Calls for Britain to face up to past mistakes

Mahnmale: A ‘monument to national shame’ in Solingen, Germany.

While the British media is fixated on the country’s future, two renowned citizens have set their sights on its past. Britain is dangerously ignorant of its history, they say. Are they right?

He was Liverpool FC’s first black player. He has worked tirelessly to rid football of racism. When Howard Gayle was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in August, people cheered.

But not Gayle: he turned down the honour. The problem was the e-word in the name. ‘If there had been some proper recognition here of the way the empire treated Africa and Africans,’ he explained, ‘I might have looked at this nomination differently.’

Last weekend, Gayle’s comments were echoed by Neil MacGregor, the respected former director of the British Museum. Praising Germany’s ‘courageous’ discussion of Nazism, MacGregor contrasted it with Britain’s narrow focus on the ‘sunny chapters’ of its past. ‘This sort of handling of history is dangerous,’ he warned.

British officials have a long tradition of secrecy. In 1250, the Privy Council took an oath not to divulge state matters. Its spirit lives on in the Official Secrets Act and the surveillance unveiled by Edward Snowden, among other policies.

The country’s imperial past is arguably the biggest elephant in the room. Museums, history books and school curricula have tended to recount the successes of the world’s greatest empire while skating over its injustices. Official apologies for British wrongdoing have been few and far between.

A recent controversy brought this home. In the 1950s, Britain brutally suppressed a rebellion in its colony of Kenya. The story of the Mau Mau uprising was largely unknown until a decade ago, when American historian Caroline Elkins began to research the subject.

As a result, the British government was forced to reveal a huge secret archive of incriminating documents from its imperial heyday. It became clear that colonial authorities had destroyed many more files in the empire’s last days. The government expressed regret; an official said that ‘there should be a debate about the past’.

Most nations have done wrong at some point. Some are quicker to recognise this than others. When has one apologised enough?

A sorry state

Committing atrocities is bad enough, say some. Denying that they happened adds insult to injury. Governments should encourage open discussions of the past and fully apologise to any victims. The Germans erect Mahnmale: monuments to national shame. The British don’t even have a word for this. That in itself is a national shame.

It’s good to say sorry, agree others. Guilty nations should do it once, then move on. Too much apologising can backfire. Past misdeeds are exaggerated, and citizens resent the fact that they are being made to feel guilty for the crimes of others. In diplomacy, it is important not to wallow in history. Governments must look to the future.

You Decide

  1. Is hiding the truth the same as lying?
  2. Can history ever be objective?


  1. Think of a time you did something wrong to someone else. Record a one-minute video of apology addressed to that person.
  2. Write a letter to your government, making the case for the construction of a Mahnmal (monument of national shame) that refers to an atrocity in your country’s history. Describe what it should look like.

Some People Say...

“The past is not dead. In fact, it’s not even past.”

William Faulkner

What do you think?

Q & A

All of this happened ages ago. Why bring it up now?
Sometimes an apology can lead to compensation for the victims: Britain gave the Mau Mau survivors £19.9m in 2013. More generally, a country draws its sense of identity from its past, and so historical distortions can be dangerous.
For example?
Take Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He justified his invasion of Crimea in 2014 by arguing – falsely – that the Russian empire in the past was a force for peace.
Has Britain really been that bad?
From its key role in the slave trade to its oppressive colonial rule, from the bombing of Dresden to the torture of Iraqis, Britain has a lot to answer for. Comparing it with other nations is beside the point. The key questions should be: do these past deeds fit with our national values? If not, what can be done?

Word Watch

One of the UK’s state honours. It is awarded to people for outstanding service to their local community.
In 1971 Labour politician Richard Crossman called secrecy the ‘real English disease’.
Privy Council
A body of high-ranking politicians who are advisors to the Queen, although their role is now pretty much ceremonial.
Official Secrets Act
A law forbidding government employees and officers from making sensitive information public without permission.
Few and far between
Britain’s apology to the Mau Mau victims, for example, marked the first time it had ever officially admitted to using torture in its empire.
Caroline Elkins
Her book on the subject, Imperial Reckoning, won a Pulitzer Prize. It was also heavily criticised by some historians who felt that she had exaggerated the scale of British abuse.
Secret archive
The archive, now partly declassified, is mostly kept in Hanslope Park, a country estate near Milton Keynes. It has been estimated to take up 15 miles of floor-to-ceiling shelf space.
The preferred methods were burning and dumping at sea.


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