As well as chronicling the familiar sins of empire, particularly in India, the author gives a fair hearing to those who emphasise the more positive aspects of imperial rule, railways, courts and all. And just as Britain has an imperial past, he recognises that it also has a liberal, anti-imperialist history—of abolishing the slave trade and spreading democracy, albeit in limited form. The empire is laid bare in all its contradictory complexity.
The same goes for its legacy. Mr Sanghera, a writer for the Times, justifiably criticises Britons for not being more receptive to immigrants, but he is no reflexive admirer of “pure multiculturalism”. He acknowledges that a laissez-faire approach to integration has sometimes allowed immigrant communities to “become isolated and myopic”. He argues that immigrants themselves are sometimes to blame for this—and that the people who suffer most are families like his own: “Too much of my energy as a young adult was expended on getting my family to accept that I wanted to be more British, to change more quickly than they were.”
As for knocking over more statues, he concludes that rather than trying to obliterate imperial history, which will always infuriate as many people as it pleases, Britain should commemorate more of the colonised people who challenged and reformed the empire, or indeed died for it on the battlefield. In short, more, not fewer, plinths and plaques. That would give a clearer and more textured picture of Britain’s imperial past—just like Mr Sanghera’s excellent book.