The Nobility of the British Empire
The Nobility of the British Empire.
I want you to think about Rudolf Höss who was the commandant of Auschwitz. He oversaw the worst crime in history (although our slave trade is up there competing hard). After a mass gassing he would ride his white horse at mad speed through the Polish forests in a desperate attempt to cleanse himself of the guilt and horror that clung to him. Yet he carried on. He believed that difficult as his assignment was he should do his duty to the Reich, in what Himmler assured him was a noble cause.
The crimes of the British Empire were also appalling. Profits from the slave trade were the foundation of Britain’s wealth, and at the very moment, would you believe, that it became more profitable to move your investments from the West Indies to almost equally horrific Manchester, moral outrage at the slave trade took hold. Over a million and a half Irish were left pitilessly to starve to death in the name of free trade. In Late Victorian Holocausts Mike Davis tells us that during the terrible famines that swept over India in the late nineteenth century British soldiers were forcibly confiscating the last hoardings of rice from the peasants, in order that the British Government could pay its interest to Rothschild’s bank. When I was at school an old monk used to come own to school assembly just before Christmas and urge us to bring back our used cards because the Kikuyu liked to hang them in their kraals. It is only now that I discover that at that very time the British were herding the Kikuyu i into concentration camps where many were tortured and castrated (not without reason, complicated of course but you shouldn’t).
The point I want to make is that the Empire was in the eyes of those who ran it a noble enterprise, and it was. All those pubic school boys sweating under banyan trees administering justice thought they were bringing civilization to savages. The missionaries believed passionately that they were bringing the true religion to pagans. One of my former pupils who grew up in Kenya tells me how devotedly his parents cared for their Kikuyu servants. How are we to understand these contradictions?
People can and obviously do think and practise completely opposite things at the same time. How can you deceive yourself? Modern psychology and philosophy (Festinger, Fingarette, cognitive dissonance) and evolutionary biology (Trivers) have done much to explain it. We practise complex strategies of self-deception. Faced with a task we know we should perform but don’t want to, we invent shadow policies that actually cost little and achieve nothing except quietening our anxieties. Green wash is the contemporary version. With our children faced with the unimaginable horror that is coming, we talk green and how. I refer you to the recent party conferences.
No, we need to take inspiration from those sweating public school boys but not deceive ourselves as they did. The scientists are saying there could be hundreds of millions of climate refugees, mostly from the poor world. I lie awake trying to imagine the horror of it. Unless we act very decisively indeed it will inevitably happen unless we take drastic action, as sea levels rise and droughts increase. We’ve got to help them because they are too poor. What can we do? Well get onto Jake Berry. Huge as our debt now is, we need to borrow even more to finance the third world. We only just finished paying off the $264bn we borrowed during the 2nd WW a few years ago. But this isn’t the important thing. I see climate change not only as a terrible threat but an intensely exciting opportunity to create a better and more humane world. A British Empire in reverse if you like. We need not only to save ourselves but all of humanity. I want everybody to be excited and determined and do what they can. Sewing groups, coffee bars selling home-made cakes run by volunteers (I’d like to call them Starbucks! Pay more tax! but maybe not). Profits to starving kids in Yemen). Pie in the sky? Well a destroyed world doesn’t sound that great either.. It’s going to be difficult. But if we’re excited and determined we can do this.