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Is the British Empire’s Legacy Neglected in the British School Curriculum?

British history isn't as 'black and white' as some would have you believe.

Naked Politics Blogger

Tyler Gerrard

Jeremy Corbyn has recently outlined plans to teach schoolchildren about the “role and legacy” of the British Empire and colonialism. In the wake of the Windrush Scandal, the Labour leader feels that it is important for them to learn about black history and the struggle for racial equality.

Conservative MPs have been quick to criticise these plans, claiming that it is further evidence of his lack of patriotism and that the curriculum should focus more on the positive aspects of British history.

The British Empire is a topic of great controversy these days; most notably the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign that attempted to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford.

Cecil Rhodes

In the current age of political correctness, Britain’s imperial past has come under increasing scrutiny, and rightly so. Terrible atrocities were committed that simply cannot be ignored, from the Boer concentration camps to the Amritsar Massacre. Millions of innocent lives were lost at the hands of the British and this is something that the British people should be ashamed of.

However, opinion polling consistently shows that the British public maintains positive views of the Empire. A 2016 YouGov poll found that 44% were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism and 43% believed that the British Empire was “good”. Just 21% regretted that it had happened and 19% felt that the Empire was “bad”. Predictably, the poll also revealed that young people were least likely to feel pride over shame, while the older generation felt proudest of the Empire. Much like the generational divide over Brexit, this is representative of Millennials generally being less patriotic than older generations.

Jeremy Corbyn is of course part of the older generation, but when it comes to the subject of the British Empire, like on many issues, his views tend to cross over with those of Millennials. Corbyn claims that after the Windrush scandal, it is particularly important to learn about “the role and legacy of the British Empire, colonisation and slavery”. Under the Labour leader’s plans, a new Emancipation Educational Trust would use school programmes and visits to teach children “how slavery interrupted a rich African and black history”.

JC with map
While Corbyn’s heart is undoubtedly in the right place, is there a danger that his proposals would further reduce an already distinct lack of patriotism among the younger generation?

Conservative MPs certainly think so and haven’t been shy about voicing their concerns over the proposals. Tim Loughton, the former children’s minister has claimed that they represent further evidence that the Labour leader is against or even ashamed of his country. Indeed, it fits in nicely to the Conservative narrative that Corbyn is a man who cannot be trusted to lead his country, alongside his past links to the IRA. Some Conservative MPs even went as far as suggesting that the plans represented a ploy to brainwash schoolchildren into hating their country.

However, it would be wrong to doubt Corbyn’s moral intentions on this, as being ashamed of imperialism is hardly a controversial opinion. But, it is also important to consider the complexity of the British Empire.

Indian Parliament

Take the example of India, where British rule is often rightly criticised for the massacres, famines and economic exploitation that took place. However, India today is the world’s largest democracy, something which the British deserve credit for. India also has one of the largest rail networks in the world, which again represents a positive legacy of British rule. Now, that’s not to say that this should overshadow the brutality of the British Raj, but it does demonstrate that there are positive as well as negative aspects.

Conservative MPs have also been keen to point out that there are so many positive things that have been achieved by the British throughout history, and these are the things that the curriculum should focus on. This opinion is just as wrong though, because yes children should learn about the heroism of the British in defeating Nazi Germany during the Second World War, but equally, they shouldn’t be ignorant of the less palatable elements of our history. Winston Churchill, for example, may have been a great war hero, but he also held very questionable views with regard to his ardent support for imperialism.

It is important that the British Empire is discussed as openly as possible in schools, with both sides of the arguments being presented. Young people can then come to their own conclusions over whether the Empire did more good than bad, or vice versa.

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