As the populist left and right separated, conversations about Britain’s history of international involvement became dangerously simplistic. Amidst the ongoing culture wars, fuelled by both political division over Brexit and the populist candidates at the last general election, British people have found themselves increasingly segregated by their political opinions, creating a population that no longer exchanges ideas.
This segregation, by my assessment, has led to one sided, simplistic answers to complex cultural questions of British history. Throughout the 2010s, as the War on Terror began to conclude, the British public sought to re-examine its history of international intervention and involvement. Whilst many at the time sought to come to balanced conclusions, the political divide broadened throughout the decade, leaving the debate increasingly fractious. By the end of the 2010s, the different sides of the conversation were being held in different circles; there was now no overlap between the ignorant British triumphalism of Johnson and Corbyn’s anti-western rhetoric.
The reality is, Britain’s history of international involvement and intervention is a tale of both empirical horrors and of world-leading international development programmes, of the successful intervention in the Kosovo war and of the destabilisation of the Middle East. To paint history with naively broad brushstrokes is to miss crucial details that truly matter.
So why is the populist right wrong? As Prime Minister Johnson took to the stage at the Conservative Party conference in October, he spoke with his typically provocative tone, stabbing at “cancel culture,” with its attempts to “edit history,” suggesting that in response: “We conservatives will defend our history!” Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, British history has already been edited, and not by the left’s production of ‘cancel culture,’ but under the instruction of a Conservative government. As first reported by the Guardian in 2012, a secret foreign office archive, hidden for 50 years, revealed that 1961 Secretary of State Iain Macleod gave instructions for the systematic destruction of sensitive papers from Britain’s colonial era, suggesting that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass her majesty’s government.” Now what could this information have covered? Perhaps the British introduction of concentration camps in the Boer war? Where, of 107,000 Boer prisoners, over 27,000 would perish in the camps due to the brutal military treatment, most of them women and young children. Or perhaps details of the Amritsar Massacre? Where peaceful protestors to British colonial rule in Amritsar, India, were locked in Jallianwala Gardens and shot at, until Gurkha soldiers had no ammunition to spare. Within 10 minutes, 500-1000 protestors lay lifeless.
The problem for the Prime Minister is that when he states the role of his party is to “defend our history,” he ignores the reality that much of our nation’s history is indefensible. And it is the role of our most senior minister, to present the balanced truth to our union, not an unwavering defence regardless of facts. On the other side of the aisle, we face a similarly predictable story. You will hasten to find yourself one left wing political article that praises the history of Britain’s legacy abroad. Go on, have a google. More often, left wing political commentators get swept into the Tories game of attack and defend and towards the end of the 2010’s, Corbyn’s perpetual expression of a never-intervene style of foreign policy, fuelled a surge in adamantly isolationist thought. Creating an overly simplified assessment once more.
So, what is there to celebrate? Perhaps most impressively, until Sunak’s very controversial adjustment, our international development spending as a percentage of GDP, had been higher than every single nation on the planet, except the incredibly rich Luxembourg, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Not a single nation of similar international presence had surpassed the UK in what was coming up to twenty years, spending over 19 billion dollars as recently as 2019, on free international aid, infrastructure and medical resources for some of the world’s poorest nations. Britain is globally recognised as a world leader in fighting serious malnutrition as well as being a major donor to global vaccine programmes. This financial aid helped to immunize 56 million children between 2015 and 2017, saving an estimated 990,000 lives. Aside from world leading international development, British people can be proud of our involvement in the Kosovo war of 1998-1999. Our military action stood to take on a Yugoslavian army that was morally repugnant, to the extent that widespread rape and sexual violence had been used by the counter insurgency army, on an estimated 20,000 Kosovo Albanian women. By defeating this campaign, with NATO allies, 900,000 Kosovo Albanians were able to return to their homeland, preventing a humanitarian catastrophe. Or just as recently, the success of the Good-Friday agreement, a multi-party commitment that firmly halted a 30-year period of horrifying non-secular violence, known as the Troubles.
British leadership in this negotiation, especially from former Prime Minister Tony Blair, is still regarded as perhaps the most impressive moment of his political career. It appears clear, that on balance, Britain’s legacy abroad is a mixture of both horror and brilliance with everything in-between. And no single adjective will ever suffice. But what is increasingly self-evident is that the left and the right often dismiss the balance of argument needed to address these complicated questions. Our future, internationally, is stronger if it is informed by both our previous failures and successes, by criticism and patriotism and by the left with the right.