(Photo by Tolga AKMEN / AFP) (Photo by TOLGA AKMEN/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

A fistful of Gandhis

The condescending contrivances of diversified dosh

The decision by Royal Mint to produce a coin featuring Mahatma Gandhi as part of an attempt, prompted by the Chancellor Rishi Sunak (whose family own all the money in India), to emphasise the role of ethnic minorities in creating modern Britain is baffling. Of course, Gandhi played a role in creating modern Britain inasmuch as he contributed to the decline of the British Empire. But he did this, as any fool knows, in the name of India. How would we feel if the French decided to produce a coin featuring Lord Nelson? Less honoured than confused, and a bit embarrassed for them.

A soggy editorial in the Telegraph, dripping with clichés, announces that ‘it says a lot about Britain that we would commemorate as a national figure a man who did more than anyone to end our empire.’ It says a lot about our desperate, guilt-ridden desire to feel like good people that we would clumsily appropriate another people’s national figure as our own.

It says a lot about our desperate, guilt-ridden desire to feel like good people that we would clumsily appropriate another people’s national figure as our own

While I am by no means someone who thinks a bad word or a bad deed discounts someone from having an honourable legacy, the fact this blatant attempt to virtue signal amid Black Lives Matter protests will go down like a big bowl of sick considering Gandhi’s less than favourable opinion of black people only adds to the sense of pointlessness. One assumes that he was chosen on the basis of his fame, for other candidates put forward by the “We Built Britain Too” initiative included less well-known figures like the heroic spy Noor Inayat Khan, but the choice has already been described by the historian Dr Zareer Masani as a ‘cop out.’

Of course, we should acknowledge the contributions of ethnic minorities to British history. In World War Two alone, two and a half million Indians, one hundred thousand Kenyans and forty five thousand Nigerians, among others, fought with the British Army. Granted, if we are going to honour the role of troops from other nationalities in World War Two, it would be mischievous to focus on “BAME” soldiers at the expense of, for example, Polish airmen, but all of their triumphs and sacrifices deserve appreciation.

One also appreciates what Sunak and the Telegraph are trying to achieve. The left portrays Britain’s history as a parade of almost uniquely hideous crimes, broken only by its triumph over Adolf Hitler, which, in any case, was almost entirely to the credit of the Soviet Union. It is something modern multicultural Britain is trying to transcend. In the face of this, conservatives are invited to uphold British history as something multicultural that we can celebrate together.

Of course, this is not wholly untrue. There is no reason for us not to all celebrate the Gurkhas and Squadron 303, or VS Naipaul and CLR James, or Ranjitsinhji and Lennox Lewis. But the more that history is used as a tool of political ambition the more contrived it becomes. For example, there is no doubt that Mary Seacole was a kind, conscientious, enterprising patriot with a fascinating life that deserves to be remembered, but attempts to inflate her significance in the field of medical care – which Lynn McDonald of the University of Guelph has ably deconstructed – demean her accomplishments by associating them with an excess of opportunism, which, simultaneously, can narrow and not expand appreciation of the past by subordinating it to the present. ‘The wonder of history,’ the Telegraph claims, ‘is that the more one studies, the more there is to find.’ There is truth to this. If one zooms in on a picture one can see rich details. But if one zooms in too close, one can lose a sense of the overall image.

Another line in the Telegraph editorial lodged even deeper in my gullet. Having reeled off a list of black and Asian figures who contributed to British history, with Gandhi prime among them, it states:

“What these figures stood for has a universal quality, applicable anywhere, but also something that strikes a chord with Britishness, with its democratic tradition and belief in fair play.”

Well, if we are going to honour people for a “universal quality” which ‘strikes a chord with Britishness’ why not honour Abraham Lincoln or Lech Wałęsa? I am not denigrating those great men in saying that. I am saying that a national figure is a national figure not for the abstract ideals that they embody, as fine as those ideals might be, but for what they did for a nation. Specifically, the one going to the bother of commemorating them. The sentiment dissolves the concept of Britishness into a thin cloud of Enlightenment values.

Conservatives also risk joining the game of the left, which is a doomed endeavour as the rules are in flux. There is no point at which progressives will be satisfied with the diversification of British culture. For example, Labour MP Kate Osamor writes: ‘only 5 out of 54 English Literature GCSE texts are by a Black or Ethnic Minority author. That is not representative of Britain in 2020.’ As a matter of fact, it is relatively close to being representative of British adults in 2020. Indeed, black and otherwise ethnic minority authors are overrepresented if one considers the history of English literature. I don’t think that the curriculum should be laid out as if – to steal a line from Jerry Seinfeld – one is conducting a census, but by her own standards Osamor is overreaching. The lesson is not to challenge the left on their own turf.

Perhaps I can illustrate my points by way of allegory. I live in Poland. Naturally, I am interested in the points at which British and Polish history have intersected. I think these are interesting, and give me common ground on which to talk with Poles, but if I claimed that John Baildon, a Scottish metallurgist who lived in Upper Silesia, was one of the titans of Polish science, and if I suggested that a British national hero should grace the złoty or the grosch because they stood for a universal quality that strikes a chord with Polishness, I would not blame somebody for wondering if I was more interested in history or advertising. And I think we can guess well enough what it is Rishi Sunak’s advertising.

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