Jeremy Paxman on the British Empire and the BBC

Historian and Labour MP Tristram Hunt quizzes the Newsnight host about his new documentary series

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Tristram Hunt: In your new series you tell the story of the British Empire. Most of us are part of a post-imperial generation, so why should we care?

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Jeremy Paxman: Because it is a largely unexamined part of our life, which has a continuing resonance. Look at the entire narrative of the two last Diamond Jubilees – Queen Victoria’s and this one. One is of a queen on whose watch the Empire had steadily grown. The other is the jubilee of a queen during whose reign the Empire has steadily disappeared.

But I think you will find plenty of people now whose awareness of Empire extends only so far as to acknowledge that it did exist.

Hunt: Does that irritate you?

Paxman: My irritation is that it seems to me to be a subject that is not really taught in schools, and one on which judgement has been passed. And therefore we seem to have arrived at a position where it is no longer necessary to consider it. As a historian, I don’t think even you would accept that, would you? And I’m merely a journalist,Tristram.

Hunt: One of the very interesting things is our sense that Empire is something that happened to us, even though we were the ones out there doing it. Look at Ireland.

Paxman: I know that the British have attempted repeatedly to present their presence in Ireland as not being an imperial venture. That is not how it seems to me. It looks to me that it was an unashamedly imperial venture. And does anybody really suppose that Tony Blair in six foreign wars, or David Cameron even in Libya, would have been as ready to commit British forces to overseas enterprises, had it not been for a very, very long history?

Hunt: Do you think the imperial mindset has a lasting legacy – in terms of the Foreign Office, and Britain’s self-belief?

Paxman: I don’t think that a British foreign secretary ever, probably, crawls out of the great penumbra of the imperial past. The Foreign Office is a building designed to impress Johnny Foreigner – and it impresses, I think, its residents as much as it impresses its visitors.

Yes, we have divested ourselves from almost all the territories, but we have not divested ourselves of what the process of acquiring those territories, running those territories, did to us.

Come to think of it, there’s a very strong case for getting rid of the whole of the Foreign Office, apart from trade missions and consular services [Paxman’s younger brother Giles is British Ambassador in Spain]. It grew as the empire grew, and it predates not merely email and video-conferencing, but the Bakelite telephone.

We could spend the money on expanding the British Council, funding scholarships in Britain and developing the World Service of the BBC. That’s the way you spread influence in the modern world.

Hunt: And is our imperial past what has historically held us back from the European Union?

Paxman: There’s an element of imperial legacy I think, probably. But there are much more atavistic reasons why, I think, we have a problem with the European Union.

Hunt: Do you ever feel the last echoes of Empire at the BBC?

Paxman: No, they’re all far too politically correct, I’m afraid. I’ve tried! Funny though, isn’t it, that they always said that the way you know if the British are going to de-colonise is when they start building massive government buildings – that was certainly the case in India. And the BBC’s much the same. 

What organisation – at a time when it has no money, allegedly – would move from cheap square footage in west London to Oxford Circus?

Hunt: In the programme we see you in the Delhi Durbar meeting a caretaker, who says: ‘‘I’ve no interest in the past, I’ve no interest in finding out about it – but people coming to rule over us is generally not a good idea.”

Paxman: I think everyone would share that view. That’s the reason that imperialism is such an unfashionable thing for anyone to get engaged in. Nobody wants to be ruled by foreigners, do they?

[Long pause.] I’m not going to give you what you wanted about the European Union after that, by the way. [They both laugh.]

Hunt: In terms of the legacies of Empire today, you touch on education. What else can you point to? 

Paxman: Well, I think the BBC, probably. Sport would be another, religion would be another, the prevalence of the English language. It’s the language of science, telecommunications and the rest because it was the imperial language. 

Had the French empire been more successful, doubtless we’d all be Googling in French – but we’re not.

You might say, that’s not directly a British thing, it’s an American thing – but why does America speak English? I think you can find echoes of it absolutely everywhere.

Hunt: Is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic Britain the obvious legacy of Empire today?

Paxman: It’s a very obvious one, isn’t it? Something that is able to change the very genetic make-up of a people cannot be said to have had no lasting resonance. 

I can think of very few other things that we might talk about, where one could point to something quite so profound. It’s a postwar thing, isn’t it? There’s the 1948 Nationality Act, where everyone’s entitled to come and live in Britain.

And then when mass migration starts, subsequent Acts start progressively redefining and narrowing. But I rather thought the 1948 idea of everyone who were citizens being in a family was charming.

Hunt: So that at least is an acknowledgement that Empire existed. And the reason we don’t talk about it more is, what? Postcolonial embarrassment? 

Paxman: I think, yes, it doesn’t fit the mood of the times, does it? I think that’s part of it. I think there is a belief that there is only one way to view it, and that therefore we can pass an easy judgement on it.

Your leader Tony Blair, going around apologising. Didn’t he apologise for the Irish potato famine or something?

Hunt: He apologised for the Irish potato famine and for the trade in slaves.

Paxman: You should apologise for things that you have done, that you recognise that perhaps you shouldn’t have done or regret. But apologising for things that your great, great, great, great-grandfather or grandmother did, seems to me a complete exercise in moral vacuousness. 

There are lots of things that we should think were appalling, because they were appalling. The slave trade is a case in point; the opium trade is another one. 

But the idea that that is a complete picture is the thing that I quarrel with, and seems to be the basis of the judgement that it was all a bad thing. And because it was a very bad thing, we don’t need to think about it any more. It’s all parcelled up and consigned.

Hunt: Well, you may not be a fan of apologies, but can a State still have that sort of embedded responsibility?

Paxman: I don’t know. Can it? Look at the Queen’s visit to Dublin last year. Now that was a significant event. It wasn’t because things happened during her ancestor’s time on the throne – it was because she is the living expression of the State. She acknowledged and honoured those people who had died fighting the British presence in Ireland.

Then the Irish president did the reverse with Irish citizens who had died with the British forces. That matters, and it was resonant, because they were the current leaders, and in that they do express a longevity, but they’re not apologising or trying to expiate the guilt of ancestors, are they?

They’re talking about a recognition, and they’re looking forward. It was a terrific event, in a very low-key kind of way.

Hunt: It was seismic, and she judged it brilliantly.

Paxman: She’s brilliant, isn’t she? I used to be a republican. Were you ever a republican? I bet you were.

Hunt: No, I’m… well, you wouldn’t begin with a monarchy.

Paxman: No, of course you wouldn’t. Hunt: But, I don’t know… things might change. But not with her. She’s essential to it.

Paxman: Things might change? How are they going to change? Hunt: Well if you have someone terrible on the throne, you know… 

Paxman: Ah, I see where you’re going… I wouldn’t pre-judge these things, I really wouldn’t.

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Empire begins tonight at 9pm on BBC1