Jeremy Paxman

is a journalist and broadcaster who often returns to the themes of British institutions and identity in his books

Following the release of his latest title, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, Olivia Edward met up with him and discovered why he feels more comfortable referring to himself as English than British, and the reason he thinks it was Ďridiculousí for Tony Blair to have apologised for the Irish famine.

I wrote Empire because I was interested in what the experience [of having an empire] did to us. I think the influence is quite profound. I grew up in a time when Britain was largely divesting of empire, and so much of the furniture of oneís mind, oneís sense of the rest of the world, was informed by imperialistic adventures of one kind or another.

I donít think we can simply dismiss the whole exercise as something morally reprehensible and beyond consideration. Some of it was morally reprehensible Ė there is no way you can justify the opium wars, for example Ė but there were other parts of it that seem to me to have been rather noble.

We wouldnít do it now of course; we wouldnít have the means to do it now, the instincts, the energy, and all the rest of it. But thereís an easy judgement made about [the British Empire] that irritates me.

I think to see the narrative as entirely exploitative is unfair. [The exercise] was quite scrutinised, and once we got beyond the buccaneering days, there was quite an acute consciousness of the responsibilities of having an empire.

The Scramble for Africa suggests that if Britain hadnít colonised some areas, other European countries would have. And I would rather have had my life in the care of a [British] district officer than have had one of King Leopoldís officials coming around and chopping my hands off because I wasnít harvesting enough rubber.

I think colonial history should be taught because it informs so much of what we do in the world, what we think is our place in the world and how we behave. Palestine recently bid for recognition at the UN. We didnít create that situation, but we certainly bear some responsibility for it, and we should be cognisant of that.

I think British people have been confused about who they are since the end of the Second World War. The Empire gave a defining sense of purpose and a defining sense of identity. But since the war, the withdrawal from India and Palestine, and the colonies going down like nine pins, weíve been unsure about who we are, and the shambles over our relationship with the rest of Europe is an expression of that.

Working as a BBC reporter in Belfast during the 1970s brought me face to face with this idea of the British Ė the British Empire, ĎThe Britsí, the behaviour of the Brits, the resentment of the Brits Ė for the first time.

Did it make me feel ashamed to be British? I donít think so. Whatís the point of being ashamed of it? Itís as ridiculous as Tony Blair apologising for the Irish famine. They were talking about something that had nothing to do with me, or much to do with my parents, grandparents and great grandparents. The [Brit] identity wasnít something I recognised; it was something I was saddled with.

Today, if someone asks me what I am, Iím much more comfortable saying English. Iím actually quarter Scottish, but I would say English because I find it a gentler identity, and less freighted with baggage, than being British.

John Fowles had this line about how the colours of Britain are red, white and blue, but the colour of England is green. Instinctively you know what he means; England [suggests something] quieter, more pastoral.

Figures such as Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes and David Livingstone were all pretty remarkable human beings with tremendous dash, guts, energy and resolution. The generality of empire builders were human beings just like the rest of us. But I would certainly have gone, yes. And I would have found it had its own satisfactions Ė even though I know that, historically, Iíve been naturally suspicious of any powerful institution, and I would have loathed the arbitrary use of power.

I think adventure would have been part of the draw, but also the fact that itís easier not to do things than to do them. Itís easier not to go to administer part of Sudan, itís easier not to climb a mountain, itís easier not to find a Northwest Passage. Itís easy not to do things, and Iím not sure I really like easy.

Curriculum vitae

1950 Born in Leeds
1964Ė68 Attended Malvern College, Malvern, Worcestershire. Passed various exams, including geography A-level
1973 Graduated from the University of Cambridge with a 2:1 in English
1974 Joined the BBC graduate trainee programme, including a spell working in Belfast
1977 Joined BBC current affairs programme Tonight
1989Ėpresent Presenter of Newsnight
1991 Published Friends in High Places: Who Runs Britain?
1994Ėpresent Presenter of University Challenge
1999 Published The English: A Portrait of a People
2007 Published On Royalty: A Very Polite Enquiry into Some Strangely Related People
2011 Published Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British

November 2011

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