Britain: The Empire that Never Was

Why Brexit is the culmination of a British national project which weaponises imperial amnesia and nostalgia.

Artwork by Marisa Malik

Brexit sold the country a dream; ostensibly a project built on anti-migrant sentiment, it also invoked delusions of grandeur, rooted in reanimating the glorious days of imperial rule and global British hegemony. Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech announced a vision for a ‘Global Britain’ – ‘a great, global trading nation that is respected around the world and strong.’ Boris Johnson, Secretary of Foreign Affairs, hammered home the image of an ‘astonishing globalism, this wanderlust of aid workers and journalists and traders and diplomats and entrepreneurs.’ In a speech promoting ‘Global Britain’ to the Commonwealth trade ministers’ meeting, Secretary of International Trade Liam Fox invoked memories of how ‘a small island perched on the edge of the European continent became a leader of world trade’. Perhaps most strikingly, the project of creating new trade links with the African Commonwealth was recently described by Whitehall officials as ‘Empire 2.0’.

And yet, despite contemporary imperial nostalgia in the Brexit moment, discussions of the empire itself remain largely absent. The glorious past of an independent, sovereign Great Britain imagined by Brexiteers offers little mention of famines in Ireland (1845–1852) or Bengal (1943); Massacres in Amritsar, India (1919) or Athens, Greece (1944) or the use of torture and castration on Mau Mau (1951–1960) or Cypriot (1955–1959) rebels that occurred under British imperial rule.

It is now a familiar critique to illustrate how the horrors of Empire have been erased from the national memory. However, Brexiteers are also reluctant to celebrate the empire whose aesthetic they continue to invoke. Even the famous ‘successes’ of imperial Britain are largely unknown. The victory over the Qing dynasty of China in the First Opium War (1839–42), victory over the Russian Empire in the Crimean War (1854–56) or the unification of kingdoms of the Niger delta into the single Colony of Nigeria (1914) are just as absent as the horrors of empires within Britain’s collective memory. The lack of engagement on both fronts betrays the remarkable ability for Britain to externalise not only the violence but also even the glory of its empire. Crucial to unpacking the vision of the post-Brexit nation currently driving politics is an understanding of Britain’s relationship to and repression of imperialism.

Nostalgia or amnesia?

Many have already traced the connections between the current conjuncture and Britain’s imperial past. Kehinde Andrews has shown how hopes of an imperial revival is ‘a mirage’, conjured through the hubris of a national culture unable and unwilling to confront its brutal colonial history. Similarly, Nadine El-Enany has argued that the Leave vote reflected a longing for ‘a time when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by her racial and cultural superiority’. Such a longing, El-Enany argues, rests on an erasure of racist violence and exploitation that the empire was built on, thus disavowing responsibility for continuing global inequalities and displacements that have produced the ‘migrant crisis’. Nostalgia inevitably contains an element of invention, with the object invoked standing in for a lost, glorious past never remembered as it actually was. Contemporary imperial nostalgia mobilises this capacity for invention through erasure. Within this dynamic, discourses of empire have established a ‘fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanising rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point”’.

But what explains this refusal to confront the reality of its violent and racist past? The argument we advance in this piece is that such evasions and delusions are, in our view, not accidents, mistakes or deceits, but rather an expression of a logic that sits at the heart of British identity. Imperial nostalgia captures only part of this logic. In fact, we argue that this nostalgia is undergirded by a pervasive collective amnesia, almost as if the country has forgotten – within a mere generation – of the existence of its imperial past. It is this amnesia that informs the widespread surprise at the descendants of imperial subjects arriving onto the British mainland. It is the same amnesia that presumes an independent Britain can resume its position as a ‘great trading nation’ post-Brexit. But moreover, we argue that this amnesia – like the nostalgia that it sits alongside – is itself a product of a longer history. This history begins with the very social relations and self-imagination of the British Empire at its peak, and crystallizes through post-imperial projects to refashion British identity, from imperial to national. We argue that contemporary invocations of empire betray an abiding discomfort which can be traced back to Britain’s imperial zenith; a discomfort and disavowal of ever having had an empire in the first place.

Re-imagining the community

For the bulk of its history, the imagined community we call Britain was never really a nation-state. In the words of Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘there has been no independent Britain, no “Island Nation”’. From the 17th century colonisation of Ireland and the 1707 Act of Union, to the conquests that made the Commonwealth, Britain was always an imperial formation. The experience of the fall of empire was therefore not simply a loss of British power, or a shrinking of territory, but a fundamental crisis of how Britain conceptualised itself. This can be seen in the hurried passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act, which made the first legislative attempt at defining British citizenship, just as Britain’s settler colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the crown jewel of Empire-India were gaining independence.

The existential question to be confronted here was: how do you turn an imagined community that was always imperial into a nation? How do you generate the mythology of a ‘Great’ British nationalism in a context where — through decolonisation — it was having its arse handed to it by peoples it had imagined to be racially inferior?

Contemporaneous with the onset of decolonisation and the increase of colonial subjects migrating to the UK, WWII and its immediate aftermath played (and continues to play) a crucial role in the making of the British nation. In this context, the constant rediscovery of ‘Keep Calm, Carry On’ resonates as a slogan for nation building set against a post-imperial malaise; it is as much to do with the collapse of the Empire as it is to do with the Blitz.

That Winston Churchill was voted the Greatest Briton by the public is grounded specifically in his branding as war-leader — the man who saved the world from the distinctly imperial Nazi project — while his extensive participation in violent colonial practices is erased. Similarly, the Spirit of the Blitz conjures a fantasy of a beleaguered island surviving the onslaught of foreign invasion. The popularity of the movie Dunkirk shows again the enduring appeal of WWII and its narrative of the plucky underdog in the British national mythology (never mind that to most of the world Britain was the foreign invader par excellence). A presentism therefore informs the construction of British nationalist history, wherein the Spirit of the Blitz is imposed and read onto an imagined national past and future. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Dunkirk in 1940, Brexit in 2016 — each moment expresses some assertion of British sovereignty against a foreign invader, and therefore the making of the British nation-state as such.

Throughout all of this, empire functions as a minor footnote in the mythologised history of the British nation, far less familiar and definitely less important than these events. Absent from the British national imaginary is the most fascinating question of its own history: how did this tiny island in the North Atlantic, with few advantages in terms of natural resources, manage to rule the waves, conquer a quarter of the world’s land mass, impose its language as the global lingua franca and establish the centre of global finance in its capital city?  One response that is offered by post/decolonial thinking is that Britain’s wealth and power was the result of centuries of violence, plunder, oppression and exploitation of colonised peoples. That the very history which made Britain ‘Great’ is disavowed, externalised and projected onto its (European) enemies — portraying itself as a victim rather than perpetrator of imperial violence — is just banter.

Nostalgia and amnesia for empire are therefore two sides of the same nationalist coin. The fruits of empire — wealth, power, prestige — required for Britain’s ‘Greatness’ continually crash against the desire to disavow and silence the violence behind it. As two necessary but irreconcilable components of its national identity, Britain’s supposed Greatness is nothing but a mask covering its profound fragility.

The empire that never was    

And yet, it would be a mistake to explain this fragility exclusively in reference to British nationalism in the post-imperial context, for the erasure of empire is not just something we see today. Even at its nineteenth century peak, such disavowal was central to the functioning and mythology of Britain. In terms of major imperial nations, Britain seems relatively unique and successful in having so deeply repressed its empire and masking the violence of a project which was always essentially organised armed robbery. The entire endeavour is cloaked in silence.

Nineteenth century essayist John Robert Seely caught the mood of the time when, in his 1883 book Expansion of England he famously stated “we seem, as it were, to have conquered half the world in a fit of absence of mind”. This absence of mind was far from accidental but actively constructed; Seeley’s quote is best read as a lament for the lack of knowledge about Britain’s imperial glories. Historian Bernard Porter employed Seeley’s quote in the title of his book detailing the conspicuously low profile that the empire held in the British national imaginary, even at the very height of the project. History textbooks of the time were indifferent to Britain’s colonial exploits; proposals for an Empire Day were rebuffed; colonies only rarely figured in parliamentary debates, at least until the late nineteenth century. Despite sporadic waves of imperial fervour among the ruling class, many of the greatest victories of the British Empire barely registered in the public imagination. A major historical event such as the British victory over the Qing Dynasty during the Opium Wars — an event Julia Lovell reads as informing China’s interactions with the outside world up to the present day — was less a cause for national celebration and more a source for ruling class anxiety over the ethics of trade.

What explains this disavowal of and discomfort with Britain’s imperial exploits, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’? To understand this better, it is necessary to grasp the British Empire’s historical specificity as a distinctly capitalist endeavour. Indeed, the Empire was constructed not only by the state itself, but also by the chartered companies and financiers registered in Britain. Steven Presses’ recent book Rogue Empires details how much of European imperialism was made by capitalist firms and trading companies manipulating contractual forms and property deeds to dispossess indigenous peoples of their rights and resources. British privateers and industrialists maximised this form of expropriation better than any others (but always in close collusion and with the support of the state). Innovations in technical applications of property rights and commercial exchange aided the narrative of British imperialism being a matter of technocratic management rather than glorious conquest. This helped produce a self-delusion, even among the elites of British society, of the Empire as little more than a loose federation constructed to facilitate free commercial trade across borders. Such a delusion helps explain how prominent colonialist Jan Smuts, despite his own role as an architect of racial segregation in British South Africa, could contrast the British Empire against the ‘evil’ of European imperialism. For Smuts, the British Empire was imagined as not really an imperial project but rather ‘an embryo league of nations …based on the true principles of national freedom and political decentralisation.’

Ellen Meiksins Wood provides theoretical guidance for how this delusion was sustained. She argues that British imperialism was distinctive in the extent to which capitalist logics of property, production, exchange and surplus predominated. Profit through competitive production was not an effect of empire but fundamental to its very conception. Among key ideologues of empire, establishing direct political rule was considered secondary and functional to extending the imperatives of the capitalist economy. For example, in the work of John Locke, questions of political jurisdiction and domination were conspicuously scarce. Instead — and in contrast to the forms of empire that preceded it — British imperialism was presented as an economic relationship, driven by an obligation and right to produce exchange-value.

It is therefore with the British that, in the words of Wood, ‘we begin to find a conception of empire not as conquest or even military domination and political jurisdiction, but as purely economic hegemony.’ Through the development of capitalist relations of production and a correlative liberal order of legal property and contractual relations, Britain was able to posit itself as less of an empire and more an extended trading network — ‘a leader of world trade’ in the words of Liam Fox. Meanwhile, the violent ‘extra-economic’ mechanisms through which empire was built were, from the outset, concealed. Presumably, for an empire whose interests were primarily commercial, military victories would have unlikely registered in the public imagination.

But how was it that these ‘violent means’ could be disavowed and erased? What methods were at hand to simultaneously promote the transfer of property deeds through abstract principles of legal and economic freedom on one hand, whilst mobilising, in its service, immense technologies of colonial violence, plunder and exploitation on the other?

Undergirding the formal and abstract universality of free and equal exchange was the substantive concrete experience of differentiation, unfreedom and inequality. As Lisa Lowe explains, intersections of class, race and gender, served to delineate the ‘boundaries of the human’, abjecting in turn peoples characterised as non-human – those ‘unfit for civilization’, ‘incapable of productive development’ and thus beyond the pale of liberal rights and freedoms. The British imperial project was able to conceal colonial violence by persistently externalising its horrors and brutality into this ‘zone of non-being’, as Frantz Fanon called it. The peoples and histories that populated this zone were, in turn, either to be assimilated through the civilizing mission or excluded from the British imperial project altogether. Conducted on zones of non-being, these erasures are the locations where colonial brutalities were at once located and forgotten, hidden in plain sight.

Conclusions

Our reading of the underlying logic behind British imperialism helps explain imperial amnesia and the persisting nostalgia for a vague lost moment of British ‘control’. Brexit is the culmination of a British national project which weaponises this amnesia and nostalgia, in the name of a national myth of the beleaguered and plucky island.

Britain’s is remembered not as a product of empire, but the result of benevolent, entrepreneurial global trade, within which the Empire becomes just loose framework for organising trading relations, masking an always externalised hierarchy and violence. Because of this misrecognition of the actual form of past British ’control’, contemporary Brexiteers can imagine a return to those days with ease. What they fail to see is how dependent this ‘trading network’ was on an inequality of military and economic power between Britain and places like China, India and South Africa that is simply no longer present.

The dynamics of British imperialism outlined above also offer a further challenge to any politics that seeks to oppose the rabid nationalism that informed Brexit. It means that an anti-racist politics on this island needs to also engage with questions of how capitalist social relations simultaneously produce and mask racial oppressions in a manner that can’t be corrected just by telling a better history of British imperialism. Challenging the rise of xenophobia today requires also stressing how the assumptions of equality within liberal legal transactions and capitalist economic relations helped create a general ignorance and disinterest in British imperial violence, not just now but even at it’s peak. Understanding how the liberal, capitalist form of imperial relations erases the violence of the endeavour helps explain how colonial throwbacks like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage could co-currently mobilise the language of ‘national liberation’ against the imperial EU and celebrate the renewal of ‘trade’ relations with the commonwealth in their imagined post-Brexit Utopia. The disavowal of racism constantly uttered among both proponents (and indeed some opponents) of Brexit is situated within this logic. We must not only call their claims out for the myths that they are but also expose and ultimately dismantle the mechanics of how these myths sustain themselves.

Kojo Koram is a lecturer in law at the University of Essex. His research interests include questions around international law, empire and race.

Kerem Nisancioglu is a lecturer in International Relations at SOAS, University of London. He is the co-author of How the West Came to Rule: The Geopolitical Origins of Capitalism.

Republished with permission from Consented

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