Self-styled comedian and economist, Susie Steed, tells how her guided walk around the City turned into a tour of the British Empire.
I never set out to run a tour about the British Empire. I started out as one of the guides on the Occupy Tours of London, but when they finished I wanted to make the tour more general, appeal to a wider audience. I rewrote the tour and called it “a walking tour of capitalism”. I wanted to expose the institutions of the City and what went wrong in the financial crisis of 2008.
And yet as I got more familiar with the City I began to see that things started to go wrong a long time before 2008. I found I had stumbled into a topic I knew shamefully little about.
I had walked, quite literally, into the British Empire.
This might seem like an odd thing to say. It might seem insensitive, given the scale of the violence of the empire and the lives it took, to describe it as being in London today. And the empire existed in many places outside London. But often the money flowed back to London where companies like the East India Company and the Royal Africa Company which had a monopoly on the slave trade had their headquarters. For too long British people have been able to ignore the atrocities those companies and others committed.
“As I got more familiar with the City I began to see that things started to go wrong a long time before 2008.”
Today the sites where they used to be are as hard to find as any mention of them in an economics textbook.
There is a blue plaque on the site where the East India Company used to be. But it acknowledges the spot as where a small local postal service began. There is no mention of the occupation of the same place by one of the biggest companies that ever existed. And it does not acknowledge that the founder the postal service it commemorates, William Dockwra, made most of his money from the slave trade.
There are many reasons why Britain has not been able to acknowledge and educate its people or at the very least apologise for the British Empire. One reason is the empire never really ended. It evolved. It became an empire of finance. Unlike other cities around the UK that benefited from the empire, the money never stopped flowing to London.
And just as many British people are ignorant about the empire, they are also ignorant about where the money comes from, and why it comes to London. Ask someone to explain what a Eurodollar is or how the Bank of England works and you will find most of them are as sketchy on the details as they were about the British Empire.
“The empire never really ended. It evolved.”
The more I researched the city the more I became convinced that the way London got rich had very little to do with capitalism, much more to do with colonialism, and that it was impossible to separate one from the other.
Take the Bank of England. It’s fitting that the logo of our national bank is also the symbol of the British Empire – Britannia. She is often pictured with war ships in the background. This logo predates the Royal Navy because the money the bank lent to the king enabled him to build it up.
Today the Bank of England is not directly funding wars, but it is funding £745 billion of quantitative easing, which is upholding the share prices of companies, the arms industry and oil companies in a way that no one could describe as being anything to do with free trade or capitalism.
“The way London got rich had very little to do with capitalism.”
This left me in the weird situation of running a walking tour of capitalism, around a place that I no longer believed to be capitalist. I was also running into problems with the name because it attracted people onto my tour who I disappointed. The pro-capitalists wanted me to be happier about capitalism and the anti-capitalists wanted me to be angrier about it. And I wasn’t exactly either. I was angry, but about something else.
I decided to change the name to a “tour of the British Empire”.
I’d always encountered criticism on my tours of capitalism from people who expected it to be pro-capitalist. But we could usually debate capitalism as a theory even if it is obscure and only exists in textbooks. I can ask where they think it exists.
But with the empire, I found it impossible to debate with the people who defended it. I couldn’t debate with them because their idea of the empire exists somewhere more obscure than an economics textbook. It exists in their imagination.
I had designed tours to expose how the empire lives on in many of the financial institutions of the City of London. And yet I found these tours impossible to deliver because it lives on somewhere else. It lives on in the collective memory of a lot of Brits.
“The empire exists somewhere more obscure than an economics textbook. It exists in their imagination.”
As the material empire has crumbled and morphed into an empire of finance, which benefits a smaller number of people, those who have lost out financially have clung onto the memory even more.
And as I write this, history is unfolding in front of us. I’ve been watching with hope as statues fall. Hope that this is what will make more people let go, and wake up.
Because I do not feel I had the tools to help them to let go. I wasn’t sure my tour was helping. People told me to make the tour more positive, but I didn’t want to. There is too much that is too positive that has already been said about empire, I wanted to dissolve the sugar coating. I thought by showing how bad it was, and how it’s denial is poisoning the present, this was the best way to help people change.
With Covid-19 I had time to pause, and I think people were right that I could have made it more positive, not about the past, but about what the future will hold if we are able to let go of the past. I’m not planning on doing it anymore but I’m recording it (check my website here).
It’s almost a cliché to say this but it’s time for us to make that choice. Because now, more than ever, we must learn from history. Or repeat it.