We’ve just passed the tenth anniversary of the decision to send British soldiers to fight in Afghanistan. Our leaders tell us most of our soldiers will be home in a few years’ time. Already nearly 400 of them have been repatriated in coffins.
The decision to send troops to Afghanistan wasn’t made in Britain, of course – it was part of the American response to the outrage of 9/11. But the British were eager partners (and their generals ambitious to take on the highly hazardous province of Helmand, a task where means never matched ambition, and in which they finally had to be bailed out by the Americans).
Getting into harm’s way is what soldiers do. But why were our generals so keen to deploy them?
Much of the explanation lies in our history. This may be the first American war in Afghanistan. But it is the third British campaign there. And it’s not just our generals with backgrounds in regiments carrying prized battle honours from colonial wars all over the world.
This spring, David Cameron deployed the RAF to the one-time British territory of Libya. Tony Blair sent our troops to war six times, everywhere from the former British colony of Sierra Leone to Iraq – a country whose borders were largely drawn by the British archaeologist Gertrude Bell.
And yet we persist in claiming that the empire is behind us. This great motive force of our country for so long is not even part of the school curriculum. The dreary educational establishment has passed judgement. It was A Bad Thing, end of story. “It’s irrelevant”, was the way one particularly benighted teacher put it to me.
It is not just for the sake of the young men who chance their lives for their generals’ “glory” that we should try harder. For the empire is still all around us.
The country we live in – the United Kingdom – is an imperial creation, invented after Scotland had been almost bankrupted by a crackpot attempt to create an empire of its own: joining forces with the English was a much better bet, and Scots became ferocious British imperialists. Is it any wonder that with the British Empire reduced now to 14 tiny blobs on the world map, Alex Salmond and the Scottish Nationalists have their tails up?
Anyone born since the end of the Second World War has lived with nothing but imperial decline, as the flag has been run down all over the world. The Americans and the Russians have spent the last 50 years or so telling the world that the days of empire are over, while tending to, or expanding, their own.
But the marks of our own empire are everywhere, from the UK’s seat on the UN Security Council to the fact that English is the international language, and London is the financial capital of Europe.
It’s to the empire that we owe our sense of ourselves as somehow special, our distrust of continental Europe, the Windsor family’s tenancy of Buckingham Palace, the tandoori restaurants and open-all-hours corner shops on our high streets, the high proportion of us who carry passports and much of the international work of British charities.
It has even changed the genetic makeup of the British people. The British Empire has turned out to have a remarkable life after death. Pretending we don’t need to think about it is just stupid.
Jeremy Paxman's 'Point of View' appears in this week's Radio Times magazine
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