There is a good reason that the Commonwealth Games are so named: this is because the competition is between nation states that are member of the British Commonwealth. That, in turn, is the de facto successor to the long-defunct British Empire, dismantled in the years following the Second World War. It is no longer called the Empire Games (1930 to 1950), or indeed the Empire and Commonwealth Games (1954 to 1966).
Britain no longer rules over Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, and several countries in Africa. Moreover, the methods used in acquiring these territories in the first place, the subjugation of indigenous peoples there, and the expropriation of resources therefrom are well-known and hardly the subject of celebration in today’s world. But that has not stopped those out there on the right from creating a faux Empire-means-patriotism narrative.
As I noted yesterday, the loathsome Toby Young has been defending the anachronistic use of the term “Empire” as part of civilian honours, and as a way of demonising Labour leadership candidate Lisa Nandy. “Does Labour’s MP for Wigan really think she’s going to win those people back by denigrating Britain’s past?” he demanded.
Worse, if only because he is supposed to leave his partiality behind when representing the BBC, is Andrew Neil, going totally Over The Top to attack a Horrible Histories song which points out that much of what is considered British isn’t: “This is anti-British drivel of a high order. Was any of the licence fee used to produce something purely designed to demean us?” Demean. Denigrate. But it isn’t: it’s just being honest about the past.
This was not lost on historian Kim Wagner, who looked on and mused “Didn't take long for this narrative to become firmly established - if you don't celebrate the Empire you're ‘anti-British'. Wonder if critical scholarship of the Holocaust can also be considered 'anti-German'? Or exposing the atrocities of colonial Congo is now ‘anti-Belgian’?”.
To that he adds this telling coda: “It's worth pointing out that no actual historians of the British Empire peddle this shit. It is not a scholarly debate concerning different interpretations of the past - it's a case of the past being crudely weaponised to serve a deeply parochial political narrative”. And so it is.
Worse, both of those featured above peddling that narrative are regularly given a platform by broadcasters to promote themselves, Neil as host and interviewer, and Tobes as a supposedly authoritative pundit (no, please, don’t laugh). This is despite Tobes’ recent fall from grace, and Neil blatantly using the BBC as cover for pushing climate change denial.
So we should not ignore the weaponisation of the past as a way of demonising Labour, or indeed any opposition party. That these two figures have latched on to this faux patriotism is not a coincidence: there will be others, the narrative will continue to be crude, and it will receive lots of airtime - backed up by lots of print and online coverage.
The reality is that those peddling this nonsense are shallow, empty and scared that they are on the wrong side of history. The problem is that they have the biggest megaphone.
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