Indian politician Shashi Tharoor has been doing the rounds in the British press lately discussing the legacies of British colonialism and highlighting many of the harsh realities of the colonial project. Most recently Tharoor wrote in Al Jazeera that India – and also Britain – need a museum to raise awareness of this colonial past.
The points he raised were fair; Britain has never come to terms with its colonial past. It is often ignored how Britain was built upon the literal blood, sweat and tears of my ancestors (and the ancestors of any people from the former colonies).
Creating a museum to acknowledge this would be a huge step forward in terms of saying the unsaid and recognising the reality of the situation. But what is often forgotten in this context is that modern Britain is reliant upon a denial of Imperial realities that allows for the empire to be presented as benevolent and necessary – and likewise allows for modern conceptions of Britain to be presented as similarly benevolent.
Without a hankering for empire and without a refusal to acknowledge Britain’s brutal past, Britain would cease to be Britain. The whole national project would unravel, which is why we so often feel a sense of what Paul Gilroy describes as “post-colonial melancholia” seeping out of national newspapers or political speeches.
Britain simply cannot be Britain without this yearning for Empire. If we were to properly acknowledge Britain’s colonial past, the nation would become something completely different particularly as this “post-colonial melancholia” has gone hand in hand with ideas of British nationalism.
National narratives often involve the harking back to a “golden era”, and in Britain this romanticism almost always conjures up images of empire – a time when Britain was “great” because it laid claim to much of the world – without ever contextualising the period.
A good recent example of this is how some politicians and civil servants referred to Liam Fox’s post-Brexit strategy with the former Commonwealth as “Empire 2.0“; highlighting the uncomfortable relationship Britain has with Empire. No major newspapers or media outlets covering this story mentioned the brutality of the British Empire.
Further to this, the very nature of the Commonwealth as an entity shows that Britain still links its identity to its colonial project. This is of course what many on the political right have often argued as Nigel Farage declared in 2014:
[We should] open ourselves up to a group of countries who have within them just over two billion people. They speak English. They have common law. They have similar contract law. They are our friends. They are our cousins. They are our extended family in the world… let’s have a trade deal with the Commonwealth.
Thus, as Stephen Ashe has argued, UKIP and Brexit were inseparable from this notion of “post-colonial melancholia”, noting prior to the vote:
The EU referendum campaign is a good case in point of the prevalence of imperial and colonial nostalgia in British politics today. Residual memories of imperialism and the end of empire inform how UKIP and Conservative Brexiters imagine Britain’s future, should the nation vote to leave the EU on June 23rd.
Ideas of empire are very much at the heart of the way Britain sees its place in the world and the way it constructs its image. Linked to this is the false idea of how Britain benevolently intervened in World War Two and the likewise fictitious representation of how Britain ended the slave trade (which goes hand in hand with denying the brutality of Britain’s handling of the Mau Mau uprising).
Britain constructs itself as progressive and civilised, in contrast to the savage and regressive ideals in places like sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East. This is of course particularly prevalent within discourses surrounding the war on terror which overtly articulate a civilised versus savage binary reminiscent of the language used by colonisers during the “great” days of Empire.
Such logic is also relevant to current debates about immigration. The progressive argument is always about Britain being benevolent, showing its progressive nature by affording migrants and refugees the luxury of staying here. It is never framed as having anything to do with the fact that Britain was over there (in the former colonies) and therefore they (people like me from the former colonies) are now over here. A denial of Imperialism is essential for propping up this idea of benevolent Britain.
So whilst Tharoor is right and Britain should acknowledge its awful past both publicly and in widespread changes to the educational system, it is not a viable option for those in power. They are invested in the maintenance of the status quo because a reinterpretation of Empire would shed light on why there are so many immigrants from former colonies living in the UK (which really shouldn’t surprise anyone) and arguably lead to greater solidarity between people of colour and working class communities.
It is after all a specific class in Britain who have long contributed to the oppression of people both at home and abroad. During the Imperial days, most working class people weren’t exactly enjoying the benefits of the spice trade or dining off the Opium Wars. It was only a small number of people who enjoyed these luxuries (albeit services like the NHS were also paid for by the fruits of Empire and this benefited everyone) and who continue to enjoy a dominant position in society because of divide and rule strategies honed in the Imperial heartlands of Asia and Africa.
What would Brexit be if we had immigration debates that discussed the colonial context of migration to Britain? What would it be with an honest conversation about colonialism more generally? How would British people feel about themselves and British values if they knew the truth?
In short, Britain would simply unravel, at least the Britain that we know today, because many so people are simply too invested in fictitious notions of British greatness to simply do away with them.