Thursday 25 August 2016

The Not So Good Old Days

The Conservative MP Heather Wheeler has claimed on Twitter that the "British Empire" was the real winner at the Rio Olympics:

Honestly, Britain. You'd be a lot more fun at parties if, after your third drink, you didn't start mumbling about how awesome the Empire was.

This is what they call a teachable moment. As Empires go, the British one was relatively benign, but it was still an Empire. It was not a peaceful and voluntary alliance of nations; perhaps Wheeler is confusing the British Empire with the European Union. (She is staunchly opposed to the latter, but that's by the by.)

The British Empire functioned by killing people, taking their land, and controlling it for profit. That's what empires do. That's what the word means.

An empire may rule in a more or less competent fashion. It may build roads, aqueducts, schools, and so on. But the rule itself is always based on force, and managed for the benefit of the imperial power and not the subjects. India under British rule suffered catastrophic famines as late as 1943; since independence in 1947, it has had none.

In fairness, the British Empire was a creation of its time. It was no worse than the French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, or Russian empires, and usually better. But by modern standards, it was a criminal enterprise. The Royal Navy doesn't like to talk about its work as muscle for heroin dealers during the Opium Wars. Now the Empire has gone into history, and good riddance.

Wheeler's tweet may have been meant as a joke; but as John Scalzi has recently observed, that does not absolve the joker of responsibility. Her concept is so thunderingly stupid it almost stops being offensive. Almost, but not quite. Let us consider some examples:

USA: You fought a war of independence against us, and won. But it doesn't really count, so you're still part of the Empire, yeah? By the way, your Olympic medals belong to us.

Ireland: We spent eight hundred years killing your ancestors, from Cromwell's massacres to the Potato Famine. More recently, we were involved in a bitter and bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, which is not yet entirely put to rest. But you're still part of the Empire, yeah? By the way, your Olympic medals belong to us.

Iraq: We ruled your country from 1918-32. Much more recently, we helped the Americans invade, with no planning whatsoever for the consequences. As a direct result, you are fighting a vicious insurgency known as ISIS, among many other problems. But that's all cool now, yeah? You didn't win any Olympic medals, what with your country being an impoverished war zone; but if you did, they would belong to us.

Jamaica: We enslaved your ancestors and brought them across the ocean so the survivors could grow sugar for our tea. But that's all cool now, yeah? By the way, your Olympic medals belong to us. (Especially Usain Bolt's.)

Kenya: We killed your ancestors and took their land. Then we killed at least twelve thousand of your grandparents in the 1950s fighting the Mau Mau uprising. But that's all cool now, yeah? By the way, your Olympic medals belong to us.

Just how self-absorbed and ignorant is Heather Wheeler? She is an absolute disgrace to her party, and to Parliament.

I come from Canada. We have close and friendly relations with the UK, with no historical animosity, nor even any sporting rivalry. The British ice hockey team does not trouble Canada in competitions, and similarly for the Canadian rugby team. Our independence was secured 149 years ago in an entirely peaceful fashion.

On a personal level, Wheeler's tweet doesn't make me angry. It's just very sad, pathetic and greedy. It's like an old woman whose grandson is a surgeon. She tells everyone he'd never have had his career without her, so all the lives he has saved were really saved by her.

Britain was second highest in the medals table. For a country with less than one percent of the world's population, that's an amazing achievement. By all means, celebrate it and be proud. I am truly baffled that this isn't enough for Wheeler, and she feels the need to dredge up Britain's imperial past.

The Romans ruled England long before it conquered anywhere else. For that matter, so did the Vikings. Italy and Denmark can debate which one of them is entitled to the lion's share of British Olympic medals. Once they decide, by Wheeler's own reasoning, she needs to credit all her personal achievements to her historic masters in Rome or Copenhagen.

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