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What Kemi Badenoch Gets Right About Colonialism

What Kemi Badenoch Gets Right About Colonialism
Robert Tombs
Written by Robert Tombs

Kemi Badenoch, Secretary of State for Business and Trade, has been criticised for a speech she made recently in which she contested the claims that Britain’s industrial and commercial wealth were built on slavery and colonialism. But she was correct to oppose the fashionable story, as Robert Tombs explains

We are grateful to The Spectator for permission to republish this article.

Kemi Badenoch has developed a habit of truth telling. This is risky in our climate of rigid cultural orthodoxy, for whose guardians ‘truth is what you and people like you believe, and can compel others to accept,’ as the philosopher John Gray puts it. Those who tell truths that ‘you and people like you’ deny become targets.

Ms Badenoch’s most recent foray into robust common sense occurred in a speech in the City, in which she said, among other things, that the changes that followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688, including the rule of law, led to a great expansion in financial services. She rejected the new orthodoxy that Britain’s ‘wealth and success’ were due to ‘colonialism’, ‘white imperialism’, ‘exploitation’ and ‘oppression.’

The historian William Dalrymple tweeted that Badenoch ‘needs to learn some history’.  This sort of put-down sounds bad from a professional: to me, it translates as ‘I’m an expert: you keep quiet.’

As Ms Badenoch pointed out in her speech, blaming modern economic failures on ‘colonialism’ is a convenient excuse. Indian nationalists use it constantly.

The Runnymede Trust also attacked Badenoch, insisting that ‘our church, media and financial systems are rooted in colonialism and slavery’.  Such sweeping and vacuous allegations – if they are true of Britain, they must be true of every country – are the pretext for reparations demands running into billions.  This gargantuan trough is attracting many snouts, not excluding academics.  So there is far more at stake here than whether a particular minister – a computer engineer by training – needs to ‘learn some history’.

Her claim that the Glorious Revolution began a great expansion in financial services is undeniable.  Until then, Britain was financially chaotic.  The modern history of the City can be dated from the creation by parliament of the Bank of England in 1694 – only six years after the Revolution. The City’s growth as a global financial centre, eclipsing Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt, was based on the need to finance war.  But its ability to do so depended on international lenders believing that their money was legally protected from seizure or default.  They believed it because the House of Commons controlled government finance. Thus the City built up the eco-system which still makes it unique.  Foreign observers realised something new was happening. Voltaire observed that in the City peaceful money-making eclipsed religious hatred: only bankrupts, he joked, were treated as infidels.  Here Ms Badenoch’s history is solid.

But what of the indiscriminate accusation that Britain’s wealth came from slavery and colonial exploitation? This is archaic Marxist-Leninism, long rejected by serious economic historians, though resuscitated in the aftermath of ‘Black Lives Matter’.  Long before its contacts with the non-European world England was a wealthy country, based on production of wool and cloth by English workers.  In 1500 its per capita GDP was at a level only reached by China and India in the 1990s. By the reign of Elizabeth I, workers’ wages in London were at least four times higher than in Delhi or Peking.  Prosperity and domestic consumption, along with education, the rule of law and of course coal, account for the accelerating economic development we call the Industrial Revolution.

What of slavery and exploitation? In the 18th century, trade outside Europe was comparatively small, and slavery and its products a small part even of that – slaving profits barely reached 1 per cent of national income.  France had a much larger slave-based trade than Britain but could not industrialise. Neither could other slave-trading empires – Holland, Spain and Turkey, not to mention those in Africa and Asia.

Nationalist propagandists claim that Britain grew rich by looting its empire. A Marxist historian recently accused Britain of ‘stealing’ $45 trillion from India. The leading Indian economic historian, Professor Tirthankar Roy, dismisses this as myth pandering to ‘an audience ready to believe horror stories about British colonialism without a fact check’.  By 1900 India had the fourth largest textile industry in the world, and the fourth largest railway system. Roy points out that Indian workers and businesses operated throughout the empire, and for that reason were its staunch allies until the Great Depression of the 1920s.

Where were those huge exploitative profits?  Empire gave few if any exclusive benefits to Britain after the powerful free trade movement opened domestic and imperial markets. British taxpayers subsidised security and communications and kept empire taxes low. A queue of countries – including Corsica, Crete, Uruguay, Katanga, Fiji, Morocco, Sarawak, New Guinea and even Mexico – asked to join. Britain traded and invested in its empire, as it did with the rest of the world; but only from a peculiar ideological viewpoint is this ‘exploitation’.  Kemi Badenoch is not a historian, but she clearly has more grasp of historical reality than many who are.

About the author

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is Emeritus Professor of French History, Cambridge, and a Fellow of St John’s College. He holds the Palmes Académiques for services to French culture. Recent works include The English and Their History (2014), Paris, bivouac des révolutions (2014), and This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe (2021).