‘This refusal to engage with our full racial history matters not primarily because it impedes our capacity to understand what happened, but because it thwarts our ability to understand what is going on now. “I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships,” the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes in his book After Virtue. “The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide.”
Since we did not get to this place through accident or ignorance, we will not get out of it by luck or learning either. The issue is not simply remembering better, rewriting the history books, removing some statues or even making reparations to those we have harmed – though all of those things would be welcome – but whether we can make the political progress to accept, understand and process what we already know.
The aim is not simply to be more aware of our past but more relevant in the present and, therefore, more capable of building a future from reality rather than self-delusion. As Paul Gilroy explains in his 2004 book After Empire: “That memory of the country at war against foes who are simply, tidily and uncomplicatedly evil has recently acquired the status of an ethnic myth. It explains how the country remade itself through war and victory but can also be understood as a rejection or deferral of its present problems.”
Today people will say “we won the war”, even if they didn’t fight and even if they weren’t born. They will say “we won the World Cup”, even if they didn’t play or weren’t born. Nobody takes the “we” literally. It signifies a collective identity that can span centuries and experiences. But when you mention slavery or colonialism, the same people will say: “I am not responsible. I wasn’t alive. I wasn’t there.” The collective, historical British identity that people would otherwise embody in moments of victory and national pride becomes suddenly and urgently estranged and elusive when it comes to less flattering periods in our history. This contradiction is clearly unsustainable.
But power has many parents, while the brutality it took to acquire it is all too often an orphan. As such, Britain is not nostalgic for “empire” per se but for a period when it felt better about its past. The ailment here is not amnesia or aphasia but addiction. Britain is hooked on its status as a world power and anxious about the unrelenting decline in that status. Looking to a future in which it is smaller and less influential, it finds more comfort in nostalgia. But in order to remember that it was powerful it must first forget how it became powerful.’ (from The Guardian)
The Guardian has been running a revelatory series about uncovering the links between the founders of the newspaper in the early 19th Century, and the slave trade, principally via the cotton industry in Manchester. I can attest to the attitudes written about here, as those were the ones that imbued the culture I grew up in. As with all these things, saying now that they are wrong does not condemn us for having believed them, but encourages us to learn more and be more generous as a result.