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The irrationality of 'colonial guilt'
by Michael Newland
a homage to Lord Bauer
Among the official myths propagated upon the British people during the
post-war period, one of the most effective has been the supposed requirement
for a sense of British guilt about colonial rule and its aftermath.
As with so many political manoeuvres, the effectiveness of the 'colonial
guilt' swindle has emanated from its support by a curious alliance of forces.
The mainstream establishment no longer identifies itself with the interests
of the British people, but with larger international economic interests.
'Colonial guilt' offers a ready weapon with which to attack those who wish
Britain to continue to exist as a nation. The British supposedly make up
a 'guilty nation', on account of their past record as masters of the British
Empire, and have therefore renounced the right to existence - or at the
least are obligated to pay unlimited reparations for the depradations they
have inflicted on the world.
The Soviet block found colonialism to be a popular stick with which
to beat the West for decades, as a part of the larger strategy, established
by the Comintern during the 1920s., of undermining Western morale - as
an alternative to military conquest. In the case of Britain, the United
States, for most of this century, saw the British Empire as a rival to
be destroyed. The banging of the anti-colonial drum could serve yet another
Allied to the establishment, within Britain, is a broad swathe of left-wing
interests. The spectrum runs from Hampstead sentimentalists, with largely
neurotic notions of angst about their comfortable lives, to more calculating
forces of the left, who perceive that anything which undermines the sense
of self of the British might pave the way for their traditional route to
power - a collapse in society.
One of the few to speak out openly against the mythology of colonial
guilt was Lord Bauer.
The late Peter Bauer was Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School
of Economics, and specialised in development economics. He was a person
whose views can hardly therefore be dismissed as ill-informed.
In 1981 he published Equality, the Third World and Economic Delusion
- a book which should be on the reading list of everyone who wishes to
be well-informed on the political forces at large in the post-war world.
1981? Just early enough to escape the beginnings of 'The Terror' of political
correctness which took off in earnest later in that decade.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, the book is at the moment out of print. T.S
Eliot's well-known remark that 'humankind cannot bear very much reality'
appears close to the title page. 'The West has never had it so good, and
has never felt so bad about it' says Bauer. We in the West are supposedly
to blame for Third World poverty and backwardness.
'We took the rubber from Malaya, the tea from India, raw materials from
all over the world and gave almost nothing in return'. A Cambridge student
group included those words in a pamphlet on Western obligations during
the 1970s. Could any reasonable person disagree?
Peter Bauer amusingly points out that the reverse is in fact the case.
Rubber plants are not native to Malaya, and were introduced there from
South America by the British a century ago. Tea plants were brought to
India, from China, by the British during the eighteenth century.
During the 1960s., Cyril Connolly wrote an article in the Sunday Times
called 'Black man's burden'. 'It is a wonder that the white man is not
more thoroughly detested than he is' wrote Connolly. The behaviour of white
people in their colonies could be summed up in one word - exploitation.
The question is then begged, says Bauer, as to why Third World countries
are generally much better off than before they came under Western influence.
The most advanced areas of the Third World, following colonial rule, were
those which had the greatest input from the West.
Most of the basics of modern life were introduced into Africa by white
people. Slavery had almost disappeared from West Africa by 1914 - and on
the intitiative of white nations. It is now returning in earnest.
Ghana, until the rule of Dr. Nkrumah, prospered from cocoa exports to
the West. The cocoa farmers were the most prosperous group. This did not
prevent Dr. Nkrumah from claiming ' enslavement and oppression', by the
West, while himself dragging the country into a morass of corruption.
Some of least developed countries in the world were never colonies.
Examples are Afghanistan, Liberia, and to all intents and purposes Ethiopia,
which only came under colonial rule for six years during the Mussolini
era. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is still a European colony, yet enjoys
a 'tiger economy'.
European countries which acquired colonies, Bauer says, were already
far ahead economically at the time, and their comparative prosperity is
not the result of colonialism. Some of the richest Western nations, Switzerland,
and the Scandinavian countries, never had any colonies.
Since the end of colonial rule, a new terminology has developed to maintain
the theme of a 'guilty West'. 'Economic colonialism' or 'neo-colonialism'
is now supposedly the cause of continuing Third World poverty. The behaviour
of so-many recent Third World leaders, who have wrecked their countries,
particularly those within Africa, is excused as in some way the responsibility
of the West.
The essence of the economic case against the West is that international
trade has been, for the Third World, a zero-sum game. The enrichment of
the West has been at the expense of the Third World. In reality, most the
exported goods would never have existed in the first place without a Western
input of technology - witness rubber and tea.
Migration of the skilled to the West is one accusation on which the
neo-colonialist argument is on safer ground. Bauer points to much of the
training of the immigrant skilled being paid for by the West as a defence
to this complaint. This is both an exaggeration, and misleading, since
there exists a moral obligation among the skilled emigrants to return and
build their own countries.
Bauer accepts two criticisms of the West, both of which are very different
from the usual accusations.
Firstly, Western medicine has allowed massive and very rapid population
growth in the underdeveloped world, with the problems that brings.
Secondly, he says that the late colonial policy of increasing politicisation
of Third World economies has been carried over into recent times, with
damaging effects in the form of state-controlled or totalitarian regimes
- albeit imposed by local leaders, but not without encouragement in the
form of demands by the West for particular allocations of aid funds.
The overall effect of Western influence in the Third World has been
beneficial - the caveats to this view are minor. 'Western guilt' exists
to serve very different interests than those of the welfare of the peoples
of the Third World.
A homage to Lord Bauer for saying so!
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