Chukka Umunna, seen as a rising leader in the Labour party, claimed he feels uncomfortable lecturing China on democracy due to Britain’s past.
“Given my country’s history, we can’t pose as saints. Women got the vote from 1918 onwards, we didn’t have proper universal suffrage until the latter part of the last century and that’s before you look at some thoroughly undemocratic things we did when you are looking at the concept of colonialism, where we just went into places and had complete disregard for any kind of notions of democracy, we thought we would take resources and the wealth of other countries. I will always argue for democracy. But I think we have to be quite careful when we seem to go around lecturing the rest of the world about these things.”
Umunna claims that Britain’s colonial past means we should not lecture other states on democracy and human rights. Of course it is without doubt that Britain did go into countries and exploit them for its own gain, and this is something Britain has rightly apologised for. There is, however, a historical debate on the strong link between colonialisation and subsequent democracy in former colonies.
But this debate is effectively irrelevant anyway. The bulk of colonialisation took place in the 1800s. Why should crimes that happened during the 19th century, stop us speaking out about crimes that are taking place in the 21st century?
The shadow business secretary also claimed Britain “didn’t have universal suffrage until the latter part of the last century”. This simply isn’t true, universal suffrage, when the voting age was the same for all men and women, was introduced in 1928. Even if we take when the voting age was lowered to 18 - 1969 - this is still nine years before Chukka Umunna was even born. It seems illogical for him to base his diplomacy on events that happened long before his birth.
If Chukka Umunna needs convincing of why Britain is well placed to lecture China, he should first visit the market-town of Morpeth in Northumberland, where Emily Davison, the suffragette who died promoting the cause of women’s votes, was buried and has a shrine dedicated to her bearing the slogan “words not deeds”. Umunna should then visit the cell of a Bejing Detention Centre where he will see Xu Zhiyong, currently serving a four year jail sentence for having the audacity to campaign for civil rights in China. Britain immortalises its civil rights campaigners, China imprisons theirs.
It’s likely Umunna himself doesn’t fully believe his own argument. What he actually doesn’t want to admit is that if a British politician pushes Chinese officials too hard over democracy and human rights British businesses could be affected. In 2012 Britain’s relationship with China was damaged after David Cameron met the Dalai Lama. Would Labour’s shadow business secretary really be making the same argument if this was a less economically powerful country like Iran or Zimbabwe? If this is the real reason, then Chukka Umunna should have the honesty and maturity to admit this, and not insult British democracy.
Chukka Umunna is right, Britain does have a chequered history when it comes to democracy and human rights. But there’s a fundamental principle at stake, Britain’s bad past shouldn’t stop us pushing for China to have a better future.