Britain’s strange relationship with Empire

A referendum was held in June 2016 and 17.4 million people opted for Brexit.

In 2002, a British journalist spent several days being driven around northern Uganda in the back of a Mercedes 4x4.
“This is still a country where too many people squat on their haunches,” he wrote, “slowly waving their hands to move the flies from their faces.”
The jackfruit was “disgusting”; the children “Aids-ridden”; the living conditions straight from the “Stone Age”. Of course, colonialism had nothing to do with it. “The problem is not that we were once in charge,” the intrepid correspondent explained, “but that we are not in charge anymore.”

Nobody would remember this racist drivel, were it not for the identity of its author: Boris Johnson, the tousle-haired adulterer and champion of Brexit who has been, since July, the prime minister of the United Kingdom.

In January he backslapped and chortled with President Museveni and other African leaders at a UK-Africa Investment Summit in London. It seems that Johnson’s colonial fantasies went unmentioned; no doubt it would have killed the mood.

But Johnson’s back catalogue raises questions about the strange relationship Britain has with its empire. A survey in 2016 found that 43 per cent of British people thought that the Empire – the violent conquest, don’t forget, of a quarter of the globe – was on balance a good thing, and just 19 per cent thought it bad. And that was before the convulsion of Brexit, with its galvanising effect on British racists, and Johnson’s thumping victory in last December’s election.

Imperial nostalgia
A whiff of imperial nostalgia hangs over the Brexit project. Donald Tusk, one of the European Union’s top officials during Brexit negotiations, heard “a longing for Empire” in the voices of British politicians. One MP from Johnson’s right-wing Conservative Party, talking to a Guardian reporter, described the Eurosceptic contingent as “grammar-school imperialists” who would once have been “able to vent their rather bizarre beliefs bullying people in a nether-province of India”.

Several of the architects of Brexit also have personal ties to Africa. The millionaire who bankrolled the campaign to leave the EU owns diamond mines in South Africa, where he spent school holidays as a child. The first person ever elected to parliament for the United Kingdom Independence Party, a small but influential anti-EU group, spent most of his childhood in post-colonial Uganda.

Yet it is not quite true that Brits are hankering after the imperial past. The vast majority know little of that history, and care even less. The dominant attitude is not to glorify the Empire, but to forget it ever existed.

This “historical amnesia” was diagnosed as far back as 1978 by Stuart Hall, a Jamaican-born sociologist and arguably the most important intellectual of the post-war British left.

“Paradoxically, it seems to me,” he wrote, “the native, home-grown variety of racism begins with this attempt to wipe out and efface every trace of the colonial and imperial past.”

For a striking example of what Hall called “a decisive mental repression”, consider popular recollections of World War II. The mythology of that conflict, and especially of the months in 1940s when German bombs rained down on London, is central to British national consciousness.

Britain, as a nation, did not fight the war; the British Empire did. Colonial recruits died everywhere from Burma to Ethiopia. In mid-1944 there were 8.7 million soldiers in the British Commonwealth and empire forces, of which only 4.5 million were in the forces of the UK.

Around 77,000 Ugandans were enlisted during the conflict, including the “Abaseveni”, the men of the 7th battalion of the King’s African Rifles, from which Museveni takes his name. And the war was ultimately won with American dollars and Russian lives.

All of this is largely forgotten in Britain. Instead, the war is remembered as a moment when Britain “stood alone” against the evils of fascism. The British people were plucky, stoical, good-humoured, unbowed – evidence, it is claimed, of a unique and indefinable national character. Patriotic slogans from the time are now printed on a popular range of tea mugs. Everyone knows Winston Churchill’s stirring battle cry that “we shall fight on the beaches”.

Few recall his assurances, in the very same sentence, that if Britain itself “were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle”.
Both sides of British politics had an interest in writing Empire out of history. On the left, as historian David Edgerton has argued, the struggle against Nazism was recast as a “people’s war”, a moment of heroic mobilisation which foreshadowed the great national projects of the post-war Labour government.

On the radical right, the Empire became historically inconvenient. Witness the evolution of a curmudgeonly Conservative MP by the name of Enoch Powell. He is best remembered today for a notoriously racist speech he gave in 1968, warning that Britain was “heaping up its own funeral pyre” by allowing in too many immigrants, and that White people had become “strangers in their own country”. That was too much even for the Conservative Party of the time; he was sacked as its shadow defence spokesman the next day. But Powell remains an icon for politicians on the nativist, anti-EU right.

As a young man Powell was a gung-ho imperialist, just as you might expect. But his views evolved in the 1950s. Britain was battling anti-colonial insurgencies from Kenya to Malaya and had botched an invasion of Egypt. Powell urged a clean break. “The Tory [Conservative] Party must be cured of the British Empire, of the pitiful yearning to cling to relics of a bygone system,” he wrote in 1957. “The Tory Party has to find its patriotism again, and to find it, as of old, in ‘This England’.”

Right-wing politicians had not been suddenly overcome by post-colonial guilt. Instead, they feared where the internationalist logic of empire might lead. In the 1950s, as Britain grappled with a post-war labour shortage, Asians and Africans from the colonies were allowed to come freely to the UK to live and work. The Empire had been built on the idea of White supremacy, but increasingly came along with some minimal sense of obligation to those it had colonised.

Powell and his followers saw large-scale immigration as a road to ruin. The historian Camilla Schofield quotes an anonymous letter that the MP received from a supporter two days after his 1968 speech: “The dirtiest traitors on God’s earth [i.e. British politicians] for the sake of a rotten, old tradition of Empire… have wrenched our birth-right from us and handed our country over on a silver plate to millions of immigrants from all over the world… We don’t owe these people a living as some of the dirty traitors seem to think… Our British working classes have been sacrificed on the altar of a dead colonialism.”

Fairy story
So Britain slowly forgot its empire, or at least parts of it. To acknowledge its history would be to accept some sense of duty, of restitution. What remained was a fairy story. When Brits thought of empire they thought of law, liberty, trade, railways and cricket, centred around the traditions of an ancient, imagined England.

Meanwhile, a series of immigration laws in the 1960s and 1970s erected new barriers, telling former colonial subjects that they were no longer welcome. A world order was established in which capital was free to move and labour was not – a system which preserved the privileged position of rich, mostly White countries like the UK.

That legacy endures today. In 2012, the British government began deporting people who had migrated from Commonwealth countries in the 1950s. It later admitted that at least 164 Caribbean-born people with a legal right to be in the UK had been wrongly deported or detained. David Lammy, a Black British politician, traced the scandal directly to imperial amnesia.

“My ancestors were British subjects,” he pointed out, “because Britain came to them, took them across the Atlantic, colonised them, sold them into slavery, profited from their labour and made them British subjects. That is why I am here.”

Britain’s imperial past has resurfaced in other places too. A key sticking-point during the Brexit negotiations was an argument over border arrangements between Northern Ireland (which is part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (which is not). The technicalities appeared arcane, but were rooted in nine centuries of British presence in Ireland – the longest and most bitter of all its colonial entanglements. Politicians in London seemed surprised by the furore. They had forgotten that history, and assumed that everyone else had too.

Now the same politicians are trying to improvise a post-Brexit future. Some talk about deepening ties with the Commonwealth.
As the historian Eva Namusoke has noted, most of their enthusiasm is directed towards an Old Commonwealth: the mostly White nations of Australia, New Zealand and Canada. They rarely talk in the same way about Uganda, or anywhere else in Africa. The framing of the entire discussion, writes Namusoke, “seeks to place whiteness as a key criterion denoting commonality.”

But despite Brexit, despite Johnson, there are signs that a reappraisal of empire is coming. In part, that is driven by voices from the former colonies. Apollo Makubuya, a lawyer, has written an insightful history of Britain and Buganda in which he argues that “Uganda’s current crises are inextricably linked to the legacy of colonialism and neocolonialism”.

He calls for a public, international investigation into Britain’s actions, similar to the UN inquiry into Uganda’s actions in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Britain needs to come to terms with is past squarely once and for all,” he writes. “Piecemeal and half-hearted apologies have not worked in the past will not service in the future.”

Change is coming too from sections of the British left. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party has called on schools to teach more about the injustices of empire and the history of pre-colonial Africa. One of the politicians running to replace him has called for a rebranding of the honours system, which still awards titles like “Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” (MBE) for distinguished achievement.

Many young Brits are the children of immigrants, which gives them some personal perspective on the imperial past. George the Poet, a poet and rapper with Ugandan parents, recently turned down an MBE because of “what the British empire did to my motherland”.

But do not underestimate the extent to which a suppressed memory of empire still lurks in the subconscious of the White establishment. It even haunts their idea of the European Union. Johnson once said that the deal negotiated by his predecessor, Theresa May, would reduce Britain to “colony status”.

Another right-wing politician compared Britain’s departure from the EU to the revolt of slaves against their owners. The Empire is always with us, just beneath the surface.

The author is a journalist based in Kampala and has reported on economics and politics from 13 African countries for The Economist


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