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Don’t listen to latest Tory claims – Slavery and empire made Britain rich

A Tory think tank’s book claims Britain’s economic success was due to British genius, dismissing the role of colonialism and slavery. Critics argue it’s politically motivated, ignoring scholarly consensus on colonial impacts.



Don’t listen to latest Tory claims – Slavery and empire made Britain rich


by SANJAY SETH —

Director of the Centre for Postcolonial
Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London.

B ritain’s economic success over the past several hundred years has nothing to do with its exploitation and enslavement of others – it was simply a product of British genius. At least, that’s the argument made in a new book published by a Tory think tank-cum-mouthpiece.

Written by Kristian Niemietz and published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), where Niemietz is head of political economy, Imperial Measurement: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Western Colonialism looks to answer why the West became rich.

But the book is a political tract, not a scholarly work. It is an attempt at shoring up right-wing narratives rather than seriously studying the effects and legacies of slavery and colonialism. Despite its size – at 88 pages, it is essentially a pamphlet – it is intended to add some intellectual heft to Tory claims.

Ministers often denounce critical evaluations of Britain’s past and present as ‘wokery’ and evidence of a reprehensible lack of patriotism – particularly on issues relating to race and racism. In March 2021, a widely criticised government-commissioned report found Britain is not institutionally racist, and even that it is a “model for other white-majority countries”.


It is within this context that Imperial Measurement was published earlier this month. The book begins by exploring the claim that slavery and empire are directly connected to the industrial revolution and rapid increase in aggregate wealth in the Western world. This, Niemietz finds, is the “BLM-isation or Woke-ification” of arguments first advanced by Marx and by Eric Williams, who wrote the groundbreaking 1944 book, Capitalism and Slavery.

Niemietz goes on to state: “Colonialism and the slave trade made, at best, minor contributions to the West’s economic development, and they may well have been net lossmakers”.

This is a finding in stark contrast to the substantial and growing scholarly literature on the subject, whose authors often disagree on how important slavery and colonialism were to the economic advance and growing prosperity of European countries, but rarely dispute that they were important.

Generally, it is agreed that the transatlantic slave trade and colonial conquest inaugurated a ‘globalised’ world, and that one of the consequences of this was the impoverishment of the colonies and the rapid economic development of the coloniser countries.

Niemietz is uninterested in the subtleties of this debate, though, or possibly unaware of it. His sources are limited and highly selective, and his woefully inadequate bibliography is striking for its numerous omissions, including the important and widely cited works of Joseph Inikori, Kenneth Pomeranz and Roy Bin Wong. The German empire is dealt with in two pages, the French empire in four.

On the basis of its exhaustive research, the pamphlet moves towards its predetermined conclusion: the wealth of Britain and the West more generally, and the poverty of the formerly colonised countries, has little to do with slavery or colonial exploitation.

“The best predictors of how rich or poor a country is today,” Niemietz writes, “are… the Economic Freedom Index and the Ease of Doing Business Index”. Presumably, he thinks the countries in the Global South should follow the deregulatory and tax-cutting policies backed by the IEA, just as Liz Truss’s short-lived government did when it tanked the economy.

In the echo chamber of right-wing discourse, it can be difficult to tell what was the original and what is the echo. Soon after Imperial Measurment’s publication on 1 May, Kemi Badenoch, a cabinet minister and Tory leadership hopeful, hailed the book as “a welcome counterweight to simplistic narratives” that ascribe British economic development in preceding centuries to the wealth garnered from the slave trade and colonial domination.

Just weeks earlier, Badenoch had spoken to the great and the good (and the wealthy) of the financial services industry at the CityUK International Conference, where she lamented, “Talk about the wealth and success of the UK as being down to colonialism or white imperialism or privilege or whatever.” Her speech concluded that there was nothing to examine, let alone seek to redress or remedy, in Britain’s present or in its imperial past. Move along, nothing to see here!


Such sentiment is not unusual in the Conservative Party of late. Headed for near-certain defeat in the general election later this year, Tory MPs’ last gambit is to intensify the ‘culture wars’ in efforts to distract from our declining living standards and crumbling public services.

Niemietz’s work is best read as a contribution to these culture wars, which target refugees, ‘lefty lawyers’, ‘remoaners’, the trans community, striking workers, Muslims and many other vulnerable or marginalised people.

But while Badenoch and Niemietz are symptomatic of the right-wing obsession with ‘wokery’, they are not good guides to the complex issues relating to Britain’s slave-trading and imperial past. Their polemics illustrate instead that any nation unwilling to confront its past in a clear-eyed fashion is ill-equipped to confront the challenges of the present, or to prepare for the future.

PUBLIC SQUARE UK

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Sources:

▪ This piece was first published in openDemocracy and re-published in PUBLIC SQUARE UK on 29 May 2024 under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence. | The author writes in a personal capacity.
Cover: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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