Monday, November 20, 2006

It Was The Ghost Of Empires Past Directing The Future

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Even when our foreign policy is benevolent, it appears condescending and exploitative
In many ways, I am a captive of my history, as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are of theirs
Published: 20 November 2006

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown take up the white man's burden, one in Pakistan, the other in Iraq. How they sacrifice and suffer for the righteous cause only to be knocked down by ungrateful natives abroad and at home.

Hymn for today: sing and hum and honour these worthy descendants of the glorious British Empire:

Onward Christian Soldiers!
On to heathen lands!
Prayer-books in your pockets!
Rifles in your hands!
Take the glorious tidings
Where trade can be won
Spread the peaceful gospel -
With a Maxim gun.

(The 19th-century Liberal MP and radical journalist Henry Labouchere wrote this parody of the traditional triumphalist hymn.)

There I go again, being destructively and cruelly cynical, typical of generations of hacks who can see no good in our elected leaders and their visionary purpose. (With some remarkably loyal exceptions of course.)

Upon touchdown in Iraq, Gordon, looking ultra-masculine in body armour, declaimed with gravitas as he does. He hinted that withdrawal is nigh - within a few months, even - and went on to make generous promises of post-withdrawal aid (£100m) when Iraq is "'running its own affairs". There we have it, confirmation that the Government believes it is time to cut and run, a surrender to anti-war campaigners who want our troops to leave before things get even worse for the Iraqis.

On the same day, Tony was sorting out Pakistan, using that well tested combo of bribes and clever deals. He is doubling the aid to the country and instructs them to use the money to infuse "enlightened moderation" through the land and see to it that propagandist religious madrasas are replaced with good, state education. (Such a pity he can't apply the same common sense to British education policies, but I digress.) That is exactly what we need, diplomatic interventions to help Muslim states revitalise Islam worthy of its peaceful name before it was politicised and corrupted by Ayatollah Khomeni, the Taliban and now al-Qa'ida.

I should be applauding Mr Number One man and Mr Number Two, as Borat would probably describe them. But a noisy buzz has started up in my head, an irritation that has now expanded into full blown rage.

Pacing and swearing, I mutter: there they go again, dictating to the non-Western world as if they own it by right. They trash, bleed and loot Iraq, never apologise, and still grab control of its future. In Pakistan our leaders presume that swarthies will do their bidding because they are easily bought and frightened into submission. The family is quite, quite weary of my recurrent anti-colonial eruptions, and they try to distract me and fail. Saturday is ruined because I can't let go. Even the excitement of The X-Factor fails to dispel the fumes of fury.

My excuse is that in many ways I am a captive of my history, as Blair and Brown are of theirs. Long after hubristic European nations were made to hand back occupied lands and retreat into their small continent, the feeling remained, as it does when a limb is amputated. Those of us who were subjects also harbour the old emotions, and are prone to bristle and chafe when old imperial fantasies surface and new imperial projects are planned. It is in the DNA of collective memory on both sides.

There have always been freethinkers who can break out and question the consensus, but they are rare and getting rarer. Millions of Europeans opposed the war on Iraq, but yet the spirit of European supremacy is alive and busy.

It was best described by William Gladstone when responding to the arrogant Lord Palmerston, who praised and emulated Roman imperialism. Such a Roman, said Gladstone, "was a member of the privileged caste: he belonged to a conquering race, to a nation that held all others bound down by the strong arm of power. For him there was an exceptional system of law; for him principles were to be asserted, and by him rights were to be enjoyed, that were denied to the rest of the world."

You see it everywhere. Or I do, anyway. Consider the churlish, almost offended reactions to the first al-Jazeera English broadcasts this week. For months previously, media folk had been predicting chaos and calamity. Some couldn't at all understand why David Frost or Raageh Omar and other big British TV names would choose to work for the infamous, Eastern station. Money was their only explanation.

The launch was smooth, and was soon followed by a brilliant scoop - in a moment of carelessness, Blair appeared to agree with Frost that Iraq is a disaster. What did our wise media watchers have to say about the impressive start to a station watched and trusted by millions?

Mark Lawson spoke for most and most eloquently. He criticised al-Jazeera for ignoring our Queen's speech and giving time to Gaza and Israel; he was irked that we had to endure the weather prospects in Arabia, and then came to this extraordinary conclusion: "the natural viewer for al-Jazeera will be a creature rare in Britain and almost non-existent in America, someone desperate for submersion in other cultures to the exclusion of their own." Is he serious? Does he really believe the cultures of Britain and the US are still wholly Anglo-Saxon, or are politics and culture still perceived through an old colonial lens even by very excellent liberals?

Although the surging economic might of India and China impresses and terrifies the West, the latter cannot excise its heritage of colonial entitlement. You can't take a step these days without meeting India and China enthusiasts. The other day I was talking to a young woman - only 28, sharp as anything, cool Britannia personified, works for a think tank. She was off to India, then China and was just so, so excited about it.

A while into the conversation she swerved into a cul-de-sac. I paraphrase and distil: "You know we've got to get in there and make sure we don't fall behind. I'm not that worried to be honest. They are great copiers but haven't a clue when it comes to real innovation. I think it's cultural, they can't think for themselves. We always have. I know its not PC, but that's why the West has been so dominant. Think if we play our cards right - get serious about patent enforcement, they will find it hard to beat us, but we need to be in there keeping an eye and some control."

There is a perfectly healthy competitive position that one can take on the changing international economic scene. National interests will always collide with shared global aspirations. But this was something else, it was the ghost of empires past directing the future. And it is everywhere. Or is it my own haunting ghost of imperial subjugation? You tell me.


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