Of what has England to be ashamed? There are wars of aggression such as the Hundred Years War, but these are the common currency of history. As with the history of all peoples there are massacres, such as that of approximately 150 Jews at York in 1190 or the several thousand deaths which followed the storming of Drogheda in Ireland in 1649 , but they are precious few in England or abroad. Moreover, in the case of Drogheda, the killing took place after the town had refused to surrender and the convention at the time was that the lives of those who had refused to surrender were forfeit if the victor choose to take them. There is nothing to compare with the mass killings of men such as Genghis Khan or the frightful slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War.
England’s immediate Celtic neighbours have had on the whole a good deal from their association with England. Those Celts who imagine that England has exploited their countries in a peculiarly gratuitous, vicious and avaricious fashion should look at the general historical (and, indeed, present) fate of small countries faced with powerful neighbours. That general fate includes occupation by force, the reduction of conquered populations to a servile state, wholesale depredations, chronic legal disadvantages, the refusal of free trade – even with the occupying power, the absolute exclusion from government and, at the worst, genocide.
Compare such behaviour with that of England’s towards Scotland, Ireland and Wales for the past century and a half (at least). During that time all Celts have shared absolute legal equality with Englishmen, have enjoyed the immense benefits of free trade with England, had an inside track to the first industrial revolution, have been able to export their surplus populations to England, have received greater parliamentary representation than the English, have been given the privilege of national parliaments, a privilege denied England as I write, have benefited – particularly since 1945 – from preferential government spending paid for by the English, and, most important for small peoples, have received the protection of the British state which would be nothing without England. As for the Irish Famine, that most prized price of victimhood for Irish nationalists, it was caused not by deliberate British policy but by the administrative inadequacy of the British state to deal with such a calamity.
In truth, it is a very long time since the English behaved with gratuitous harshness or deliberate unfairness to even Ireland, despite the fact that Fenians remain to this day a source of provocation which would bring condign punishment in most parts of the world as it is now and which would have guaranteed such punishment everywhere at any time in history prior to the nineteenth century. If Celts had an ounce of intellectual and emotional honesty they would stand amazed at England’s moderation not shout their unreasoning hatred or bleat imagined wrongs.
As for the British Empire, although it is an obnoxious thing to be a subject people, it is reasonable to consider the condition of those who became imperial subjects before they were part of the empire. Apart from those taken forcibly to the colonies as slaves, all the native populations who came within the Empire lived either in despotic states such as those in the Indian sub-continent or in tribal societies where they were subject to the commonly brutal conditions of such a life. It is also true that many lived under foreign rule before they became subjects of the British Crown, most notably those living with the Mughal Empire. The fact that Britain was able to establish the Raj in India points to the fact that the native populations were far from happy with their rulers before Britain took control. That control was only established, as happened with the Spaniards and Portuguese in America, because sufficient of the native population was willing to support the would-be colonial powers.
On the plus side, Britain brought much of value to the Empire. Playing the “What did the Romans ever do for us” game, Britain can point to the rule of law, parliamentary government, large scale administration, modern armed forces, access to European intellectual life, organised education and modern technology. Most importantly, being ruled by Britain meant having an inside track to modernity. It is also true that from the second half of the 19th century official British imperial policy was predicated on the principle of putting the interests of the native population first.
To modern eyes the slave trade is the grossest blot on England’s name. I am repelled by both the idea of slavery and the particular cruelties of the Triangular Trade, but then I am a man living in an advanced industrial state with all the conditioning and prejudices that implies. Placed in the context of human history it looks rather different. Forms of legal and customary bondage from full blown chattel slavery where the slave is simply property to the indentured labourer who binds himself to an employer for a legally set period, have been the norm rather than the exception everywhere at every time. Where formal bondage did not exist, informal bondage through economic circumstances has been the fate of most men and women who have ever lived.
It should also be remembered that the trade could not have been carried on without the cooperation of native Africans. Until the 19th Century European involvement in Africa was very limited, being mainly restricted to coastal settlements, many of which were no more than forts. Had the African not been so eager to sell his fellows, the trade could not have existed. The balance of power was unarguably with the African slavers not the European buyers.
England also made amends. Not only did Britain abolish the slave trade much earlier than most, she maintained an antislavery patrol for more than sixty years in the Atlantic. In the 1830s, She also ended slavery in the Empire at the immense cost to the British taxpayer of £20 million in compensation payments to slave owners at a time when UK GDP was only £453 million (http://www.ukpublicspending.co.uk/).
Put in the context of contemporary behaviour, at any point in her history, England’s behaviour, both domestically and abroad, will, at worst, stand comparison with that of any other nation or state and, at best, be seen as morally superior at most times and places. A first rate example of this is the fact that England was the first state to provide general support for the poor by the Poor Law Acts of 1597 and 1601. The operation of the Poor Laws may have bad reputation today, but they did provide the means of subsistence at a time when the common European experience was to depend on private charity or starve.