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A Moral Audit of the British Empire

Piers Brendon asks how we can arrive at a fair judgement of the benefits of the Empire for those who enjoyed – or endured – its rule.

 African slaves working in 17th-century Virginia, by an unknown artist, 1670The moral balance sheet of the British Empire is a chaotic mixture of black and red. So it is understandable that people today, trying to evaluate this momentous episode in our island story, are confused. Take the New Labour government, for example. After a recent trip to East Africa, Gordon Brown said that ‘the days of Britain having to apologize for its colonial history are over’. Indeed, he asserted, we should be proud of the Empire. On the other hand, two centuries after the abolition of the slave trade, Tony Blair expressed ‘deep sorrow’ for this imperial transgression. Similar contradictions prevail in the media. Transmitting programmes such as ‘This Sceptred Isle’ and ‘Empire’s Children’, the BBC promotes imperial nostalgia for a humane and benign Greater Britain, which print critics are apt to denounce as a blood-stained tyranny.

Yet the evidence is there to be assessed. Of course, like a financial audit of empire, which cannot compute the profits that might have been made if Britain had invested at home (as Adam Smith wanted) instead of abroad, a moral audit cannot calculate what benefits might have accrued to India, say, if no colonial occupation had taken place. All the same, 250 years after Plassey laid the foundation of the Raj, 150 years after the Mutiny and sixty years after independence, as well as half a century after the first sub-Saharan African colony (Ghana) got self-government and a decade after the handover of Britain’s last major overseas territory, Hong Kong, it is not too early to set the Empire’s obvious pluses against its palpable minuses. How does it weigh up from the ethical point of view?

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