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23 April 2024

Kemi Badenoch should read some Edmund Burke

Why the right hides behind a false history of Britain.

By Kojo Koram

On 18 April, Kemi Badenoch highlighted the biggest problem facing the British economy in 2024: historical accuracy. Speaking in the City of London, the Business Secretary made headlines by stating that “the UK’s wealth isn’t from white privilege and colonialism” but instead heralds from the constitutional and economic reforms of the 1688 Glorious Revolution. Correcting the historical record, she finally struck a blow against the ivory tower ideologues who consistently lie about Britain’s past in order to do it down.

One such zealot has even described Britain’s colonisation of the Caribbean as “the great source of our wealth, our strength and our power”. Harping on about colonialism instead of concentrating on the true story of how Britain’s prosperity was built on a mix of property rights, perseverance and prayer, this member of the wokerati wants Britons to feel guilty for having “drawn such great advantages from our possessions in the West-Indies” and drones on endlessly about how “vast fortunes were made, and the returns of treasure to England were prodigiously great”. One of the fashionable academic snowflakes who almost certainly wants us to decolonise the curriculum or something, hopefully Badenoch has him in her sights. But in case she isn’t aware of this man, let me point her in the right direction. His name is Edmund Burke, often described as the “father” of English conservatism.

Situating Badenoch’s remarks alongside Burke’s writings underscores just how bizarre it is for contemporary conservatives to dismiss the significance of Britain’s 400-year empire. Generations of leading British conservatives, including Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Chamberlain and Enoch Powell, championed the empire as a central chapter in Britain’s rise to global hegemon in the 19th and early 20th centuries. But similar interpretations today might see you accused of “censoring history” in the style of the Soviet Union, according to Michelle Donelan, the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, who dismissed increasing student interest in “decolonisation” when she was universities minister. And while many members of Rishi Sunak’s government have also downplayed the relevance of empire in making modern Britain, Badenoch took it one step further by providing an alternative origin story. Never mind the colonies, here’s the Glorious Revolution.

The Glorious Revolution was a monumental milestone in the trajectory of the British Isles, forever altering the relationship between the monarch and the institutions of statecraft. But seeing it as evidence of colonialism’s insignificance shows how illiterate public discourse has become with respect to our imperial past.

In Uncommon Wealth (2022), I wrote that “Britain’s relationship with colonialism is older than Britain itself. Rather than saying Britain had an empire, it would be more accurate to say that the empire had Britain.” The imperial project provided the background music to many of the major constitutional reforms that made this country. The Glorious Revolution was no exception. It is important to remember that the Glorious Revolution was a revolution that happened in an empire, not in a bounded nation state. Prior to 1688, England had already established legal jurisdiction over Barbados (1627), Jamaica (1670) and the Virginia slave colonies in modern-day US, all decades before the Glorious Revolution and the 1707 Acts of Union, which created the British state as we know it.

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The tensions between the Crown and colonial planters over imperial wealth accumulation helped fuel the revolution. King James II did not just upset the English elites through his Catholicism or his dissolution of parliament. His desire to capture ever-greater shares of the profits being plundered by merchants in the colonies lead to him enforce the Navigation Acts. The increased customs revenue sparked fury among the tobacco and sugar planters in the Caribbean and American colonies, making them willing supporters of the revolution, which led to James II’s exile. The events resulted in a tighter alliance with William III’s native Netherlands, a commercial and maritime power bringing its own imperial opportunities.

Badenoch’s ode to 1688 unwittingly undermined her own argument. The “island” narrative of domestic British innovation over the past few centuries is inexorably interwoven with the story of empire. For better or worse, Britain did have the largest, most powerful and wealthiest empire in history and this has influenced everything from our constitution, to our tax system, to our global military presence. Reading cries of indignation in the Spectator or the Telegraph against the public’s growing interest in imperial history would lead you to think that the empire wasn’t a real-life, world-changing political phenomenon but merely something that the left has invented to make white people feel bad about themselves.

But it is also crucial to remember that this discussion isn’t actually driven by a curiosity about the past. Badenoch and her media outriders didn’t raise this argument – that colonialism wasn’t the source of British wealth – because they want to find the correct historical answer to a complex question. They are not interested in an answer at all. The purpose is distraction, to say something that will drag the nation back into the cul-de-sac of pointless culture-war slanging matches about whether Britain should feel guilty or proud about itself.

There is something almost obscene about debating “what made Britain so wealthy” in the midst of the worst decline in living standards across the country since records began. Perhaps the government’s hope is that by making people feel that their national identity is under attack by woke academics, they might be able to minimise the beating from the voters at the ballot box later this year. But the real danger of people reading about Britain’s colonial history in India, Jamaica, Nigeria, Malaysia, Kenya and elsewhere is that they might realise how much the British elite built their fortunes on monopolised rentierism and the extraction of precariat labour. Then they will see how similar structures contribute to the accelerating impoverishment of working people in Britain today. If that happened, things in this country might even have to change. And, for some, that would be the biggest historical crime of them all.

[See also: Our new financial masters]

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