Cambridge Literary Festival: Sathnam Sanghera in conversation with Kavita Puri
24th February 2021
For a one-off online Cambridge Literary Festival event novelist and journalist Sathnam Sanghera (The Boy With The Topknot, Marriage Material) talked to writer and broadcaster Kavita Puri (Partition Voices: Untold British Stories) about his new book: Empireland: How Imperialism has Shaped Modern Britain.
Kavita Puri: Empireland went straight to number 2 in the Sunday Times Bestseller list. it’s an exploration of Britain’s legacy of its colonial past and I wish it was a book that had been around when I was growing up. The vestiges of Empire are all around us. I pass Liberty every day and had no idea about its origin until I read your book. How is that? How can it be the basis of so much of modern Britain and we just don’t know about it?
Sathnam Sanghera: Empire is bloody everywhere. It’s in our language, businesses, museums; it’s in our psychologies, our multiculturalism and our racism. But we don’t really think about it. We don’t think of ourselves as the nation that had the greatest Empire in human history. We generally think of ourselves as the nation that won World War I and World War II – the nation that defeated the Germans twice, the evil and racist Germans. And what that does it helps us slightly forget that in the 19th Century we were wilfully white supremacists, sometimes genocidal.
The other view of Empire is that it erupts in this strange way. We have this balance sheet view of Empire where it seems to you can balance the negatives against the positives, the massacres against the railways, and come to the conclusion that it’s either good or bad. It’s always struck me that’s a very strange way of viewing 500 years of history. It’s just so complex … It’s like saying, ‘oh, I think biology’s good’, or ‘jelly’s good.’ No, it’s like trying to give a 5-star review to your own life. And it’s just impossible.
So, I had the idea that instead of engaging in that endless, tedious debate, writing about the modern legacies of Empire, because those are the things you can weigh up. Those are the things that matter, as they affect our lives now. And it was also a way of getting out of the toxic politicised debate around Empire.
Kavita Puri: You talk about Jallianwala Bagh. That was the moment when you were making that documentary for Channel 4, when you were almost de-colonising yourself, weren’t you?
Sathnam Sanghera: It was going to Jallianwala Bagh – the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar – that made me realise that I had to write this book. It wasn’t so much the event itself, which was shocking … it taught me that we have very little knowledge of Empire.
But it’s also the way that the Sikhs were dealt with in the British Empire, the kind of weird combination of indulgence and subjugation, made me realise that was the way Sikhs were treated in post-war Britain. We won the right to ride motorbikes with turbans on, to wear the kirpan, the sword, and we were considered a very successful immigrant community. And there’s always calls for us to have our own regiment in the British Army.
But at the same time when my parents came here they faced discrimination in employment. There was a massive colour-bar in Wolverhampton. Even now there are certain pubs you’ll go to if you’re brown and certain pubs you won’t go to if you’re white. There was racial violence. There was discrimination in housing. The Sikhs weren’t allowed to move into or buy council houses. That’s why they ended up buying a lot of slum housing. And that echoed for me their experience in colonial Britain and gave me the idea of writing something about the legacies of Empire.
Kavita Puri: How did it feel, though, when you went to Jallianwala Bagh. It must have been quite an emotional moment for you, given what happened there?
Sathnam Sanghera: It’s quite a weird place because it doesn’t feel like the site of a massacre … a lot of Indians coming to sing pariotic songs. Because the one thing you notice when you visit India and you talk about Empire is that the average man on the street is very informed. Because they teach it. It’s part of their national story. But it’s not part of our national story. So much so, that I realised that there was ignorance even among British Sikhs, about Jallianwala Bagh.
I told people I was making a doc about it and they assumed I was making a doc about Sikhs in 1984 because that’s what’s nationally more known about. Whereas in 1919 is not very well known … that, in itself, led me to the conclusion that British Sikhs themselves were actually created by Empire. Sikhism was on the decline. Then the Mutiny happened and the Sikhs took the side of the British and the British decided then that certain races were to be trusted and certain races weren’t to be trusted.
And they came up with all this weird pseudo-science, racial science, about Sikhs, that we were the martial race, and they wrote handbooks about us, that we had perfect-sized noses and eyes and ears and physiques to be soldiers. And those became such dominant ideas that they’re almost the prism through which Sikhs see themselves. That’s quite a profound thing to realise, that the way we see ourselves as a community actually goes back to the British.
Kavita Puri: What I took from your book that I hadn’t grasped before, was that the tone and culture of Empire varied hugely. And also at different times you talk about the 1st stage and the 2nd stage …
Sathnam Sanghera: They’re probably 500 stages, to be honest. It’s not like the Roman Empire that had a clear legal framework and a clear mission … British Empire came about for 1000 different reasons. At one point it was the East India Company mainly pushing imperialism. At another point it was individuals. And then the East India Company was abolished and the Crown took over after the Mutiny in 1858.
And the tone changed so much. At one point slavery’s a big part of the British imperial economy. Then we abolish slavery … we try to wipe it out across the planet. At one stage, missionaries are encouraged because it’s seen to be a good thing to spread Christianity. At another point they’re discouraged because they’re getting in the way of commerce.
Then there’s the whole thing about inter-racial relationships. There was a whole period during the early Empire in India when the officers of the East India Company were encouraged, almost, to have relationships with Indian women. And then, suddenly, the Victorians come, and it’s very much looked down upon. It could lose you your job.
So, the tone of Empire changed a lot. And also it was different things in different territories. You could argue that Empire was very different in Goa to Delhi at any particular time. So it was an incredibly complex thing to get your head around. And that is part of the reason why we don’t teach it. Because it’s quite hard to teach. Whereas WW2 is very easy to teach: 6 years; clear beginning; clear end; clear morality …
KP: You also go into detail about some of the atrocities. You’ve talked about Jallianwala Bagh and other atrocities that are certainly not taught in schools. I didn’t know much about the invasion of Tibet … that really stuck in my mind as one of the more horrific aspects … was that the case when you were studying it? Were you taken about by the extent of the atrocities?
SS: Yeah. That was one of the hardest things, in basically 2 years of going through the worst things Britain did – and the positives.
I found the Mutiny, the racial revenge of the British after the Mutiny. Indians committed atrocities too. But the revenge, the vicious revenge and people like Charles Dickens joining this bloodthirstiness to take revenge on the Indians. People being burned alive. Villages begin razed to the ground … quite brutal.
Then there was the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865 – 400 Jamaicans killed.
Actually, for me, Tasmania – 4-8,000 Tasmanian Aborigines wiped out. And it was a genocide, in the sense that what happened there was used to help define genocide in international law. Sometimes people say there wasn’t a genocide during the British Empire. Well actually, there was. It was legally the first. And what they did was unbelievable … yeah, it was really hard.
I was reading a piece about whether historians get psychologically scarred by writing about violence. There was one famous story of a historian who killed herself after reading about the Japanese war crimes. And I can see why, because it really does take its toll.
Also, I’m British. I want to think the best about my country. So it was hard.
KP: Yes, I can tell you from studying Partition it is very draining. Do you think that the atrocities that were committed is the big reason that Britain doesn’t want to talk about Empire?
SS: I think there’s loads of different reasons. One of them is that Empires are very complicated. How do you even begin talking about it? It’s also really painful … when it comes to slavery it’s much easier to remember that we were the country that abolished slavery, rather than the fact that we also sent 3 million Africans across the Atlantic. That we paid £20 million compensation to the owners and not a penny to the slaves. I think you can remember all those things at the same time. But we don’t do it, do we? We basically remember abolition. There’s also all sorts of reasons why we struggle to remember this stuff …
The main reason is that we haven’t been invaded. Like France after WWII had to face up to what they did. Because Empire was always abroad. There’s lots of evidence that most people were oblivious to it throughout Empire … out of sight, out of mind. We’ve never had a moment when we’ve had to face up to what happened. I think it’s happening now. It’s happening because of Black Lives Matter, because of a new generation of people who are very animated about colonialism and they want to understand.
KP: Why now, though? Why 2021, if you think that the beginnings of the end of the British Empire was in 1947 …
SS: It’s hard to explain why BLM happened. I think it’s partly because of Lockdown. People on their phones, in their homes, seeing the same video again and again. And they’ve got the time to think about it and also become activists.
KP: But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they should draw the line with colonialism, though, does it?
SS: No, no, I can’t really explain. Also, it’s been weaponised by the far right and the right-wing part of the Conservative Party. I think it’s because Empire is basically synonymous with race. When you’re talking about the British Empire, you’re talking about white people conquering brown people. And you’re having different conversations about nationality. It encompasses every controversial subject there is. And suddenly all these different subjects are in the air. They all come together in the subject of imperialism.
KP: It feels like Empire is being talked about now. But when we were growing up it was never about Empire. And if you think that our parents were born as subjects of the British Raj … it was never part of the discussion … the direct line with Empire was never drawn. So, I wonder why now?
SS: I conclude in the book that the reason you and I are here, Kavita, is because of Empire. It’s a very basic legacy. We wouldn’t be here if a bunch of British people hadn’t invaded India in the 17th Century, right?
But there’s a very poor understanding of it in our community and in the black community. The reason people came on the Windrush was not to have jobs. They didn’t have jobs lined up. They came because the 1948 Nationality Act gave them citizenship. And we don’t really talk about that, do we? That’s why the Windrush scandal is such a painful scandal. They were citizens. Imagine if citizens of Britain were deported back to a country they didn’t know. That’s what’s happened.
It’s not just that we helped rebuild Britain after WWII, which is something that is said quite often, but we came as citizens because we have centuries-long relationships with Britain. Because we are British. We are connected in a really deep psychological way. And that has been forgotten. It was forgotten on purpose in Britain.
KP: People from South Asia has been here for hundreds of years because of Empire. You go into some of those quite fascinating characters in your book. Tell us about some of them.
SS: It was Robert Winder’s work in his amazing book, Bloody Foreigners, that really surprised me. The first Bengali in London was born in 1616. Elizabeth I was complaining about there being too many black people in the 1600s. And there’s this amazing guy, Dean Mohammed … he opened the first Indian restaurant in London … He became the first Indian to write a book in English. It’s a terrible book, but still, it was the first. Then he became this self-labelled shampoo salesman. He was basically a massage guy, right? He set up a massage parlour in Brighton and it became so popular that the king became one of the customers … He was hugely famous in his time. But like so many of these brown imperial figures he was forgotten almost immediately as soon as he died.
The same thing happened to a lot of slaves who were in Britain, became famous and then forgotten until recently. Another reason why there is this sudden interest is that brown communities are now a majority in some cities in Britain – Leicester, Slough. I think maybe there’s just the right amount of us that suddenly people are interested.
KP: The younger generation are really curious about their history … Looking at teaching in schools, we were never taught about Empire. What is so difficult about teaching it? It’s part of British history, a huge thing to omit. It’s 2021 – why are the kids not learning about it?
SS: It’s widely politicised. Just look at what’s happened in the last few years. You had Jeremy Corbyn saying that we should teach the crimes of colonialism. And then Michael Gove saying he wanted to teach the ‘triumphs’ of imperialism. And both of them I don’t think are the right way to teach it. This idea that we need to feel pride or shame in our history, it’s so bizarre … the thing is history doesn’t have feelings. History is about facts and there are ways to teach it.
Even though the National Curriculum is a mess and doesn’t really acknowledge how important British Empire is, not every school needs to teach it – academies can break free, private schools … and I’ve been really encouraged by the dozens of teachers who’ve contacted me and said ‘I’m teaching this already.’ The younger generation really want to know and they’re getting their education from the internet. There are some amazing Instagram accounts about colonialism … in that way I feel positive.
KP: We’re not the only country that grapples with our colonial past. I know you cite Germany as being a good example of a country that deals with its difficult past, but even Germany is not great at dealing with its own colonial past. But other European countries aren’t any better, are they?
SS: Imperial nostalgia is something that affects loads of nations. There was a recent poll that asked which countries felt most nostalgic about their Empires … we were number 1 – 27% of Britons said they still wished they had an Empire. So we’ve got the worst case of imperial nostalgia.
You’re right about Germany … but they are having conversations about repatriating some of the artefacts in their museums. France are having that conversation. They’re actually doing it. Macron is doing it. And New Zealand – they’ve completely changed their curriculum recently to reflect their own very difficult colonial history. So there are good examples to be found internationally. But we are not unique.
When it comes to imperial nostalgia there’s no one worse than the Sikhs. We had an Empire. And you will not find many Sikhs who go around saying the Sikh Empire was terrible. Everyone will tell you that is was a brilliant cosmopolitan Empire. It probably wasn’t was it? It was probably violent. So, I think it’s something in human nature that makes people want to believe the best about their heritage.
KP: It’s probably worth pointing out that, even at the time, there were critics of Empire and I thinks it’s important that people realise that the criticisms of Empire aren’t just now. It’s not a modern phenomenon. There were quite prominent people who thought what was happening, that some of the atrocities being committed were wrong.
SS: If there’s one point I want our nation to absorb from this book, it’s this one. Anyone observing anything negative about the British Empire is dismissed as woke nowadays. But if I’m woke, then so is William Gladstone, who spent large parts of his career railing against the jingoism of imperialism. Even Queen Victoria complained when Lord Kitchener wanted to bring back a skull from one of these battles and put it on display. George Orwell wrote incredibly well about the crimes of colonialism. H. G. Wells, E. M. Forster. Churchill said the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre was monstrous. If I went on tv and said that J was monstrous, as I did, I got days of racist hate mail.
The Ethiopian expedition where we got the Maqdala crown – it sits in the V & A now – Gladstone, at the time, said ‘I hope we can give this back’ … because the way we got it was morally wrong. We need to remember that: Empire was never unanimous. It was always the subject of debate in Britain.
KP: I know you don’t do balance sheets, quite rightly, but (the railways, no, I’m joking!) you do say that the anti-racist movement was born out of Empire and that’s a commendable thing.
SS: I argue in a chapter that our particular brand of racism in this country can largely be explained by Empire. But I do say … the fact that we abolished slavery created the model for social justice campaigns. It was followed by the Suffragettes, various trade union movements. So, I argue that we have a certain tradition of anti-racism in this country., which inadvertently comes from Empire. I had the book read by 5 or 6 historians and they all said I was mad … but I do believe it. That was a powerful tradition. Unfortunately they were drowned out by the imperialists.
KP: I suppose your most controversial argument is that the origins of Brexit lie in Empire nostalgia. Tell me about that.
SS: I almost wish I didn’t have to put that in the book because the reviews have been amazing. But the few negative ones have been from political writers who focused entirely on that, said ‘that’s ridiculous. Brexit wasn’t about imperialism.’ I wouldn’t expect everyone to agree with everything in the book. And that is the thing that’s least important … people voted for Brexit for loads of reasons. But one of them, a factor, was imperialism. This obsession with being ‘global Britain’. Even Liam Fox’s civil servants labelled it Empire 2.0. This obsession with being a great trading nation like in the 19th century.
In Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg we have two of the most imperialism-nostalgic politicians we’ve ever had. Both of them in their spare time are writing books about Churchill or the Victorians. Very rose-tinted views of both phenomena. Johnson’s a man who goes on about ‘flag-waving picaninnies’ and ‘watermelon smiles’. He’s trying to read a Rudyard Kipling poem out in Burma. They’re both so steeped in imperialism that I don’t think they even know, that they realise what they’re doing. But I do think that Brexit is one of the consequences of that.
But there’s all sorts of consequences of Empire from Suez to the Royal Navy. Our mission is still to be global. Why do we, this tiny country, have a global navy? That goes straight back to Empire, I think.
KP: Do you think that nostalgia breeds racism?
SS: nostalgia succeeds because we have amnesia. You need amnesia for nostalgia to flourish. We definitely have selective amnesia. And we have nostalgia. And the nostalgia makes us forget the awful hundred years of willful white supremacy we had. Empire was proudly white supremacist. And someone like Cecil Rhodes would not have denied it. And yet you have people defending him now … that’s what he wanted to be.
KP: You also think imperial history inspires this sense of exceptionalism and that has resulted in dysfunctional politics and disastrous decision-making, some of which you cite as happening very recently.
SS: This exceptionalism isn’t an issue that’s particularly British. The Americans have it for a clear reason. They’re the greatest, most powerful nation in our times. We have a legacy of that because we had the greatest Empire of all time. There’s all sorts of manifestations of it, like the idea that English is the best language. We go round the world shouting English at people. That we have the best pop music, the best writers – we have Shakespeare. And that’s quite a prominent idea in our psychology that’s been, again, harnessed by Boris Johnson. It’s generally not harmful.
But it has been harmful recently when it comes to coronavirus. Because you have this obsession with being world-beating … we’ve had about 50 examples of politicians using the term ‘world-beating’ in the last year or so. It wasn’t just the Tories. Keir Starmer did a bit of it himself.
And what that does is creates this idea that we don’t need to follow the rules that everyone else is following. And thereby we have dysfunctional decision-making. If you think you don’t have to behave like everyone else you end up with the largest death-rate in the world from Covid.
KP: I’ve seen the stuff you get on Twitter and you’re quite upfront about it. You take the people who challenge you head-on. Were you apprehensive about what you were getting yourself into?
SS: Very, yeah. Mainly because I had a taste of it with the Jallianwala Bagh documentary on Channel 4 and, as you know, when you’re on radio and TV you get a whole different level of abuse. I’m used to it at times. I get quite a lot. It’s not just racists. I get Corbynites, trolling, cancelled by various groups over my career. But Empires is just a totally different level. I did an interview with Nihal (Arthanayake) on Radio 5 and both of us had 5 days of trolling. It got to the stage when I couldn’t tweet anything. I just couldn’t see the replies because it was just racism.
I interviewed the black actor David Harewood recently – he does a lot of programmes about race for the BBC – and he said he doesn’t look at his phone now before midday now. When he switches on Twitter there’ll be 20 messages saying he’s a black bastard and then his day’s ruined. So he either doesn’t look, or he leaves it until very late in the day. I’m kind of getting to that stage now.
KP: Do you think you get it worse because you’re British South-Asian and talking about Empire?
SS: Yeah, because not only is Empire a proxy for a debate about race … the imperial story has always been taught and told by white men. It’s always been a man of a certain age on BBC2 getting off a railway carriage in India talking about the gift that the British Empire gave the Indians. And it’s only now that we have brown people telling the story. So, we have David Olusoga, who gets much more crap than me. You have quite a few brown voices suddenly piping up and it’s a bit like that saying, ‘when you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.’ People are so used to the white version of events having brown people tell the story and observe negative things feels like an attack on them personally, which is why you get such a vicious response.
KP: You’ve also got people like Corinne Fowler, who works for the National Trust, who has done very good historical research into the history of some of their houses, who gets a lot of stuff on Twitter as well. On the face of it, the National Trust researching its past shouldn’t be such a kind of flashpoint. It’s so raw for us to even talk about sensibly, isn’t it?
SS: That’s because the narrative is suddenly in the hands of the other side. But also, it’s been weaponised. You’ve got Conservative ministers writing columns saying: ‘this is disgusting.’ You’ve got the Chair of the Charity Commission saying that the National Trust needs to be investigated for the crime of publishing academic research. If someone else had said that they’d be calling it cancel culture because what they’re doing, essentially, is saying ‘we don’t like the conclusions of this research and we want it cancelled, please. I mean there’re just being total snowflakes. And I can’t wait for the day when our new Free Speech Czar takes on the ministers who are encouraging the cancellation of all this academic research. It’s a culture war, basically. The Empire is one of the most vicious of culture wars.
KP: Do you think that atonement needs to happen for what happened during Empire? And, if so, what does that look like?
SS: There is an active debate in America about reparations for slavery. But we’re nowhere near that. In Britain we’re still having a conversation about whether racism exists. I meet people all the time who are journalists and ask me ‘racism doesn’t actually exist, does it? You haven’t experienced any racism, have you, Sathnam?’ And this is a very popular view. How do you go from that to talking about reparations?
What we need to do is to understand our history. Without feeling positive or negative. Get rid of the shame. Get rid of the pride. Let’s just face the facts. And have an argument about what actually happened.
KP: It’s quite telling …what does it say about us as a country that we can’t do that? Empire shaped so much about modern Britain. How is it possible?
SS: Neil McGregor (no snowflake – he was the head of the British Museum, right?) famously said, ‘the Germans look at their history to understand themselves; the British look at themselves and they want comfort.’ I think that gets to the heart of it. We want to be comforted by history and that is dangerous because all sorts of crazy stuff happens.
This is why we’ve got to get rid of the emotion to do with history and understand what academic discipline of history actually is: which is, facts and argument. It’s not feelings. And it’s not bloody statues either. Cause, you know what? There’s this idea that by tearing down statues you’re deleting history. The history of Nazism wasn’t deleted by tearing down Adolf Hitler’s statue. So there’s a lot of dysfunctional modes of thought out there with history.
KP: William Dalrymple’s talked about the Museum of Colonialism. Is that something that you think is useful for our country in trying to come to terms with its past?
SS: When it comes to statues, I like the idea that we have a national day, you know like the Spanish, they throw tomatoes at stutues once a year. We should do the same. The people who hate the statues should throw tomatoes. The people who love them can celebrate them like they’re doing already. The statue thing distracts us from the real issues.
What matters more is that racism is caused by colonialism. That multiculturalism is a result of it. Those are much more serious things. This obsession with statues is a massive distraction. But I don’t want to object to a Museum of Colonialism. It’s not a bad idea. What we need more, though, is something we half-have, which is a Museum of Migration. Because our country is, like all islands, made up of migrants, and if we could understand that, as a nation, we could solve a lot of our problems.
KP: You talk in the book about things like the looting that took place in Madullah (?), the artefacts that are now in the V&A and the British Museum. As you know, the national museums cannot give these things back. They can only be given back on long loan. Manchester Museum, for example, has given back some Aboriginal artefacts. Are you in favour of that? Is that part of atonement?
SS: Absolutely. There’s an idea that if we start giving things back our museums will be empty. And that’s simply not true, mainly because the British Museum only has 1% of its artefacts on display. Even if it gives away 2%, that leaves a lot of stuff it can still display. If we start repatriating items, what you have is amazing scholarship, right? You have amazing exhibitions and you also improve your relationships with the rest of the world.
Because the odd thing is that even though we don’t see ourselves as the country of British Empire, the rest of the world, I think, does. In India they are very aware that our crown jewels contain the Koh-noor diamond, which came from the Sikh Empire. People generally see the British as a country which had an Empire. That’s why you see the British baddies in Hollywood films because they find it very easy to see us as evil. But we don’t. We see ourselves as the good guys, the country that won World War II and beat Adolf Hitler.
KP: If we’re so proud of Empire, why don’t we talk about it? If the Empire was a good thing, as the rationale goes, why on earth don’t we talk about it?
SS: This is another one of the profound contradictions. You’ve got loads of public figures now who are wilfully nostalgic for Empire. And I’m, like, ok then, if you’re really proud of Empire why don’t you join one of these many, many campaigns to promote a better teaching of it in our schools. And they don’t. It’s very revealing. If you’re so proud of it, why don’t you want it to be taught? You’ve got to the heart of one of the weirdest things about us. It’s very strange.
KP: Do you think in our lifetime we will see Empire being talked about in a way that isn’t so angst-ridden?
SS: That’s a good question. It’s going to take a bloody long time. I’m encouraged, despite the last few weeks, because I’ve got a real minister reading my book. He emailed me the other day. Savid Javid’s reading it. Baroness Warsi’s reading it. I got a message from our British ambassador for India – he’s reading it. It makes me think that maybe people are thinking about it on a leadership level.
But I don’t know how you solve our culture war because they seem to be entrenching. The columns that are being written: we had Oliver Dowden this week calling in the heritage organisations to lecture them, saying ‘you must not respond to woke people. Remember that we give you some of your funding’. And that feels like this game has been taken up a notch and the culture war is deepening.
So I have mixed feelings. I feel hopeful from the messages I’m getting from teachers and certain politicians. At the same time I feel utter despair reading what I read in the newspapers.
KP: Are you going to tell us who the minister is?
SS: I’m not going to, but it’s incredibly surprising. The only thing more surprising would be if Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg were reading it. It’s the second most surprising after that …
KP: Do you think they’re passing it round the Cabinet table?
SS: No. But I’ve got hope in Sajid. And I’ve got hope in Rishi as well. I think about Rishi quite a lot.
KP: Yeah, me too, actually.
SS: It’s partly ‘cause we don’t really know him. He could be terrible. So we’re just projecting our feelings onto him. He has to look at the statue of Lord Clive every day. Lord Clive was a man who hated Indians. He said he didn’t have a single happy day in the country. When he killed himself he was said, by Samuel Johnson, to have done it because he was so full of shame for what he’d done to India. When that statue went up the Viceroy of India said it was needlessly provocative. He looks at that statue every day of his life. And I wonder whether he thinks about the historical issues.
KP: You need to send him a copy of his book, don’t you?
SS: He can read it as he drinks from his £180 mug.
KP: In his expensive top. Just finally, Sathnam, the ebbs and flows of these things, we are now in the heart of a culture war. Can we, will we ever talk about Empire and it not be part of the culture war? Do you see this as a moment in our history, a post-Brexit moment or part of the Brexit moment? Will this pass? Do you feel it’s aligned to a particular government? Or do you think it’s deeply fundamental to who we are?
SS: We’re not the only country dealing with it, although we have the worst case of it. In India there’s a very similar thing happening with the BJP Party, railing against historians for being unpatriotic. Almost at the stage of burning books, which is, I think, the stage we are at now. And you have it in America too, in Donald Trump and the way they see the history of the Civil War.
So we’re not alone. There’s a greater movement of nationalism bringing up this history and it does fill me with despair. But, again, it’s the younger generation … the culture they produce. A film like Black Panther that is the 9th most popular film ever made – it’s so radical in what it says about race and Empire and colonialism. It gives me hope that a popular movement for greater understanding is possible.
KP: We talk so much about Empire being divisive, the teaching of Empire can also be the opposite. It can actually bring us together because we see how, for our families and British families, our history is absolutely connected and goes back hundreds of years. So actually, it’s quite important for a cohesive society, you could argue.
SS: Totally. A lot of people ask me, ‘did this 4 years of research make you hate Britain?’ I say, no, it’s given me a deeper sense of myself and this country. I’ve learned that the Sikhs took the British side during the Mutiny. That they fought in huge numbers in both world wars. I’ve learned that they travel across Empire when given the opportunity. It makes me feel more deeply entrenched in this country than I did before. And that’s why I think understanding this history is not just important for brown people. It’s important for all Britons to have a healthy understanding of why we’re a multicultural society.
Questions from the audience
KP: Everyone wants to know the name of the minister …
SS: You could work it out if you know the biographical details of where I’m from. I’ll leave it at that.
KP: This from Joe: Does entrenched national identity inevitably breed racism?
SS: No, I don’t think so. The point in my life at which I felt proud to be British was the 2012 Olympics. And there’s an argument that that depiction of Britain as a diverse cosmopolitan society made people so angry that we had Brexit. I think Jonathan Coe basically makes that argument in his book, Middle England. They’ve been times in recent history when I’ve felt proudly patriotic and it hasn’t been about racism.
KP: Ruth asks: can we become an anti-racist society without understanding Empire? And if not, how can we enable entire generations to learn more?
SS: In my book I argue that you need to understand Empire to understand racism. It’s not just in this country. Around the time of the Black Lives Matter marches, I turned on the News at 10, and there was a 10-minute report about how the British Empire caused the racism in America. I said, ‘what the hell?’ Because obviously they’d introduced their ideas of race to America. So you could argue it spreads much beyond Britain. And I’ve now forgotten your question …
Yeah, well they are learning, like I said, the teachers … another positive thing I’ve experienced is that I thought that the generation above us were beyond hope, that they had their established ideas. But they’re not. I had so many messages from people older than me saying, ‘you know what, I didn’t know anything about this. It has completely changed my mind’. And so you’re never too old to learn.
KP: Leila asks, ‘can you speak to the connection between the need for development assistance and the relationship to Empire?’
SS: I don’t know much about that apart from the way it’s played out in popular culture, so with Comic Relief, the ‘white saviour’ thing. And there was that massive controversy when Stacey Dooley was filmed going to Africa and cuddling a black baby. Why is she regarded as racist for doing that? Ultimately, Comic Relief concluded that they weren’t going to do that anymore. I think that’s a healthy thing.
When you look back at Band Aid now it’s unbelievable, isn’t it? The assumption … the lyrics of Band Aid are incredible, the white saviour act. I think there’s elements of imperialism in the way the voluntary sector works. And definitely in the way in which foreign correspond journalism works. I was on the FT and they had a massive cultural thing, the way foreign correspondents behaved in Africa and India went back to Empire. There’s a whole proxy type of society.
KP: Question from Jan: ‘why do we need to be the best at everything?’
SS: Yeah, that’s my point about exceptionalism – why do we need to be best? I think it’s a deep-seated psychological response to the fact that we were the best. In the book I also go on about an idea that co-exists with that – heroic failure. Even though we’ve got a good case for saying we’re the most successful nation in human history, we also have this tendency to celebrate our failures. So we obsess about Gallipoli, Passchendale. Our football song has a lyric about ’30 years of hurt’. We like to dwell on the times we’ve failed. Fintan O’Toole has written a whole book on this called Heroic Failures. And why is that? One of my theories is that we can’t face up to what we did, it’s A too big and B too painful. So it’s much easier to think of the time when we screwed up and we failed nobly.
KP: You say that, but there were a lot of people who were running the Empire – they’re dead. It’s a long time ago.
SS: But it’s also painful to remember that you lost something, isn’t it?. We were the greatest Empire in human history and now we don’t have it. If that was a person you’d be in deep therapy for the rest of your life.
KP: We’re in the therapy bit right now, aren’t we?
SS: well yeah, involuntary therapy with you and me, but …
KP: Not us, but as a nation.
SS: It’s the weirdest form of therapy, but I suppose so. But yeah, that’s quite a thing to get your head around. What the hell happened, man? We were the largest Empire in history and look at us now! Christ!
KP: Prathima asks: ‘Is development assistance a means of atonement or reparation?”
SS: I’m not sure I can answer that, but I do go into this in the book, in the sense that we have an incredible history in terms of our foreign policy and our involvement in development around the world, which I think goes back to Empire too. And it’s not always bad, in the way that Empire wasn’t always bad. It’s complicated, isn’t it?
But you could say that the other side of that is getting involved in certain wars, like Iraq and Afghanistan, that we shouldn’t be getting involved in given that we’re a tiny island nation off Europe.
KP: Sinead asks: ‘what are your thoughts on the Commonwealth and monarchy?’
SS: It did take over from the Empire. We had something called Empire Day which celebrated Empire and kids were given half a day off school. It was replaced by Commonwealth Day, which is still celebrated, interestingly. And I’ve had people write to me asking if the Empire was so bad, why were all these countries asking to join the Commonwealth? Well, when they signed up I don’t think they were agreeing to the same thing … Britain made and effort to make sure they weren’t signing up to Empire 2.0.
KP: Mark has a good question: ‘are we, as a nation, just too steeped in grandiosity and hubris? And can we learn to be more humble and kinder?’
SS: Well, we’ve got the problem of Brexit … but I do argue, in a weird kind of way, that Brexit is going to force us to go out into the world. It’s going to force us to have new relationships with India, with African countries and America. And I think what we’re gonna have to learn, possibly painfully, is we’re not viewed the way we think we are. And maybe that experience is going to force us to be more humble. So, maybe, in and inadvertent way, Brexit is going to lead to that humbler and kinder person. We can dream.
KP: Kenneth asks, ‘do you think the lack of understanding about Empire has fed into Western ignorance about Islamic fundamentalism and Islamic culture, which contributes to huge problems with relations with that region today?’
SS: I don’t really know enough about Islam and Muslims and I feel I’m not qualified. But the question about culture is very interesting because one of the most powerful books I read was Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, and that was one of the biggest moments for me, writing the book: it was realising that I had been colonised. That even though I supposedly had this brilliant education, I’d been taught to prize the western novel, the western film over Bollywood, English over Punjabi – that my entire view of the world, because of my education, was western. And I was designed to look down on my culture and anything I knew about India came through Western writers. That was an amazing moment for me, to realise I’d been colonised. I was a bit sceptical about that idea of decolonising curriculums and decolonising your mind. But it’s a thing. It’s a real bloody thing. So, yes, is the answer to that question.
KP: Joe cites you saying you can’t apply modern ethics to the past. How do you reconcile racism and morality? Where do you draw the line?
SS: It’s hard when you’re reading all this stuff not to apply ethics and not to feel shame. But we’ve got to fight it, otherwise we end up in the situation we’re in now where you’ve got a bunch of people screaming at each other, saying ‘I’m proud to be British,’ or ‘I’m ashamed of being British’. And it makes no sense. And it gets us absolutely nowhere.
Hopefully what I have done in the book is to approach all of these difficult subjects with a certain amount of intellectual dispassion. And it’s hard. I had to teach myself. There were times when I felt physically sick. But I forced myself to read lots of stuff that I knew that I wouldn’t agree with. And I think we need to rediscover the ability to tolerate viewpoints we aren’t going to agree with.
Jan Morris is one of those. I quote her more than anyone else. I don’t agree with her. I think she’s insanely nostalgic about Empire, but equally I would recommend her book, Trilogy, as the best single thing you could read on Empire.
Because I think people are intelligent. You can read those books and still learn a lot, filter nostalgia. People have brains. People can read things that we might find difficult. And not just read stuff that reinforces your point of view or your prejudices.
KP: To what extent is amnesia about the Empire driven by the desire to think of ourselves as the plucky underdog facing down bullies in Europe?
SS: This idea of the underdog goes into that idea of heroic failure, that basically we’re England playing Germany yet again in the semi-finals: that’s the way we like to see ourselves, isn’t it? … You see it in someone like Lewis Hamilton when he races – he likes to think of himself as the underdog ‘cause it helps him win. If he feels like the world is against him it focuses his mind and then he wins, even though he’s been world champion for 7 years. I think something similar might be going on for us.
KP: If there’s one thing that you want people to take from your book, what is it?
SS: Apart from the balance sheet and reading things you disagree with, I think mainly it’s the balance sheet – getting rid of that view of Empire. Even people who understand it’s ridiculous keep coming back to it. … History is not a cuddly toy you bought on Amazon that you’re going to give a 5-star rating to. It’s much more complex. So, if people accept the complexity, then we’re on the way somewhere.
Also, read Partition Voices by Kavita Puri because it’s a brilliant book. She’s too self-deprecating to talk about it but it’s doing such important work on a forgotten history. And that, also, is dealing with the remnants of Empire. So read her book, it’s incredible.
KP: Very kind.