Though I’m no monarchist, I can’t help but admire Queen Elizabeth II. The old girl had a job to do, and she’s been doing it—with discipline and dignity—for 70 years. So, I was at least a little moved by the Platinum Jubilee celebrations in her honor last week.
Everyone knows—at least everyone who watched “The Crown”—that some members of her family made her job tougher. More substantively, she reigned over a disintegrating empire, a turn of events that Winston Churchill had anticipated with dismay.
In America, activists smear their nation’s history for ideological and political reasons. In the United Kingdom, similarly, there are those who signal their virtue by denigrating the British Empire as unmitigatedly evil. During the jubilee, they were out on the streets demanding “social justice” and a “colonial reckoning.” On statues, they spray painted: “Churchill was a racist.”
I’m not arguing for the sanitization of history. But to take just one example, when a group of Oxford scholars launched a project called “Ethics and Empire,” intended to objectively appraise the good and bad brought about by British imperialism, the “politically correct” establishment furiously objected.
In an open letter, 170 academics declared that any such attempt to “balance out the violence committed in the name of empire with its supposed benefits” could have no “scholarly legitimacy.”
Empires dominated most of the world for most of recorded history. With few exceptions, nations either conquered or were conquered. It was generally preferable to be in the former category.
Which empires were saintly? The Aztec Empire? The Umayyad Caliphate? The Yuan Dynasty? The Ottoman Empire?
At the National University of Mongolia, do faculty and students self-flagellate over Genghis Khan’s sins?
“Trying to impose our mindset—let alone our values—upon the past is self-evidently ludicrous, however often it is tried and however well-intentioned,” wrote Andrew Roberts, the great British historian.
“The legacy of colonialism is not a simple one but one of great complexity, with contradictions—good things as well as bad,” wrote Chinua Achebe, the great Nigerian novelist.
Slavery is among the most terrible of crimes. But that was not obvious to most people in most of the world throughout most of history. It was evangelical Christians and Quakers who made the revolutionary moral case against slavery, leading to the passage of Britain’s Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.
“And Britain not only abolished that trade for itself but used its navy to seek to wipe out that trade in all parts of the world the navy could reach,” writes Douglas Murray in his latest book, “The War on the West.”
Elsewhere—for example, in the Middle East and Africa—slavery persisted—indeed, in some countries, it persists to this day.
It strikes me as hypocrisy on steroids that those who identify as anti-imperialists when it comes to British imperialism of centuries past tend to be indifferent about imperialism in the current century.
Most obviously, President Vladimir Putin is attempting to restore the Russian Empire through the military conquest of Ukraine (with more to follow should he succeed).
A Tehran-based empire now dominates the failing state of Lebanon, helps slaughter Syrians and supports the Shi’ite militias bleeding Iraq, as well as the Houthi rebels bleeding Yemen.
The Chinese Communist Party is erasing the culture and religion of both Tibetans in their now-colonized land and Muslim Uyghurs in occupied Xinjiang.
If you don’t see that the people of Hong Kong were better off under British colonial rule and that the Taiwanese will lose their hard-earned freedoms should Beijing conquer them, you’re not paying attention.
And do you understand that the CCP is using its Belt and Road Initiative to appropriate resources from poor and weak countries through debt traps and elite buy-offs? (Russia exploits African nations, too, among them: Libya, Mozambique, the Central African Republic and Mali.)
A final point on the British Empire: It also deserves credit—at least once Churchill became prime minister—for its staunch opposition to Hitler’s empire.
Hitler’s ally in Asia was the Empire of Japan which, in the 1930s, was committing the most heinous atrocities in Manchuria and other conquered lands.
Though World War II ended with an Allied victory, the British lacked the strength to maintain their empire, especially at a time when the “self-determination of nations” appeared to be an idea whose time had come.
London passed the torch of global leadership to Washington. Americans accepted the responsibility, knowing that the alternative was the spread of Soviet imperialism.
The United States attempted to construct an “international order” with rules that would apply to all nations, weak and strong, friendly and adversarial. America set up the United Nations to promote peace and establish fundamental human rights everywhere.
Noble as these efforts may have been, by now their failure should be obvious. Just two examples: With Moscow holding a veto on the U.N. Security Council, the United Nations has proved impotent in response to Putin’s war crimes.
And, following a visit to the People’s Republic of China last month, Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, didn’t dare seriously criticize the regime’s genocidal persecution of the Uyghurs.
I’m no anglophile. But it seems clear to me that those who obsess over the failings (many though they were) of British imperialists of the past while excusing and even appeasing imperialists of the present are doing significant damage to both their own nation and those nations now suffering oppression and exploitation.
I hope future generations will judge them at least as harshly as they now judge their ancestors. I hope also that Britain’s longest-reigning monarch was able to tune them out and enjoy her party.
Clifford D. May is the founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and a columnist for “The Washington Times.”
This article was first published by “The Washington Times.”