Legacies of Empire

The first of the two Longman/History Today prize-winning essays on the topic ‘Is distance lending enchantment to the view historians have of the British Empire and its legacies’.

Those who deal professionally with the events of the past may, it is to be hoped for their own sakes, feel the romantic as well as the Gradgrindian urge to engage with them. But if distance alone is enough to enchant, it is difficult to imagine history displaying much more intellectual sophistication than might be shown in a primary school textbook. What distance lends historians is principally the perspective gained by simply knowing what happened next. It is only now that histories of the particular British Empire primarily built by the Victorians can begin to be written by those for whom the ideology of decolonialism is a historical phenomenon, and who can judge the claims and successes of the Gandhis, Jinnahs, Kaundas and Nkhrumahs by the standards of what they and their followers constructed as well as assailed.

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