“The railways!” is one of the first answers given when the topic of the British Empire comes up and people ask, what did the British do for the world?
There is a wild irony – some might say hilarity – to the claim that railways were bestowed on India, and to a lesser extent East Africa, as a symbol of Britain’s greatness and benevolence. Nowhere is this more evident than in current events in the UK as the country teeters from one rail-related problem to another.
In 2009, a high-speed rail project called HS2 was announced. This would establish modern rail infrastructure in the north of England and rejuvenate several regions. Its total length was to be built in two parts: 255 kilometres from London to Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, with a further network of 530 kilometres beyond that. It was costed at £37.5 billion ($39.5 billion). Fourteen years later, however, approximately £40 billion has been spent, the project now has a total cost estimate of £100 billion and, so far, no track has been laid. The British government even announced this week that its HS2 plans could be severely cut back or even cancelled.
If the Indian railways were a symbol of Britain’s greatness, then why is it that we can’t apply the same greatness here at “home”?
Perhaps it is because the story of Britain’s prowess in delivering railways to India is really a story about Indian labour, investment and railway management. It was Indians who actually built the railways. In fact, they did such a good job of it, when the British occupied East Africa, guess who they brought to build the railways… yes, the Indians.
It was also the Indians who took the financial investment and risk. The British who invested in the railways made huge profits because the government guaranteed double returns – which would be paid from Indian taxes.
The railways were never contrived as a benefit for the people – instead it was all about making profits. The Indian railways were actually the idea of the East India Company, and Governor-General Lord Hardinge argued that they would be beneficial to the “commerce, government and military control of the country”. Yes, that’s right: the trains were there to take resources out of the interior as quickly and cheaply as possible, and move the British military around to maintain control. The Indians that were moved around were in shoddy third-class accommodation. Talk to a British rail commuter today and they might say they have some resonance with how that feels.
That analysis of how the Indian railways came to be sheds a great deal of light on why railways are so challenging in the UK. It is a bitter pill to swallow but perhaps not as bitter as the other possible analysis: the fact that such grand rail projects linger uncompleted in Britain itself is a sign of a great power now in apparent decline.
The likelihood is that by saying this I’ll be accused of doing Britain down. That’s the generic, knee-jerk reaction to anyone trying to understand what happened and why, and trying to assess how the country is seen by others. As someone of Asian heritage, this backlash is also likely to include accusations of being “ungrateful” for what Britain has bestowed upon me. This itself is rather ironic since my ancestors were likely contributors to the wealth and power the country has enjoyed. So why do I need to be grateful?
It is an act of love to address self-delusion, especially when it is so harmful to our current domestic state, and particularly when it harms our present and future international stature.
In Britain, we need to better understand ourselves. There are lots of reasons for doing so, including honesty, self-awareness, domestic equality, racism and so on. But harnessing the DNA of success for the future is also among them. While many would argue that Britain’s past success and current wealth are based on exploitation and violence, I think it is reasonable to say that there was and continues to be a talent for innovation and production. The question now is how to achieve the success without the exploitation. How do we do this while recognising how international collaboration, talents and resources were fundamental to this?
Being fit for a world that has changed is why we must see how others perceive us – including hearing their experiences of being colonised. Otherwise, how do we make ourselves fit for purpose in this wildly different era? This is no longer the era of Pax Britannica. This is no longer the era of European powers being able to carve up the world on their own whims. There are other states who now wield as much if not more power. This is not to mention the power of corporations – always a love-hate relationship for the British and other empires – that operate in a transnational and almost invisible way that governments simply do not understand.
There is a bittersweet irony to the fact that railways, which used to symbolise the gift of imperial Britain’s “benevolence”, now expose the false narratives of domination and legacy. The optimist in me hopes that this latest rail crisis can instead become a moment when the country looks honestly at itself, about how we really came to be what we are today, and how we plot our course for international success in the future.