Indira Gandhi’s favourite anecdote from the Peter Sellers’ film, The Party, was about an Indian being asked, “Who do you think you are?” He replied, “Indians don’t think. We know who we are.” It was her fancy that the answer was an affirmation of identity that made Indians superior to those who create prisons out of imagination.
That might mean today’s British whose sense of liberation and vows to “take back control” suggest a heavy colonial yoke has been shaken off, as in India on August 15, 1947. It’s even been suggested that June 23, the day of the referendum when 17 million Britons voted to leave the European Union, should be celebrated as Independence Day.
The rhetoric underlines the truth of the truism that freedom and bondage are states of mind. If Britain felt constrained, it wasn’t because of an amorphous European Union but because of factors nearer home.
Sir John Chilcot’s 2.6-million word report on Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq has confirmed that some weighty decisions are forced upon the country by the duplicity of political leaders who are subservient to outsiders at the expense of national interests. The burden of history is another inhibiting factor on a nation that was long ago said to have lost an empire without discovering a role.
Many Brits were convinced long before Chilcot’s report that the prime minister of the time, Tony Blair — whom his critics call Tony BLiar — was not his own man. The tearful drama he staged on television when Chilcot’s report was released on Wednesday impressed few. For whatever reason he gladly jumped through any hoop George W Bush held up for him. “I will be with you whatever,” Blair promised Bush in a memo on July 28, 2002. Britain would “stand shoulder to shoulder” with the United States.
Chilcot admits “the precise basis on which Mr Blair made that decision is not clear”. Robin Cook, a former foreign secretary who resigned in protest against the war, suggested a reason in his memoirs. He believed Blair was dazzled by the power Bush exuded. He didn’t need proof of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. He didn’t bother to ensure British troops were properly trained and equipped for the military adventure. He saw no reason to confide in parliament. Information was not shared with cabinet ministers. The country was misled. The United Nations was ignored. Blair plunged Britain into war to ensure “regime change” in Baghdad because that was what Bush wanted.
The tragic consequences are still evident in West Asia’s devastation. More than 189,000 Iraqis were killed, 600,000 others died from associated hardships such as disease. Saddam’s removal left the field free for Islamic State terrorists to sweep into Iraq from Syria. In contrast, Britain suffered only 179 casualties, but the next of kin of those victims want Blair to be tried as a war criminal.
While the Blair-Bush phenomenon may not be repeated, it’s not the only influencing factor. Britain’s historical experience suggests a permanently inhibiting reason. “Great empires (or republics) and little minds go ill together,” wrote Edmund Burke. But when the great empire has gone, the mind that created it can shrivel into inconsequence. Discussing Britain’s rejection by the European Economic Community (the EU’s predecessor) more than 50 years ago, Neils Westerby, a Danish politician, explained the British had been too deeply influenced by their Indian experience to remain wholly European.
Having in the last few weeks travelled in France, Spain and Portugal — countries that once ruled large swathes of the globe — I can see the difference in Britain. While France, Spain and Portugal have forgotten their vanished empires, it remains a living memory in Britain. I don’t mean the architecture, coffee-table volumes and exhibitions. But two items in The Times (London) newspaper of July 4 were revealing.
The first, a double-column spread, reported with illustrations that the photographer, Bourne and Shepherd, “has closed its doors in Calcutta after 176 years in business”. So it has. But I was under the impression it did so many years ago. In the same paper, Matt Ridley, a political commentator, sought to explain the current turmoil in British politics in terms of his mother “who was brought up in India” saying that political crises crop up in June because people “are sleeping badly because of the heat” during the monsoons.
Stone walls do not a prison make nor iron bars a cage. But the constricting memory of what is nowadays gloatingly called the Raj is not easily exorcised.