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British Education: a History of Colonialism and Denial

By Finn Logue

British education has a deep-rooted problem, a continuous promotion of our dark and disturbing colonial past. If we want to progress as a country and begin to amend for the harm we’ve caused in every corner of the world, policy needs to change.

Throughout 14 years of compulsory education, my understanding and education on the British Empire, and its intense brutality, was condensed into around 7 hours. I remember a topic studied in my Year 12 History class; ‘the British Slave Trade and its Demise’. After spending one lesson looking at the atrocities of the Triangular Slave Trade, we swiftly moved onto the cause for abolition in Britain. The tone of the textbook we used seemed to suggest that it was British individuals such as Thomas Clarkson who were responsible for abolition, influencing public opinion and revolutionising the concept of morality. The focus of the class was to debate which British abolitionist was most responsible for ending slavery, and no consideration was given to the slaves themselves or abolitionists from the Colonies. Even learning about slavery is given a pro-Britannia spin in our education, and as a country we refuse to acknowledge the deep and damaging effect we inflicted on the world.

I am now in my second year of a history degree, and it has taken 15 years of education for me to be formally taught about British Imperialism and the destruction caused by Empire. Last year, I learnt about the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya, in which the British Colonial Government permitted the slaughter of 1,800 Kenyan civilians completely unassociated with the Uprising. Prior to my higher education, this was an incident that I had never even heard of. Atrocities such as these are swept under the rug in order to promote the notion that Britain ‘civilised’ these countries whilst furthering its economic position and establishing Global hegemony. Historian of Empire Niall Fergusson has even been given a platform on the BBC and many other notable media outlets in order to promote this view and was (unsurprisingly) asked by Michael Gove to design school history modules that endorse the ridiculous idea that Britain did the world a favour by colonising them.

Gove gained notoriety for his aggressive restructuring of the education system during his 4-year stint as the country’s widely unpopular education minister. Gove’s 2013 policy to increase education on the success of the British Empire personifies a proud and chauvinistic form of British patriotism that is found in every corner of the British Conservative Party. To find other examples of racism within the Conservatives, one should look no further than the array of xenophobic rambles from our current prime minister Boris Johnson. In 2002, Johnson famously described black people as ‘Flag-Waving Picannanies’ with ‘Watermelon Smiles’, which in his campaign for Conservative leader in June of this year, he dismissed as simply satire’. It’s no coincidence that the casual racism shown by Conservative leaders coincides with a policy to promote Empire as a positive force.

The 2018 Windrush scandal, in which at least 83 people of Caribbean descent were wrongly deported, shows the Conservative Party’s ruthless and appalling treatment of the Caribbean community, upholding the ideas of patriotism and Colonial pride that derive from the Colonial era. In 2015, David Cameron was quoted saying that Jamaica needed to “move on” from the horrors of slavery and divisive colonialism that Britain inflicted. The conservative party have enforced an institutionalised English Jingoism into many people in the country.

On the contrary, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to introduce more education on the brutality of the British Empire as part of the Race and Diversity Manifesto, aimed on increasing minority representation. Corbyn’s policies will attempt to bring the UK to mirror countries such as Germany, who recognise the damage that Imperialism and foreign expansion can have on the world. In Germany, children are taught about the horrors of the Nazi Party in 3 stages of their education, primary, secondary and college. In the UK, we are taught that Britain’s Empire made her strong. How can a nation expect to progress and begin to amend for its mistakes when it continues to push the notion that its actions were not only justified, but beneficial?

Corbyn’s policy has unsurprisingly been criticised and jeered at by prominent conservatives. It is seen as anti-England to want to express guilt and remorse for past actions, and criticism of Corbyn fits into the conservative narrative that to speak out against troubling things that our country has done means you hate England.

In a 2016 poll, 4 in 10 Brits said that they believed that our colonial past was a ‘Good thing’. A neglectful education system has failed to deconstruct the British colonial legacy. The Conservatives have encouraged an institutionalised patriotism that is causing the country to neglect the horrors of its past. Corbyn’s policy on increased education is one that will finally take the country in the direction needed to recognise and educate on the damaging impact British Imperialism has had on the development of the World.

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