. But, he adds, even these have usually been motivated by the needs of the current political climate as much as anything else. Italy’s apology to Libya, for example, was closely linked to the signing of a large scale business deal between the two countries. This made it beneficial for both of them to try and redress their past relationship and move on.

This is, by and large, the norm in these situations. Most countries will try and avoid admitting guilt for any past misdeeds because of the potential costs involved. These costs include not just their own self-image and the kinds of electoral considerations mentioned earlier, but also some very real financial costs as well. This is what Chris Fear emphasises above all, pointing out how once you’ve admitted guilt or blame for something then you are implying legal liability for what happened. This then makes it much easier for victims to press for some form of compensation. And considering the scale of these historical events, this could be a huge deal.

It is a basic rule of thumb that no state or culture will embrace this kind of guilt for something unless they are forced to

Take for example the slave trade, the human cost of which is incalculable, with descendants of slaves scattered throughout the world — not something the government is going to want to pay for. This was likely the key reason it took almost 60 years to get an apology for what took place in Kenya, with respective British governments continually challenging veterans demands for reparations.

It’s much easier, Fear notes, to do as Britain did with Amritsar and simply state it was “regrettable” but stop short of admitting to any actual blame. Once you apologise for something then it opens the door to these kinds of demands for compensation and reparations. Regret, on the other hand, “is very easy, and completely free to express”.

It is a basic rule of thumb, he asserts, that no state or culture will embrace this kind of guilt for something unless they are forced to. Whether a nation apologises or not for its past will always depend on whether the lack of an apology would, in fact, be more costly in the long run.

The Allies, as the victors, weren’t forced to confront any of their actions during the Second World War

A good example of this is Germany. After its defeat in the Second World War, the country made many heartfelt, unreserved apologies for the Holocaust and other atrocities, as well as paying huge reparations both to Israel and to Holocaust survivors. There has ever since been a strong culture in the country of remembrance and atonement for what was done. While these acts of contrition are undoubtedly sincere, they could also hardly have been avoided. Germany was forced to accept guilt for the war as part of the terms of their surrender.

Its actions during the war had horrified the world and attracted international condemnation. On top of this, the Allies enforced an intense “denazification” of the country throughout the post-war period. All this meant that Germany had no choice but to actively confront the things it had done and to clearly demonstrate its remorse to the rest of the world. The Allies meanwhile, as the victors, weren’t forced to confront any of their actions during the war. To this day there’ve been no apologies for the bombings of cities like Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with many passionately believing they were completely justified as part of the war effort.

Countries like Germany are more transparent about their past than we are in Britain 📸 Jorge Royan

Perhaps most importantly though, Germans living through the war had gone through just as much hell as the rest of Europe. The country had been completely devastated, millions of their troops had been killed, and many of their own people were among the Nazis’ victims. There was huge pressure from within as well as from outside of the country to make amends for what had happened.

This, Berger argues, is another reason why some countries simply cannot afford to ignore their past as others do and it’s probably a key reason why Australia felt the need to have its own day of recognition. Aboriginal people were living in Australia, not in some other far off country, and their status remains a pressing issue within Australian politics today. As Berger explains: “With the pluralisation of politics and the decline of racist ideologies globally, previously oppressed ethnic groups — African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans or First peoples — have emerged as powerful political groups that cannot be ignored and that are strongly committed to addressing past injustices.”

Why this matters

It’s unlikely then that Britain will be changing its stance on apologising for historical grievances any time soon. There’s simply no real pressure for them to do so, either inside or outside the country, while the potential costs involved could be extremely high. But is this even an issue?

As noted, just giving an apology without any other form of compensation or cultural shift can ring a bit hollow. However, giving an apology has often been the first step to more serious attempts to redress the balance, as happened in the dispute with Kenya. Australia’s National Sorry Day might seem as if it’s been a bit useless in terms of bringing about change but it does at least keep the issues facing Aboriginal people on the agenda.  

More than this though, a willingness to recognise past mistakes would also show that we have indeed moved past this part of our history and that we can be honest about how Britain has acquired its privileged position in the world. The past is the past but this unwillingness to confront the uglier aspects of Empire has an impact here and now and allows for a lot of the old imperialistic attitudes to continue unchallenged.

Most people tend not to know about the extent of what was done throughout their history

This was made very clear during the commemorations for Amritsar. In his recent documentary on the massacre, Sathnam Sanghera talked with one of the descendants of the general who ordered the massacre. Their response, when hearing about what took place was, of course, that it was awful but that there were awful things happening without the British.

Precisely because Britain doesn’t have the same culture of recognition and atonement as countries like Germany do, most people tend not to know about the extent of what was done throughout their history; with the possible exceptions of the Troubles and the Slave Trade. While Germany has an official day of remembrance and various large memorials for the Holocaust and its victims, Britain’s only ever had one museum dedicated to the Empire and it cast it in a flattering light, though admittedly it closed down back in 2012 due to a lack of support from the public.

In an age where Britain still intervenes in some countries to “fight terror” while arming others who are just as repressive, this kind of attitude does still matter. It is vitally important that Britain starts to own up to its own past; not only for the sake of common decency towards the victims or honesty about our history but so we can have a more accurate understanding of where we are in the present as well.

Main image: Adrian Snood

28th May 2019