Yesterday I stood in the hall of the Durham Union to argue for the proposition: “This house believes Britain owes reparations to its former colonies”. The following is the text of my ten-minute speech, followed by five brief reflections on the opposition’s arguments.
I still remember the first time I taught colonial history at the LSE.
LSE students are among Britain’s finest: they graduate from top schools, perform brilliantly on their A-level exams. And yet when I gave a lecture about the Indian famines of the late 19th century to a classroom full of third years, I was met with blank stares. As a direct result of British policy, 30 million Indians died needlessly of hunger between 1875 and 1902. Laid head to foot, their corpses would stretch the length of England, from Dover to the Scottish borders, 85 times over.
No one in the classroom had ever heard of it.
And this tragedy was not an isolated incident. There were many more. The Great Bengal Famine in 1770 killed 10 million people, one third of the region’s population. Here too historians blame British policy: brutal tax collection, enclosure of forests and waterways, forcing farmers to rip up their rice to plant crops for export. Similar policies imposed over the following decades claimed the lives of another 22 million people, all while record agricultural exports were being siphoned away to London.
Historian Mike Davis has famously likened these famines to the holocaust. And yet the corpses that the British left strewn across India have been almost entirely forgotten. Tell me: would we ever tolerate such amnesia when it comes to the crimes of Nazi Germany? Never. Any such ignorance is rebuked, and rightly so. Yet when it comes to the crimes of the British Empire, an insidious form of holocaust denialism vipers right through our culture.
While he was Prime Minister, David Cameron went on record saying: “There’s an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did.” Why? Because the British brought “development” and whatnot. Or so the argument goes.
But there isn’t a shred of evidence to back this up. During the entire 200-year history of British rule in India, there was zero increase in per capita income. In fact, during the last half of the 19th century—the heyday of British intervention—income in India collapsed by half. The average life expectancy of Indians dropped by a fifth from 1870 to 1920.
India wasn’t “developed” under British rule – it was de-developed. And not just in terms of social welfare. British policy was designed to destroy India’s domestic industries by imposing asymmetrical tariffs, by dismantling the institutions that trained up producers, and in some cases even by maiming skilled artisans – all to create captive markets for British goods. During the course of British rule, India’s share of the global economy shrank from 27% to 3%.
Yet despite this litany of violence, a recent YouGov survey found that 80% of Britons do not regret colonialism. 44% are actively proud of it. How is this possible? I hear it all the time: pundits and politicians arguing that colonialism brought democracy, property rights, rule of law, railroads…
What a strange twist of reason this requires.
Democracy? British rule was dictatorship! Africans and Asians struggled and bled for the right to vote in their own countries. Property rights? The whole point of colonialism was dispossession—securing the rights of the colonizers to the property of the colonized: land, gold, diamonds, taxes, even the bodies of the colonized themselves. Rule of law? The object of colonial legal codes was to deny equal rights to colonial subjects. And India’s railroads were used to pump resources—grain and timber—out of the hinterlands to the ports for British use.
Even if we accept that useful things were shared during colonialism – universities, for instance – that is not the same as saying they were a benefit of colonization. Colonialism is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge or technology. Britain has long enjoyed the Arabic numeral system, algorithms, and even algebra itself, without ever submitting to Arab invasion. It takes a warped mind to believe that the best way to share ideas with other humans is to colonize them.
But we have barely scratched the surface. Let’s not forget that Britain’s first forays into colonialism were linked to the consummate expression of barbarism: the Atlantic slave trade. 300 years of state-sponsored human trafficking. 14 million souls shipped across the sea. Countless bodies shackled to British plantations and churned into the sugar and cotton that fueled Britain’s industrial rise.
And yet in the book I was made to read to become a British citizen, this long, dark history was reduced to three sentences. You can visit Glasgow, Bristol, London, Liverpool and every other British city that grew rich on the slave trade without encountering a single memorial. Denialism vipers through our culture.
We could spend all night listing off Britain’s crimes against humanity. But that is not the point I want to make. This is not just about a list of crimes. The denialism runs much deeper than that.
You see, we have this story we tell ourselves, that Britain’s crowning moment of greatness, the Industrial Revolution, emerged sui generis from within Britain’s borders – robust institutions, good markets, advanced science and technology. This is the story that’s written into our children’s textbooks: we must all be proud of Mr. James Watt and his inventions.
But scholars remind us that there is much more to the story than we are normally told. From historians like Sven Beckert, Kenneth Pomeranz, Ellen Wood, Parthasarathi and Karl Polanyi, the evidence is clear: the Industrial Revolution was built on state violence, slavery and colonization. Britain’s economic rise depended on cotton, sown and harvested by enslaved Africans on land expropriated from indigenous Americans; depended on the theft of agricultural products from Indian farmers; and depended on the forced de-industrialization of Asia.
But, I can hear you say, that was all in the past. It ended more than 70 years ago. Things are different now.
Are they? Only if you’re willing to forget what happened afterward. Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Mohammed Mossadegh, the first elected leader of Iran, when he tried to regain control of the country’s oil reserves from Britain. Only if you’re willing to forget the British-backed coup that deposed Kwame Nkrumah, the first elected leader of Ghana, when he sought to reduce his country’s dependence on British imports. Only if you’re willing to forget the structural adjustment programs that Britain helped impose across its former colonies in the 80s and 90s, one after the other, reversing the progressive policies of the postcolonial era to restore British access to cheap labour, raw materials and markets, devastating the livelihoods of ordinary people in the process, adding hundreds of millions to the ranks of the poor.
But we’ve forgotten all that. And we’ve forgotten much more besides, including things that are happening right now. We’ve forgotten that the City of London operates at the center of the world’s tax haven network, which helps facilitate illicit financial flows that cost the South more than $1 trillion per year. Colonialism may be over, but the system that it created – a system designed to siphon wealth from South to North – remains very much in place. The word “reparations” suggests that the problem is in the past. It is not.
Frantz Fanon had it right when he wrote, in Wretched of the Earth, that “Colonialism and imperialism have not settled their debt to us once they have withdrawn from our territories. The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World.”
So go ahead – I challenge you: chalk up the billions of hours that enslaved Africans worked on British plantations, pay it at a living wage. Tally up compensation for the 60 million souls sacrificed to famine for the sake of British surplus. Boost it all by 200 years of compound interest, and add that to the trillions lost during structural adjustment and the trillions more in stolen cash that flows through Guildhall. Try it. The numbers begin to swell. They rise like a chorus of voices from the forgotten corners of our past. They march like an army of ghosts who demand a reckoning.
And then it strikes you…. Then it strikes you that there is not enough money in all of Britain to compensate for these injustices. And you realize, that if Britain paid reparations – real, honest, courageous reparations – there would be nothing left. Britain would not exist.
And that is exactly what people find so terrifying about the question of reparations. It’s not that they fear the actual prospect of paying. It is that even just thinking about what is owed reveals the hard truth: that what is owed, is everything.
But really, this is not about the money. This is about something far more important… this is about the story. The real reparations we need are narrative reparations. So this is what I ask of this house tonight – that we demand, at minimum, repair of the broken story we tell ourselves: an end to the denial that has festered among us for too long. Let us demand the truth be told in our schools and in our town halls. Let us demand that alongside every statue celebrating Victoria and Churchill there be memorials to their victims. Let us demand that the real story of Britain’s rise be worn like poppies upon our breasts.
As Aime Cesaire put it, “A nation which colonizes, a civilization which justifies colonization, is a sick civilization, a civilization that is morally diseased.” So what is at stake here, in the end, is not only justice for the dispossessed, but Britain’s own healing. Britain’s own humanity. To repair this broken story will cost you nothing, and yet you have everything to gain.
* * *
My opponent, John Hemmings, responded with a number of common arguments that are worth exploring. I paraphrase and reflect on five of them here.
1. “It’s true, Britain’s imperial past was riddled with horrible violence. But there is a lot of violence in world history. Mao’s famines. Stalin’s gulags. Why put special blame on Britain?”
In a way, this exactly proves my point. We all know about the crimes of Mao and Stalin – in fact, they feature routinely in our media narratives. They are wielded as proof that totalitarian communist regimes are horrible and destructive – in stark contrast to the supposedly liberal capitalism promoted around the world by a supposedly benevolent Britain. And it’s true, totalitarian communism was disastrous. But that’s no reason to pretend that the history of capitalism wasn’t itself brutally violent: from enclosure to the slave trade to colonization to famine – why is our narrative about Western capitalism so routinely sanitized of these core elements? That is what we need to repair.
2. “There were lots of empires in world history: the Mongols, Rome, Japan and so on. If Britain must pay reparations, then we should demand reparations from all historical empires, and that is absurd.”
You certainly won’t find a defense of these past empires on my lips. I am a staunch anti-imperialist, and always will be. Give me a chance to broaden my argument, to critique empire itself, and I will gladly do so. But two points. First, the proposition in question has to do with Britain – that is what’s under debate. So this is a red herring. Second, the Mongols did not design a global economic system that remains in place today. Britain did – and this is precisely the core of my argument: that there is a fundamental continuity between the international economic system that was consolidated from 1600 to 1950, and the one that exists today.
There are some obvious signs of this. Who controls the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, the three key institutions that govern the rules of the global economy? Voting power in the WB and IMF is monopolized by a small handful of rich nations: the US, Britain, France, Germany, Japan. Meanwhile the global South, which has some 85% of the world’s population, has less than 50% of the vote. In other words, even if the vast majority of the world voted to change WB and IMF policy, they would not be able to do so.
What about the WTO? Bargaining power in the WTO is determined by market size, so economies like Britain virtually always get their way. In other words, the inequalities that were generated during the colonial era now structure who has power in the global economy. Inequality begets inequality. This is hardly surprising. Remember: the Bretton Woods institutions were founded in 1944, before the end of colonialism. That’s why colonies like India were integrated into the system on profoundly unequal terms. Indeed, that was the whole point.
3. “Britain cannot be blamed for the continued suffering of the South. Colonialism is over. If poor countries remain poor, it is their own fault.”
For this argument to work, you need to somehow demonstrate that (a) the international economic system that was consolidated from 1600 to 1950, which generated such immense inequality between colonizers and colonies, is now gone and has been replaced by an entirely new one; and (b) that the global economy is now fundamentally fair, such that poor countries face no structural barriers to success, external to their own domestic affairs. The evidence against this assumption is tremendous. See point 2, for a start. But there is more…
The claim that corruption is a major cause of continued poverty in the South is a common one. John invokes the Corruption Perceptions Index that is published by Transparency International each year, which shows the global South smeared in the deep red that depicts high levels of corruption, while Britain and other rich economies enjoy the bright yellow that suggests no corruption at all.
Let’s think about this more carefully. Is corruption a problem in the South? Definitely! But two points. First, many of the South’s most corrupt regimes were installed by Western powers, quite often after deposing democratically elected leaders: Pinochet, Mobutu, Idi Amin, the Shah of Iran, a number of military juntas across SS Africa and Latin America… and then France’s massively corrupt Francafrique strategy to hand-pick the presidents of Francophone Africa in the post-independence era in order to guarantee continued access to the region’s resources.
Tell me, which is more corrupt? The petty dictatorship, or the superpower that installed it?
Of course, this doesn’t explain all corruption – far from it! And it’s true, corruption costs the South a tremendous amount of money: some $60 billion per year, according to the World Bank. But compare those losses to the losses sustained by the South at the hands of corporate tax evasion and illicit financial flows – some $1 trillion per year, according to Global Financial Integrity. And this system is facilitated by a shadowy network of tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions that is almost entirely controlled by rich nations, with about half of it controlled by the City of London. If this isn’t corruption on a grand scale, I don’t know what is.
So why does Britain suffer no accusations of corruption by Transparency International? Because we don’t perceive Britain as corrupt. It’s not part of our story. That’s why our story – as I have been at pains to point out – needs to be fixed. (Sources here).
4. “We need to be nuanced about the legacy of colonialism. The British built universities, for instance, which to this day remain paragons of excellence in the South. There were good things that came out of colonization.”
Again, colonization is not a necessary vector for the transfer of knowledge and infrastructure. It is obscene to believe otherwise. One can build universities without colonizing other countries – indeed, it is done regularly today. But more importantly, the idea that there was some kind of “net good” that came out of colonialism is deeply disturbing. Even if there was some kind of empirical evidence for this, it is a chilling calculus. As if erecting universities somehow justifies 200 years of violent dispossession; as if the Victoria Memorial stacks up against 60 million corpses.
Consider this. As Aime Cesaire has argued, the logic of colonization was fundamentally similar to that of Nazism: an expansionist project built on racial hierarchies. It is telling that, in public discourse, one can be “nuanced” about the legacy of colonialism but not about the legacy of Nazism. It is impossible to imagine a British politician or pundit arguing that there were some good things that came out of Nazism. Even if there were, we would never use that to soften our horror at Nazi violence. Why the double standard?
There is another important point to be made here. Even if there was a kind of “net good” that came out of colonialism, that is not a defense that would be admissible in any court of law. Imagine if we were trying a man for murdering one of his children, and his defense was that he was good to his family most of the time, fed and clothed them, and even sometimes bought them nice things. Such a defense would obviously be absurd. Indeed, even if the man had treated his family like royalty, this clearly would not compensate for the fact that he murdered his child. We would never say of such a man, “Well, overall he was a good person, so let us leave him alone.”
Only a jury committed to preserving the absolute rights of patriarchy would ever acquit such a man on these grounds. So too, only those who on some level presuppose European supremacy would ever acquit Britain on the grounds of some kind of “net good” argument.
5. Someone in the audience argued: “Britain already gives a tremendous amount of aid to poor nations, most of which are former colonies. So reparations are, in effect, already being paid. Indeed, isn’t this kind of development assistance vastly better than simply handing out reparations? Aren’t there better ways we can help?”
The narrative of aid is precisely the opposite of the narrative I have called for. The aid narrative goes like this: Britain became rich because of its own brilliance and hard work and good institutions, and now reaches out across the chasm to give generously of its surplus to poor countries, helping them up the development ladder. This story presupposes a fundamental disjuncture between the wealth of rich nations and the poverty of poor ones, as if the two have nothing at all to do with one another, either historically or today.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, the aid that the North gives to the South is vastly outstripped by financial resources that flow the other direction, in the form of interest on external debt, profit repatriation, illicit financial flows and so on. In fact, for every dollar of aid that the North gives to the South, the South loses up to $24 in net outflows because of how the global economy is structured. The South is a net creditor to the North. Poor countries are effectively developing rich countries, not the other way around.
The aid narrative obscures this reality. It makes the takers in the system seem like givers, and grants them a kind of moral high ground. It prevents us from understanding how the global economy actually works, and directs our attention away from the real root causes of poverty and inequality. That is precisely the illusion that we need to correct. We need a more honest story of how our world came to be as divided as it is today, and why that divide persists.
This brings me to a final point. If the question is how Britain can best help poor countries, the answer is simple: by working to make the global economy fundamentally fairer for the world’s majority. Democratize the World Bank and the IMF and the WTO, put an end to structural adjustment conditions on finance, close down the tax havens, roll out a global minimum wage. Once again, the concept of reparations assumes that the injustice is in the past. It is not. It persists today, in the form of a profoundly inequitable and undemocratic global economy. Any rational call for reparations must begin with a demand for justice now.
*For a more complete articulation of all of the points above, see The Divide.