It is not necessary to have graduated from a school, or indeed a family, that advanced the view that Albion is always perfidious to recognise that the negative legacy of the British Empire remains a real and destructive force in today’s world. The evidence is unfortunately widespread and persistent.
It may be unnecessary to argue that that legacy is not particularly British in character but rather the fallout from one of history’s inevitable imperial implosions. Just as there were consequences for millions when the Roman, Hapsburg, or Soviet empires collapsed, the collateral damage of the unreddening of the atlas was, and remains, seismic.
Hong Kong was under British rule for 156 years before reverting to Chinese sovereignty 22 years ago. That transition from being subject to a fading empire to being subject to a rising empire has not been without difficulties.
The 7.4m people living in the archipelago have tasted freedoms unknown in mainland China and are unwilling to submit to strict, one-party state. It is increasingly difficult to hope that protests in Hong Kong will end without a Tiananmen Square assertion, especially as Beijing is ever-more threatening.
That is not the only post-colonial tinderbox. India’s high-handed action over Kashmir will revive conflict with Pakistan. The seeds of the crisis were sown when Britain quit India in 1947 and though religious difference is, once again, central the catalyst is the contrived geopolitical settlement to facilitate the end of the British Raj. The communications blackout imposed by India in recent days must exacerbate concerns around the rule of law and human rights.
Those concerns have been a constant reality in another country once subject to British rule. Palestine was occupied by Britain at the end of 1917 and that year’s Balfour Declaration promised a national home for the Jewish people. One of the few uncontested consequences of that intervention is the reality of unrelenting conflict and violence afflicting all who live in that region — no matter which flag they salute.
These realities, and many, many more like them, must make for uncomfortable reading in today’s multicultural, largely tolerant but divided Britain. However, the human weaknesses, the potential for catastrophe filling post-colonial vacuums suggests a caution we cannot ignore. British politics is deeply unsettled and the future of the UK never more in question.
Britain’s withdrawal from Hong Kong was a long, drawn-out affair but when the decision was made to quit India it was delivered very quickly. Up to a million lives were lost in the ensuing, possibly avoidable conflict.
It may be presumptuous and unnecessarily provocative to speculate about a post-Brexit united Ireland but, as history shows, Britain will, if the time ever comes, put its own interests first and abandon those it once embraced.
That prospect, despite the consent clause in the Good Friday deal, demands that everyone on this island, no matter their background, work together so the violence threatening Hong Kong, Kashmir, Palestine, and Israel does not return. Hopefully we have, after 30 years of needless, anti-democratic violence, reached a point where that common purpose is beyond question.