I was rather amused by Mr David Cameron’s Britain is Best speech at the G20 summit. This was not not just due to their similarity with the Prime Minister’s speech in British romantic comedy Love Actually, but by the glaring inconsistencies of it.
In response to an alleged comment by a Russian official that the United Kingdom was “just a small island” he responded “Britain may be a small island but I would challenge anyone to find a country with a prouder history, a bigger heart or greater resilience”, continuing that:
“Britain is an island that has helped to clear the European continent of fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout the Second World War.
“Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worthwhile inventing, including every sport currently played around the world, that still today is responsible for art, literature and music that delights the entire world.
“We are very proud of everything we do as a small island – a small island that has the sixth-largest economy, the fourth best-funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history, one of the best records for art and literature and contribution to philosophy and world civilisation.”
Despite the communal applause in the press, the flaws of these comments were all too obvious. In comparison to Russia, we are indeed a small island. Regarding our past, yes we have had great inventors and famous people who have changed history. But so have many other countries. As for our history, the way we occupied the colonies, slaughtering the natives and attempting to convert them all to Christianity is nothing to be proud of.
1. Mr Cameron claimed Britain cleared “the European continent of fascism”. Yes but not without the military might of America, without whom we may well have lost the Second World War.
2. The statement with the most holes is that Britain “helped to abolish slavery”. As The Guardian’s Stephen Moss then pointed out, we profited from it for 300 years before this happened. A BBC history website points out that of all countries, Britain profited most from the trade.
As the Abolition Project website points out, it was no longer in Britain’s economic interests to continue slavery. Since America had become independent, it had been able to obtain sugar elsewhere. Furthermore, following the Industrial Revolution, we had been able to produce our own goods. It was also no longer profitable because of the continuous revolts. These points may explain why many importers of plantation produce were also abolitioinists. In August 1833 the Emancipation Act was passed under pressure from religious groups and abolition campaigners. However this still did not go far enough as it still required slaves to be “apprentices” working for free for six years before becoming emancipated.
“Apprenticeship” was not outlawed until 1838. The 1833 Act was only a partial victory, only applying to the West Indies, Cape Town, Mauritius and Canada. The Empire continued to profit from slavery in other countries. The Act did not stop the practice – many simply ignored the ruling and although reported by campaigners, it was not enforced. Treaties were entered into with other countries, and an “Anti-Slavery squadron” was set up of old and derelict Naval vessels. However ship owners that were caught were tried in foreign countries. Those freed were sent to Freetown, a British colony. However when that became full they were forced into the army or “apprenticeships”. It took 100 years after the Emancipation Act for total abolition of the trade, during which time Britain continued to profit by importing and exporting slave-grown sugar and importing slave-grown cotton.
For freed slaves conditions were still horrendous with endemic racism, poor living conditions and lower pay, as a former slave and American statesman, Frederick Douglass commented:
“Though no longer a slave, he is in a thralldom grievous and intolerable, compelled to work for whatever his employer is pleased to pay him, swindled out of his hard earnings by money orders redeemed in stores, compelled to pay the price of an acre of ground for its use during a single year, to pay four times more than a fair price for a pound of bacon and to be kept upon the narrowest margin between life and starvation….”
3. To say that we invented “most of the things worthwhile inventing” is doing a great disservice to the great inventions of other countries. The invention of the car for example, was crucial to our sixth-largest economy, in which a £52 billion turnover is supplied by the automotive industry.
4. Mr Cameron then claimed we invented “every sport currently played”, what about rowing, which was first recorded in Egypt, basketball and sumo wrestling? (to name just a few). The comment suggests that the only sports worth including are British ones, thus devaluing the sports of other countries. Furthermore the reason for the widespread playing of British sport again relates to colonial rule. Game fields were used for “moral instruction” of the conquered, following a rejection of local cultures and beliefs.
5. As for a well-funded military, we are the fourth-largest worldwide spender on military. Yet after cuts, the army will eventually number just 82,000 – a level one British lawmaker said was the lowest since the Napoleonic Wars. Even the new British Head of Armed Forces, General Nicholas Houghton commented: “We’ve got to get back into an ‘expeditionary mindset’ where we will not have perfect capability for every scenario.”
A political opportunity was seized to put good spin on the unproven comment by a Russian official, using sweeping generalisations. The majority of the press responded as was intended. However, as a result of the comments we appeared arrogant, misinformed and laughable as a nation. Yes, Britain has been the home of many great inventors and yes we do have parts of history we can be proud of. But lets not diminish the achievements of other countries.
As American poet and critic Ezra Pound said: ““Any general statement is like a cheque drawn on a bank. Its value depends on what is there to meet it.”