David Cameron must be getting pretty sick of all these disputes popping up across the world about various Overseas Territories. Recent sabre-rattling by Argentina over the Falkland Islands has only just fizzled out and now we’re seeing tensions grow between the UK and Spain once again over Gibraltar. These stories appear in the news frequently, and each time they do I’m reminded of just how messy colonialism is. Between roughly the 16th century and the early 20th, our country (morphing from the Kingdom of England into Great Britain into the UK) took control of approximately a quarter of the world, soaking up territories in North America, Africa, Asia as well as bits and pieces dotted about elsewhere. However after two world wars this Empire proved unmanageable for several reasons and was gradually dismantled. This process was mostly completed by the mid 1960s. So how are we still facing so many issues 50 years later?
Colonialism clearly penetrates so deeply that it cannot easily be plucked free from the countries it affects. You might expect this of the victim countries – a huge number of problems* in Africa and Asia today can be directly attributed to British colonialism – but who’d have thought we here, in the ‘master country’, would continue to be plagued by it? Turns out letting go of our colonial possessions isn’t as easy as it sounds. Granted, our problems are far less significant, but the point I’m trying to make is that colonialism is too messy an endeavour to possibly clean up in half a century. It will be many more centuries, I expect, before we’re passed its repercussions.
To be clear, I’m not criticising the British government for holding onto the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. The people of Gibraltar have consistently shown that they would rather live under relaxed British rule than become part of Spain, while 99.8% of Falkland Islanders voted earlier this year to stay British. As long as the people of any Overseas Territory wish to stay part of the UK, they ought to be. It’s the imperial actions which created the problems in the first place I object to. What’s done is done; seeking a reversal of these actions is often impossible.
Basically, continuing conflicts such as these should serve as a reminder to us and to future generations that colonialism is not only wrong but simply not worth the effort. As time goes on and we forget about the horrors of war, imperialism and nationalism, there’s a very great risk the same mistakes might be made again. We mustn’t let this happen.
*Okay, I acknowledge that many positive things also came from British colonialism, such as developed infrastructure, wider availability of vaccines, trade links, etc. More bad than good, I would argue, but that’s a debate for another day. Either way, these nations are undeniably still shaped by the legacy of colonialism.