What did the British ever do for us?

There's a dreary and deeply entrenched prejudice about the legacy of empire. But the British empire was the greatest civilising influence the world has ever seen. Colonial guilt? For what?

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897
Robin Mitchinson
On 4 August 2014 06:50

Monty Python: ‘...apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?’.

Whenever something unpleasant or shocking happens in one of our erstwhile colonies, it will not be long before the chattering classes begin to mutter about ‘colonial guilt’.

Well, I am one of the diminishing band who actually lived in the colonies before independence came along to foul the footpath. Colonial guilt? Not me, squire; in fact I am proud and privileged to have spent some years of my early adult life living through the last days of the greatest civilising influence in the history of mankind.

Greater than the Roman Empire? Certainly, for this reason.

The Romans had nearly 1600 years in which to cement their influence. The British achieved far more over a massively larger area during a single lifetime. The British Empire only reached its full extent after WW1 with the addition of Tanganyika, formerly German East Africa until they came second in the war to end wars, and was largely gone by the early 1960s.

Before colonialism, the parts of Africa that we painted pink had no built environment to speak of. British expertise and capital constructed the entire road and rail system from the Cape to Dar es Salaam.

We introduced education to people who had no written language, commercial agriculture to people who had not progressed to the wheel or the plough. We brought health care and sanitation. We developed every factory,  mine, sea-port, airport, water system. We built huge hydro-electric dams and power stations such as Kariba, created nationwide electricity grids and telephone networks.

We provided law and order, justice and security, and good governance. Fifty years ago, it was safe to drive form Nairobi to Cape Town. Not anymore.

Remember all this was created in less than a century.

But our greatest and enduring legacy was two-fold. The English Common Law and the English language.

Colonial guilt? For what?

Robin Mitchinson is a Contributing Editor to The Commentator. A former barrister, living in the Isle of Man, he is an international public management specialist with almost two decades of experience in institutional development, decentralisation and democratisation processes. He has advised governments and major international institutions across the world

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