Balfour 100 years on: Britain’s colonial legacy

Theresa May will be celebrating the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. But what is there to celebrate?

Palestine Balfour protest
Palestinians take part in a protest calling on Britain to apologise for the Balfour Declaration, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 18, 2017 [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

We live in a dangerous world. This is the reality in which Prime Minister Theresa May wants to carve out a future as a “truly global Britain” after Brexit to “reach beyond the borders of Europe” and play an even more international role. But surviving in a dangerous world – let alone doing any good for yourself or others – requires the ability to learn from the mistakes of the past, stop repeating them and live up to the promises you made. The centenary of the Balfour Declaration on November 2 should provide an ideal opportunity for reflection, learning and action.

The Palestinian conflict shares something in common with a number of other, seemingly unrelated conflicts, such as Kashmir and Myanmar – a legacy of British colonialism. There’s no hope of a “truly global Britain” unless the country addresses that, helps to start clearing up the mess it made, and does something to defend those it said it would defend. 

Recent British prime ministers, including David Cameron and Tony Blair, have offered vague admissions of British culpability when addressing receptive international audiences, but none of these have been sincere apologies, nor have they been followed up with any robust actions to help resolve and ease the situations caused by their predecessors. The “divide and rule” tactic employed by British colonialism around the world, as well as the violent attempts to curb opposition to its rule and regain independence, have left a deep imprint that is still felt to this day. 


Yet, far from reflecting on the grave consequences of British colonialism, Prime Minister Theresa May will be doing entirely the opposite by celebrating the centenary of the Balfour Declaration at an elegant London location, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and 150 carefully selected VIP guests.

What about the promise made in the Declaration that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”? Britain needs to start living up to that, at last.

And what’s to celebrate? Perhaps retrospectively, the Declaration enables Europeans to feel better about the horrific murder of six million Jews in Europe during World War II – events which took place 20 years after the original Balfour Declaration. The commitment “to view with favour the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people” even seems noble from this perspective, and easily distracts from the reality of the use of brutal violence to honour it.

British politicians recognised early on that force would be necessary to remove the Palestinian Arab Christians and Muslims who formed over 90 percent of the population, and who were not consulted about promises made about their land by the British. Winston Churchill was concerned about the financial burden on British taxpayers’ money as he knew British troops would need to be deployed.

It is heartening that despite the collective amnesia encouraged by our leaders, education system, and the dominant media discourse, ordinary British citizens are awakening to the catastrophic actions that were taken in this country's name and are calling for Britain to acknowledge its responsibilities.


So should Britain really be celebrating the Balfour Declaration, which has resulted in unimaginable misery, death and destruction faced by the Palestinians for the past 100 years? The 67-word declaration made 100 years ago in the throes of World War I by a British parliamentarian continues to be the raison d’etre for much misery and trouble in the region.

And the ongoing misery caused by British colonialism is not limited to Palestine.

Britain’s bloody footprints around the world

In August, India and Pakistan celebrated the 70th anniversary of their creation as part of independence from the British Empire, which had ruled India for 200 years. Fifteen million people were uprooted and between one and two million people died.


The task of partitioning the country was given to Sir Cyril Radcliffe, a lawyer who had never been there. He drew lines that split apart communities and families, destroying centuries of tradition in one foul swoop of his pen across the country, not unlike the effect of Balfour’s pen in the Middle East.

Death and destruction inevitably followed such a crude and thoughtless division, with India and Pakistan going to war over the territory of Kashmir almost immediately, an issue still unresolved to this day. Indeed, the very first UN resolution in 1948 refers to the right of Kashmiris for self-determination through a vote. Yet Britain has done very little to uphold that commitment, and Kashmir continues to be a symbol of instability in the region.

Myanmar also gained independence from Britain in 1948, and the genocide that is currently being carried out there by Buddhist nationalists has forced nearly half a million Rohingya Muslims to flee their burning villages to escape rape, murder and violence. This genocide can also be traced back to British colonial policies, and yet the UK government’s voice has barely been heard. Of all the countries that should be playing a role in protecting the vulnerable Muslim minority in Myanmar, the UK should be leading efforts, as blame for the conflict is very easily traceable back to British colonial times.

The Rohingya have been living in those lands for over two hundred years, but resentment over the internal displacement of Buddhists stems back to 1826 when Britain annexed the part of Myanmar where most Rohingya Muslims live today. Indian Muslims were brought in large numbers to become labourers and administrators for the British, but, like other places in the world, it is not the colonists who are paying the price for this, but ordinary innocent people.


Seventy years ago saw the breakup of the British Empire. Now, as Brexit is breaking our ties with Europe and we are looking to build partnerships with the rest of the world, the centenary of the Balfour Declaration provides an ideal opportunity for reflection, learning and meaningful action to address the historic, underlying, unjust British policies that are at the root of ongoing conflict.

It is heartening that despite the collective amnesia encouraged by our leaders, education system, and the dominant media discourse, ordinary British citizens are awakening to the catastrophic actions that were taken in this country’s name and are calling for Britain to acknowledge its responsibilities.

To this end, a national rally is being organised on Saturday, November 4 in London with the theme “Make it Right for Palestine,” and thousands are expected to attend. It promises to be a very different marking of the Balfour Declaration than the one Theresa May is attending, being open, inclusive and public. And it serves as a reminder that Britain’s imperial dreams continue to be a living nightmare for thousands across the world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.