As Scotland voted in favour of being told what to do by Westminster, a learned and diverse audience at the UK Supreme Court in London took a wholly different view of the historical merits of Westminster rule.
‘The Empire Debate’ was organized to mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of formal relations between India and Great Britain.
The motion under discussion was, ‘The Indian sub-continent benefited more than it lost from the experience of British Colonialism’ with Tory MP Kwasi Kwarteng, former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell and Pakistani journalist Nilofar Bakhtyar debating in favour whilst author William Dalrymple, UN sustainability expert Nick Robins and former Indian External Affairs Minister Shashi Tharoor debated against.
A vote before the debate revealed an even split within the audience as to the merits of British rule in the sub-continent.
However, a post-debate vote saw the anti-colonialism camp scoring victory by a not-insignificant margin, thanks to the formidable trio opposing the motion, in particular Dalrymple and the supremely erudite Shashi Tharoor who outlined why his side won in an article days later.
That’s not to say that the pro-British Colonialism camp did not make a compelling case for the good that the British did for India.
Here is Nick Robins’ case for the proposition:
The debate is not about making a general case for imperialism. We are not excusing the wrongs of the past. We are not pretending that the Amritsar Massacre and other horrors never happened.
We are celebrating an anniversary. 400 years of formal links between Britain and India.
Because of developments in commerce, shipbuilding, navigation and the projection of force, the Sub-continent was due at about that time for some uninvited visitors. They were the British, the French and the Portuguese.
Who would India rather have had – the Germans, the Japanese? Actually Indians very nearly did have the Japanese.
Did the Sub-continent gain or did it lose from its British inheritance? Did the benefits outweigh the costs?
I have always been a lover of the sub-continent in good times and not so good times. I have been tear-gassed in Indian-administered Kashmir during the elections in 1996. I reported a famine in Maharashtra in 1973, only to be told by one of the Ministers that I could not call it a famine. They had famines only in the British times.
Now what they had was a ‘scarcity’.
In 1971 with the help of the Indian Border Police I slipped across the border into East Pakistan at the point when it became Bangladesh. I have spoken about corruption – British corruption – at the Bishop Cotton School in Simla.
I have come to regard Indian democracy as perhaps the greatest democracy in the world.
There is, I believe, a natural affinity between the British and the peoples of the Sub-continent. We have much more that unites us than divides us.
A long time ago I was a soldier. I was posted with the Suffolk Regiment on active service to Cyprus. One of my tasks – apart from failing to put down a rebellion – was to look after the ‘char wallahs’, the British Army’s camp followers who had come with the Regiment from India to Cyprus.
When we left, at the end of the campaign, they stood on the quayside with tears in their eyes to see us off. Years later I wrote an ode to the char wallah.
“The char wallahs and the dhobi wallahs,
They were the Regiments’ camp followers;
They did the laundry, made the tea,
Served private soldiers such as me,
And they were better men than we.
But so much change has happened since
And now a newer India thrives,
Touching and changing many lives.
And even a multitude of dollars
Won’t bring is back those long lost wallahs
Who were our Gunga Dins.”
We have no char wallahs any more. But we do have soldiers. Dr Tharoor will know that the national contingents on UN peace-keeping duty are of very uneven quality. But the UN can rely absolutely on its blue helmets from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
And speaking of Dr Tharoor, I would make the point – that he is personally a standing refutation of the case he is trying to make.
Here is a man who is a master of the English language, who has written his books in it, both fiction and non-fiction to great effect. He is a great authority on PG Wodehouse. He even once founded a PG Wodehouse Society. He is one of the least anti-British people I have ever met – except perhaps for the purposes of his country’s internal party politics, where a degree of Brit-bashing is mandatory and understandable.
I believe that he is secretly on our side. That makes four of us and only two of them. The force is with us.
Here is one of my verses about the English language – the language that binds us together.
“On dune and headland sinks the fire, the outposts fall, the flags are furled,
The sun sets on the last Empire, but its language rules the world.”
Ultimately the choices are quite clear:
Would you like a Sub-continent in which the English language is such an advantage intellectually and commercially – or would you prefer it without its English Language?
Would you like it with Shakespeare – or would you prefer it without Shakespeare?
Would you like it with Wodehouse – or would you prefer it without Wodehouse?
Would you prefer it with the architecture of Lutyens – or without the architecture of Lutyens?
Would you prefer it with its British engineered railways – or without its British engineered railways?
Would you prefer it with the Ambassador car (the Morris Oxford) – or without the Ambassador car?
Would you prefer it with its British military traditions – or without its British military traditions?
Would you prefer it with bagpipes – or without bagpipes?
With cricket – or without cricket?
Would you prefer it with parliamentary democracy – or without parliamentary democracy?
With a free press – or without a free press?
With the eloquent editorials in the Times of India – or without the eloquent editorials in the Times of India?
Would you prefer it with the idea of liberty – or without the idea of liberty?
For us British, Empire was an accident. But Liberty was an idea. It was the idea that undermined the accident. We have all of us benefitted from the end of Empire. We liberated you to be who you are. And you liberated us to be who we are.
But we benefitted from Empire too.