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A history soaked in blood – the British Empire’s crimes are nothing to celebrate

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A century after the First World War our rulers are still trying to peddle patriotic pride. But the British Empire’s crimes are nothing to celebrate argues John Newsinger
Issue 2385

This year will mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Lasting from 1914-18, this appallingly bloody conflict almost destroyed a generation. Over one million died during the Battle of the Somme alone.

The war was a clash of empires. Both the British and the German ruling classes were prepared for any number of dead and maimed to advance their imperial interests. And there was a lot of money to be made out of the conflict.

This year we will see a cascade of patriotic froth surrounding the anniversary. David Cameron and his pals have decided to turn the centenary of the slaughter into an opportunity for a celebration of Britishness.

Their intention for the proposed commemoration is ideological. The ruling class hopes to foster the spirit of Britishness by mythologising a conflict of unimaginable horror. 

The First World War is to be reinvented as a time when the whole nation united against an external threat and through immense sacrifice and heroism triumphed. We were all in it together then and we are all in it together now. 

The war against the kaiser will be portrayed as requiring the same pluck, steadfastness and grit as the contemporary war against the deficit. And in pursuit of glorious victory George Osborne, like some junior Field Marshal Haig, will send any number of working class people over the top.

Patriotism is, once again, being used as a way of disguising policies that serve the interests of the ruling class. Boris Johnson gave a speech to the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies last November.

He referred with pride to the fact that Britain had “conquered or at least invaded 171” of the current 193 member countries of the United Nations (UN). The remark passed off with very little comment from most sections of the media. 

One cannot help feeling that the reason for this was because the statement is so shocking. It reveals the British state as one of the most aggressive and warlike in history, a state whose predatory behaviour has been truly global.


While Johnson regarded this blood soaked history with awe, it makes most people uncomfortable to say the least. For this is not the image of Britishness that is so often presented. To be British, we are told, is to be the plucky underdog only reluctantly taking on the warlike aggressor to save the world from tyranny. 

In fact, what Boris Johnson’s imperial glee betrays is that the British state has been a rabid bulldog savaging anyone and everyone it can get its teeth into. And all in the pursuit of pillage, profit and power.

One useful guide to how Britishness is constructed is to consider the wars that aren’t commemorated. While our Etonian rulers want to remember, indeed celebrate, the horrors of the First World War, there are so many other conflicts that go unremembered. 

One such conflict is the Opium Wars. These were one-sided wars of aggression to force China to allow the import of opium. And they tell us something about the British state of the time—namely that it was a gangster state. 

The Opium Wars saw the bombardment and occupation of Nanjing, the occupation of Beijing, the massacre of poorly armed Chinese troops and looting on a massive scale. Surely all this deserves to be remembered too? 

Or there is the 1904 invasion of Tibet when a British military expedition under Francis Younghusband was sent to occupy the city of Lhasa. Looting monasteries and massacring any poorly armed Tibetan soldiers they encountered, the British proceeded, in Younghusband’s words, to “ram” a treaty ‘down their throats’. 

And more recently, we could celebrate the British military intervention in Indonesia at the end of the Second World War. The Indonesians certainly celebrate it, but what they celebrate is their resistance to the British attempt to restore Dutch rule. 

Under a Labour government no less—the government of Clement Attlee and Aneurin Bevan—British troops fought a fierce campaign against the resistance. They even rearmed Japanese prisoners of war to assist them in the fight.

The  port city of Surabaya, a resistance stronghold, was subjected to bombardment by the British from the air, sea and land in January 1946. Then it was stormed by British troops. The city was left, in the words of one journalist, looking like Stalingrad after the German attack.

This war has been buried and is barely ever mentioned in history books. But it cost the lives of 20,000 Indonesians, more than 600 British and Indian troops, and over 1,000 Japanese. Surely this deserves to be remembered as well. In fact, it is barely remembered at all. 

It’s quite probable that Boris Johnson himself has never heard of it. The aggressor has erased the memory.

Today, of course, the reach and might of the British military is much diminished. The image of Britain as a benign influence on the world has taken over from the aggressive colonial one.

Still while Britannia might no longer rule the waves, the ruling class will be peddling the idea that there will always be a Britain. But the belief that white people born in Britain have, and always have had, some sort of national identity stamped on their behinds is not true. 


No one can agree on a standard set of traits for the British, but that doesn’t stop some people trying. For some it’s all about eating fish and chips, patience, drinking lots of tea and a self deprecating sense of humour.

But this can only claim to be Britishness because there is not one standard way of British life. 

And, although the ruling class will never let you know it, there never has been. The Britain of street parties, bunting and tea drinking is a recent fiction. So-called “national characteristics” are just interpretations by the ruling class to justify their actions.

The notion of a Great Britain came at the same time as the rise of capitalism and the British Empire. And it is no accident that the rise of patriotism came at that point in history.

The working class in Britain has very little in common with its ruling class. These ideas about Britishness and a shared identity are pushed from the very top. The way of life for a worker in a supermarket in Britain is very different to that of a banker paid millions in bonuses.

The difference in their experiences is stark, even if both are born in Britain. In big cities, people from all nationalities and skin colours live and work side by side and have done for many years.

The rich desperately want the poor to buy into the fiction that they have Britishness in common. They want ordinary people to be bound by these chains.

And of course when a notion of Britishness is constructed the idea of “non-British” is also made. This is one of the ways the ruling class tries to create divisions within the working class. 

At times of crisis politicians blame the people they see as “non-British” for creating the mess that the rich have caused. Just look at how migrants are being scapegoated for the current crisis.

Britishness is an ideological construct that is intended to ensure that working class men and women have a shared identity with their rulers. There is no more horrific example of the consequences of this in British history than the First World War. 

When ruling class interests were threatened the notion of a shared British identity made it easier to persuade the working class that their interests were also threatened. They wanted people to believe that they should make whatever sacrifices were necessary in the fight. 

Of course, the nature of class society meant that notions of Britishness became something to be fought over. Patriotism does nothing but serve to help subordinate the interests of the working class to those of the capitalist class. 

It still remains the case that working class people the world over have more in common with other workers than they have with their exploiters. 

Today, as during the First World War, the way forward is for the workers of the world to unite. 



The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire

by John Newsinger 


Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism

by Vladimir Lenin


No Glory: The real history of the First World War

by Neil Faulkner


Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop.


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