Liberal Britain’s complacent attitude to its own colonial history is a gift to the nation’s resurgent far right.
First published at New Left Project.
Symbolic issues are fiercely fought over by politicians because they matter. And you can bet your bottom dollar that the decision by the Royal Mint to place Lord Kitchener’s head on the new £2 coin got its political stamp of approval from the standing Tory regime before it was announced to the public this week.
No doubt Lord Kitchener’s pivotal role in the development of the concentration camp was raised at the relevant committee meetings. The Germans horrified the world with the strategy of confining and starving the women and children of an enemy population, but it was the British who deployed it to brutal effect in the Boer War. Kitchener’s actions in South Africa saw an estimated 26,000 innocent women and children die of disease and starvation in these camps.
That alone would seem sufficient to keep Kitchener from being honoured on our coinage. The iconic ‘Your Country Needs You’ recruitment poster that made Kitchener’s moustachioed visage famous played a pivotal role in luring a generation of young British men to their deaths in the trenches of the Western Front. They were told it would be over by Christmas, but Kitchener knew better. He had seen wars of barbed wire and machine gun, and drove the recruitment of the nation’s largest ever army to feed in to the meat-grinder of mechanised warfare
Liberal Britain has been slow to muster a response to the new £2 coin. Fantasy writer Juliet McKenna’s blog post on the subject is an informative insight in to what leads otherwise perfectly nice people to consent to a war criminal on their coinage. World War One, in McKenna’s assessment, has been safely rewritten as a Very Bad Thing. Everyone has seen Blackadder and read Michael Morpurgo. We don’t need to worry about representing a hero of colonialism on our coins, because everyone will view the image through the pacifist tinted worldview of liberalism.
It’s a good thing that Michael Gove is on hand to remind us not everyone likes Blackadder. Indeed beyond the middle class, theatre going world the liberal worldview is very far from universal. Or even widespread. For many Britons, as Gove well knows, any war fought by Britain must be supported as a just war. But the complacency in McKenna’s argument goes deeper still. It assumes that Britain’s imperial history is, indeed, history. That the very same forces of greed and expansionism that lead Kitchener to brutalise the children of Africa are not still at play. That they did not lead us in to the tragic, futile wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. And that they do not fuel our powerful—and profitable—weapons industry today. These are not just complacent assumptions. In the face of a resurgent right wing, they are frankly dangerous.
But authors of epic fantasy aren’t the only people content to see a British colonial hero on the £2 coin. A far worse kind of fantasist is cheering at the news. Will the legions of embittered supporters of Nigel Farage interpret Kitchener’s moustachioed visage as a salutary lesson against Britain’s imperial history? For UKIP, the Kitchener coin is a massive victory delivered by a home goal from the liberals they despise so deeply. It is the symbolic return of Britain as world power; the Britain that ruled the waves; the Britain that damn well didn’t let Bulgarians in the country, but sent heroic men like Kitchener out to subdue them by the sword. That’s the nasty fantasy that is UKIPs narrative of our imperial past. And from now on it will be stamped on to every new £2 coin in the land.
How did this come to pass? There’s a whole cabinet of Tory and Lib Dem ministers who might have had a hand in the affair. Who might have stood up for Kitchener? Who has the undoubted rhetorical skills to justify the presence of Lord Concentration Camp on the £2 coin? Who might have argued that Britain should not be ashamed of its imperial history? That much good came from Empire? That traditional values should be respected, and that a Conservative government should not back down from employing nationalistic symbols like Kitchener in the face of potential outrage from the left? To me, all this smacks unmistakeably of Michael Gove. Are you going to let him get away with it?