Leo Amery, 1940 (Photo by Kurt Hutton/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Why does the BBC need to lie about Britain’s history?

Indian nationalist fantasies about the Bengal famine can’t be the point of the licence fee

In history there are facts. Sometimes disputed but always seen through the lens of subjective interpretation and focus. Countless facts – some brighter, some darker – together make a bewildering display. The job for historians is to make some sense of these points of light, reveal their patterns and truths. The power to interpret history is awesome and one that should always be tempered by scrutiny. The problem is most acute when it comes to national stories and foundation myths. When they’re crudely amplified by the most powerful megaphone in the land today – the BBC in our case – they can be extremely troubling.

When they’re crudely amplified by the most powerful megaphone in the land today – the BBC in our case – they can be extremely troubling

Most nations have a strong unifying view of themselves that is deeply held and taught in schools. For Britain this raises two very particular problems. First, and in part a legacy of just how advanced we were, Britain’s own view of itself was widely questioned and deconstructed over the course of the 20th century. As Orwell noted, our intellectuals got to this conceited stage of pantomime self-hate long before anyone else’s, even the French’s, never mind the American’s. Second, much of the rest of the world has constructed their own unifying foundation myths with Britain often playing the stage villain. This is quite the combination of intellectual circumstances.

Like astrologers looking up into the sky and joining dots of light to see lions and scorpions, historians in the United States, Ireland and countless other places can join their chosen dots and paint a picture of national struggle leading to independence. Constellations of British vice. Constellations of British virtue are also visible but ignored abroad almost as much as they are here.

For a dedicated Irish nationalist one can join the dots from the potato famine and Poynings’ Law and Cromwell and see virtuous Ireland beset by a troublesome neighbour. If Ireland had remained in the UK, there would be an alternative history believed with equal conviction. An independent nationalist Scotland would no doubt paint its own picture joining dots of grievance and downplaying Scotland role in driving forward British progress. If the United States had remained in the Empire, the Stamp Act and the Boston Tea Party would be the preserve of specialist historians of limited appeal.

Which brings me to the BBC’s obsession with a particular version of history based on its poisonous, chronic racial essentialism, and, (you sigh to read the words, so weary and hackneyed a tail do you know you’re unfortunately in for) “the legacy of Empire”. In this regard the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme is one of the worst offenders and treated its audiences today to what it described as a conversation on history and colonialism inspired by the Black Lives Matter disturbances. Tuesday was India’s turn and the charge sheet was clear – Winston Churchill was responsible for the 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions of Bengalis.

This argument was put forward by the BBC’s own Yogita Limaye, an Indian engineer and reporter on Women’s safety, based on the book Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor, who was interviewed to give his opinion that Churchill was an ‘odious figure of reprehensible views and racist attitudes.’

No doubt the narrative of British evil and oppression is believed in India and elsewhere, but that does not make it true or worthy of the BBC reporting it as fact without any semblance of balance. The BBC failed its licence fee paying audience in two main regards, namely, conceptually and factually.

The British ruled India, one of the largest populations on earth, for well over two centuries. Good and bad things happened, just like everywhere else ever. You can join the dots to create whatever picture you like – Dr Tharoor chose the picture he wished to create. Why is the Bengal famine uniquely interesting to a BBC audience in 2020 over say a mini-series on British Railways and development in India? BBC presenters are demonstrably more interested in the first narrative: this is a major conceptual failing on their part. Being equal mixtures primitivism and solipsism. Always the borderline racist Western assumption is that ‘we’ did things to ‘them’: we had agency, they were passive brutes. They are boring, we are endlessly interesting. Let’s talk about us. However even the slightest knowledge of the British-in-India teaches one that ‘we’ did nothing without them. How on earth could we? There were famously few of us.

No doubt the narrative of British evil and oppression is believed in India and elsewhere, but that does not make it true or worthy of the BBC reporting it as fac

Yet it’s the second great BBC failing – over accuracy – which is so especially galling. On the actual allegation the BBC is plain wrong. Churchill was not responsible for the Bengal famine as any actual delving into the facts would have shown. Note well that they didn’t even try.

In 1943 Britain was at war with Japan, who were at the gates of India having occupied Burma, a major supplier of grain to Bengal. Important facts. Bengal was in the grips of a famine, nobody disputes that. But Churchill was not responsible, neither for the weather nor the agriculture nor the Japanese aggression.

Even the BBC did not allege that Churchill instigated the famine, the charge sheet is that he refused to help when he could. There were ‘stockpiles [of food] in the UK’ and shipping which was retained in the northern hemisphere, prioritised for use there. Stockpiles of food in the UK in 1943? Even if there was the food and shipping, transporting US corned beef to Bengal would have been ludicrous. If there was shipping and protection from Japanese naval assault the food would have come from the rest of India. So why was food not transported from other parts of India to Bengal?

For this we can look at the actual debates that took place in Parliament in 1943. The argument of the Secretary of State for India, Leo Amery, was summarised by Frederick Pethick-Lawrence, MP, a future Labour Secretary of State for India involved in the negotiations that led to India’s independence as such:

“first of all, an act of God, as insurance companies call it, in giving a bad harvest in certain parts of India; the King’s enemies in the shape of the cutting-off of the supplies from Burma and other parts of the Far East to India; the creation of the dual responsibility brought about by the passage of the India Act; the reluctance of Provinces with surpluses to sell them to the full extent that might have relieved the shortage; individual hoarding, the difficulty of transport, external and internal. And on one or two occasions, in addition, he has mentioned the matter of inflation.”

Pethick-Lawrence believed that the main cause was ‘inflation which has led to hoarding, by making it profitable to hold back supplies.’ The reason for local inflation was that locally elected provincial legislatures had stopped the cross-border trade in food stuffs, something Bengal had pushed for when it believed it had a surplus. This was all possible because the 1935 India Act had empowered locally elected legislatures. Churchill was, as it happened, one of the Spartan few Tory MPs who had resolutely opposed the India Bill when it was going through Westminster.

Leo Amery explained what had happened. Far from Britain having the powers to solve the famine, it was in effect powerless having devolved powers but not responsibility in 1935.

“By May, the situation had become so critical that the Government of India withdrew from the Provinces in the Eastern zone the powers by which they had been able to prevent the inter-provincial movement of foodstuffs. The object was to attract to Bengal, by the ordinary law of supply and demand, supplies from other producing provinces. This, undoubtedly, afforded some immediate relief.”

In the end the food supply was reinstated by the British Army. But in the wider context was Churchill or Britain responsible for the famine? Constitutionally, absolutely, but that tells us nothing, unless we want to cling to childish stories and the comforting assumptions which precede the telling of them.

Leo Amery pointed out that, ‘under British rule, the construction of 40,000 miles of railway and vast irrigation projects and the ever-present availability in peacetime of shipping, have enabled supplies to be rushed where needed.’ Famines had existed for the long expanse of time including under periods of British responsibility. Under British rule the population and food supply had grown but famines had been reduced but not eliminated. There were smaller famines (and indeed massacres larger than Amritsar) after independence but it was not Independence that ended famines but the ‘Green Revolution’ and specifically the cultivation of higher yielding wheat in the Punjab following the work of Norman Borlaug and the Rockefeller foundation.

Which brings me back to the BBC. Why did they feel the need to air a one-sided attack on Britain’s most famous politician? Why did they unquestionably air a false Indian national version of history for India when it’s laughable to imagine them canvassing a British version of history for Britain? Why was the Black Lives Matters protest in the United States a spark for the BBC to run a series of such lopsided pseudo-history? Possibly only BP during an American oil leak could be more embarrassed than the BBC about what the “B” stands for. The corporation has long since disavowed any role as a unifying national broadcaster and does not deserve the legal privilege it still enjoys as such. Sometimes we should reform things, other times we should just dissolve them. If the BBC enjoys hating Britain so much, let something other than Britain pay for the privilege.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover