Seminar reviews empire’s contribution to the modern world

Dr Sue Onslow

A conference on the British Empire’s legacy heard speaker Lord Carrington give a robust defence of the empire, focusing on its contribution to post-independence political stability and economic growth.

Providing an alternative viewpoint, Sir Ron Sanders gave a clear-eyed exposition of the social and environmental damage of the British imperial ‘moment’ in the Caribbean, challenging modern tendencies to excessive romanticisation of legacies of colonial governance.

The ICwS/OSPA Conference on The Legacy of Empire, held at London’s Senate House on 20 May, was a well-attended occasion, with an impressive range of speakers on the variety of lasting impacts of Britain’s imperial encounters.

Dr Kwasi Kwarteng gave a spirited opening address, drawing on his recent book Ghosts of Empire, emphasising the role of decision makers and people on the ground with power. Professor Joseph Ayee, the current Emeka Anyaoku visiting chair of Commonwealth Studies, followed this with reflections on legacies of institutions, infrastructure and political cultures, both positive and negative.

The subsequent sessions, ‘The view from India and Africa’, ‘The Mediterranean and the Caribbean’, and ‘The view from the UK’ were devoted to the lived experiences of transitions from empire to independence from leading politicians, policy makers and opinion formers. Speakers included Surendra Nihal Singh, Dr Martin Aliker, Mr Simon Zukas, Dr Henry Frendo and Lord Boateng.

Dr Harshan Kumarasingham and Anson Chan emphasised constitution building, and difficulties of negotiated transition – in Hong Kong’s particular case, this process is very much ongoing. Each session generated lively interventions and comments from the floor from the wide range of former colonial civil servants.

While the overall focus and tone of the event was decidedly that of practitioners and contemporary observers, rather than academic analysis and presentations of new interpretations of legacies of empire, the varied and complicated legacies of British imperial engagement with its ‘wider world’ came through clearly. The conference also benefitted from adept chairing by Professors Rob Holland and Peter Hennessy. A full video recording of the event will soon be available via the ICwS website and the Institute also plans to publish a complete transcript in conjunction with OSPA.

About the author:

Dr Sue Onslow is the senior research fellow, oral history of the Commonwealth Project, Institute of Commonwealth Studies


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