Britain cannot progress while stuck in delusional fantasies about its imperial past

Britain’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has defended the record of the British empire, stating that the nation’s history must not be edited. When it comes to sanitising imperial history however, none has a better track record than the version of Britain’s imperialist war history we are taught by the English ruling Tory commentariat.

Brexiteer nationalism is a recycled and updated version of imperial nostalgia, turned inwards. Lying about the predatory and criminal nature of its imperial project not only distorts history, but provides a xenophobic vision to rebuild British society along racist lines.

Successive British Prime Ministers, up to and including Boris Johnson, have made numerous statements supporting the British empire as a humanitarian and noble institution. Regarding the British empire in a positive light is not just an exercise in historical amnesia; imperial nostalgia plays a toxic role in promoting myths of British ‘exceptionalism’ which sustains white racism and an anti-immigrant political culture.

While the British political class remains mired in a delusional fantasy version of imperial history, expressed today in Tory Brexiteer nationalism, Britain will never be able to solve any of its economic and racial disparities. Daniel Trilling, writing in the Guardian, maintains that until Britain squarely faces up to its imperial atrocities, today’s culture wars will continue to burn.

Modern empire loyalists, such as Niall Ferguson, encourage a sickly misty-eyed romanticism about the empire and its traditions. Anxieties about black, Asian and ethnic minority immigrants are sustained and recycled by an imperial nostalgia regarding a mythically racially homogeneous ‘white Britain’ that only ever existed in the imagination.

Priyamvada Gopal, tutor in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University, writes that:

In Brexit Britain, sustaining itself on dreams of a global renaissance in the embrace of its former colonies, a significant number of people likely believe the empire was a winning proposition. Between the saccharine justifications and convenient omissions of popular histories – largely written by privately educated white men – and the institutional failure to provide a reasonable schooling in the bare facts of imperial history, many Britons know little about the empire.

Britain has never been oppressed by villainous migrants or duplicitous refugees, but has exported its white nationalism around the world. While the British empire colonised people of black, Asian, African and Caribbean origin, Brexiteer nationalists – today’s empire loyalists – reject immigrants from those backgrounds. British citizenship was extended to the white migrants – Australia, Canada – societies that are themselves products of overreaching white nationalism.

How many of us know about the crimes of the British in Kenya, Yemen, or Iraq? In Kenya, a former English colony, Britain instituted a policy of mass detention and widespread torture to suppress the Kikuyu tribe, out of which the Mau Mau rebellion grew. Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial governor, herded masses of Kenyan villagers into concentration camps – that term is no exaggeration – after German leaders had been convicted of deploying such measures in World War 2.

The details of this brutal war had been airbrushed from official histories of the British empire, until the work of brave historians compiled evidence from the archives – and the latter had been censored, with documents destroyed on the orders of British authorities.

While the Kenyan war has largely been marginalised, the Falklands war has received official attention, and commemorations of that conflict are routinely maintained. That is because that war fits into an imperial-nostalgia narrative – upholding the purported ‘rights’ of a Britannic empire ruling the waves. The loss of British military personnel is tragic – no-one is minimising the human suffering of that conflict. It is the hypocritical and selective sympathy cultivated by the empire loyalists that must be exposed.

What has this history got to do with current political problems? Imperial nostalgia and its associated racism contaminates our vision, and is no basis on which to build a future. The ideological heirs of Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell uphold the British empire not out of any commitment to historical veracity. The rehabilitation of empire is bound up with the advocacy of an anti-immigration politics today.

Brexiteer nationalism is the last gasp of Tory Powellism. Mosley, a wartime Nazi who reinvented himself politically, found common ground with empire loyalists such as Powell. In what way? By advocating for a whites-only, anti-immigrant Britain. The nation’s imperial role, having declined in the post-war period, had to be sanitised as a civilising, humanitarian project. White nationalism had turned inward, and became a platform to remould British society.

The revamped nationalism of Tory Brexiteers relies on misinformation and distortions not only about empire, but also about the role and place of immigrants in Britain. Economic inequalities, driven by neoliberal austerity, could be blamed on African and Caribbean migrants. The latter, doing the jobs that Anglo British citizens do not want, form a marginalised group that is easy to scapegoat.

As the UK economy slumps into its deepest recession on record, in the wake of the pandemic, it is time to ask how empire loyalism can solve any of the economic and political problems that bedevil Britain today. How is increasing xenophobia, and hankering for the ‘good old days’ of empire, going to create a single job or prop up the overworked national health service?

It is not refugees, or migrants, or ‘shame’ about Britain’s imperial past that is at the root of the current problems in that nation. It is the economic model of capitalist austerity that is causing the socioeconomic crisis – and is incapable of solving it.

United Arab Emirates and Israel – a partnership that ignores the plight of the Palestinians

The governments of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel have signed an agreement paving the way for full normalisation of relations. This agreement brings into the open the growing and numerous clandestine linkages between the two nations. The formal accords between the two countries is the logical and open culmination of a decades-long bilateral relationship, previously undertaken in a secretive manner.

Dubbed the ‘Abraham accords’, in reference to the founder of the three monotheistic faiths, the cultivation of relations between the Emiratis (and the other Gulf nations) and Israel have been disguised as the promotion of Muslim-Jewish interfaith cooperation. This cynical ploy cannot disguise the naked and brazen economic and geopolitical interests motivating both parties.

For instance, back in October 2018, then Israeli Minister for Culture and Sport, Miri Regev, visited the UAE to oversee Israeli participation in a sporting tournament. This visit, touted as a bridge between Jews and Muslims, was great public relations. However, Regev, a former Brigadier-General in the Israeli army, has previously described African migrants to Israel as a ‘cancer‘, and called for violent repression of the Palestinians.

US President Donald Trump took credit for the deal, gloating that he had facilitated a ‘historic breakthrough’. For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a vague and non-binding promise to halt the annexation of the West Bank, though he was quick to point out that his postponement of annexing Palestinian territories was temporary.

The US and Israeli governments are portraying this accord as an enormous breakthrough and a diplomatic triumph, shoring up the electoral prospects of both incumbents. The Palestinians have denounced this deal as a betrayal, and condemned the Emiratis for their willingness to acquiesce in Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian land. During mid-August, Israeli warplanes struck several targets in the Gaza Strip, indicating that the Emirati–Israeli accord will not bring peace to the Palestinians.

Numerous Palestinian activist groups, human rights advocates and American Jewish organisations have condemned the Emirati-Israeli accord, stating that it is a betrayal of the Palestinian struggle and is nothing to celebrate. US Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, herself of Palestinian origin, tweeted that no-one should be fooled by the declarations of peace in this accord. Creeping annexation and apartheid are part of the daily life of Palestinians until today.

The Gulf nations, including the Emiratis, have a long track record of conducting secret diplomacy with the Israeli state. Rationalising their latest manoeuvre, the UAE claims that they will advocate for Palestinian rights, and an independent Palestinian state, with their Israeli counterparts. However, even a cursory examination of the UAE’s policies in the region expose the falsity of this ‘constructive diplomacy’ claim.

Senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, Marwan Bishara, writes that the Emiratis – like their Saudi big-brother partner – are the most pro-war country in the Gulf. It is no secret that the Emirates have actively participated in the Saudi-led invasion of Yemen. Sending thousands of troops, the UAE pursued its own goals in that war, and only the prospect of a full-scale military defeat led the Emiratis to withdraw the bulk of their soldiers.

The Emiratis have pursued an aggressive expansionism in Libya, taking advantage of the ongoing chaos in that Arab nation to prop up its own proxies. The goal is to establish a friendly regime in Libya to exploit that country’s extensive oil reserves. The UAE’s role has prolonged the civil war in Libya, ongoing since the 2011 NATO war for regime change.

After supporting various Islamist militias in Syria’s civil war and initially welcoming the overthrow of the Syrian government in 2011, the UAE changed its tune in 2019 and wished that current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad remain in power. This shift was cemented by the realisation that the Syrian Islamist rebels would fail to achieve military victory.

Amer Zahr, Palestinian American activist and president of New Generation for Palestine, summed up the crucial flaw in this accord:

When you normalise relationships with Israel or any Zionist organisation – and normalisation means interaction without centering the Palestinian problem – then you are basically excusing and accepting everything that Israel has done to us for the past 72 years


The 1619 Project helps us understand the racism underpinning American capitalism

Tom Cotton, a Republican senator from Arkansas, introduced a bill in Congress to deny federal funding for schools which incorporate material from the 1619 Project in their curriculum. Attacking the latter as ‘racially divisive’ and ‘neo-Marxist propaganda‘, Cotton has also penned a New York Times article demanding that troops be sent in to shoot down Black Lives Matter protesters.

The 1619 Project, an ongoing collection of award-winning essays and educational materials, examines the foundation of the US as a state founded on slavery and white supremacy. The American war of independence and subsequent development of capitalism, rather than fulfilling the promise of equality and freedom, resulted in the construction of a racialised, economically exploitive society. Such a reexamination of American history has been met with hostility by US President Donald Trump and his supporters, such Tom Cotton.

The bill which Cotton introduced, the Saving American History Act of 2020, is not motivated by an altruistic concern about teaching history. It is a direct challenge to the BLM movement, and the historians and writers of the 1619 Project, to maintain a conservative vision of American capitalism and deny the racism that underpins US institutions. Cotton’s push to influence school curricula undermines any examination of America’s history as a white racist edifice.

Was not the 1776 American revolution about liberty and equality for all? The founding fathers, who called slavery a ‘necessary evil’, sidestepped the hypocrisy at the heart of the Declaration of Independence – liberty and equality applied only to the white race. Postponing any solution of the glaring racial disparities of the new nation, it took the US Civil War and the Emancipation proclamation to finally abolish slavery.

The abolition of slavery, while a monumental and historic achievement, did not resolve racial injustices. The slave-owning Confederacy was defeated, but white nationalism was not – it adapted to the new conditions by implementing economic and political measures to fight a rearguard action against the newly-freed African American community. The mythical ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy was invoked as a way to disenfranchise and marginalise the black working class.

From education to housing, business and law enforcement, health care to politics, black Americans have faced a diverse set of measures and tactics which have as their unifying goal the enforcement of racial disparities. This is not a historical anomaly, or a thing of the past. Unemployment, poverty, and the racial wealth gap are issues that disproportionately affect African Americans today.

The current pandemic has shone a light on the existing racial disparities in health care. To be sure, the Covid-19 outbreak did not create these racially differentiated outcomes, but has exacerbated them. Death rates from the coronavirus have hit black and Hispanic Americans at more lethal rates than white communities. The greater number of Covid fatalities is a reflection of the unequal health structures that predate the current outbreak.

Writing in Vox magazine, Dylan Scott notes that throughout American cities, black and Latinx communities account for a higher proportion of death rates from the Covid-19 virus. In the state of Kansas, black Americans constitute six percent of the population, yet account for 30 percent of Covid-19 fatalities. Those communities which are already marginalised have been hit hardest by the current pandemic.

The end of the civil war, and the Reconstruction period, were historical achievements. However, white vigilante violence did not end. Wherever black communities demanded inclusion as equals, they were met with racist violence, usually under the watchful supervision of the police and law enforcement authorities. The Confederate flag, and its associated ‘lost cause‘ mythology, was an instrument for re-educating subsequent generations, falsifying the white supremacist character of American history.

Surely, there is no harm in recycling the Confederate flag? Not everyone who displays that flag is a vicious white nationalist? Yes, we have all watched the Dukes of Hazzard, a light-entertainment show featuring their car, coincidentally named the ‘General Lee’ with the Confederate flag emblazoned on the roof. Just ‘good old boys’, as the opening song suggested, Bo and Luke Duke were a pair of cheerful, happy-go-lucky rebels, defying comically incompetent authorities.

The Confederate flag has been sanitised, its racist undertones modified and made into a symbol of good-natured, moderated ‘rebellion’. Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit amplified these kinds of themes, a Southern maverick just trying to live his life unencumbered by federal authorities. Harmless fun…perhaps. However much the Confederacy is recycled as ‘Southern pride’, it cannot be dissociated from its racist and treasonous secessionist legacy.

When the late John Lewis, veteran civil rights leader, participated in the 1965 march across Edmund Pettus Bridge, his skull was fractured as the 600 marchers were attacked by troopers with clubs, attack dogs and tear gas. Lewis recovered and returned to the civil rights struggle.

The ideology of the Alabama police and state troopers is being kept alive today by Tom Cotton, Trump, and their supporters. The 1619 Project raises a badly needed national conversation about the inbuilt white racism which underpins the structural economic inequalities of American capitalism until today.

The refugee turned celebrity-dissident, Natan Sharansky, and re-reading the Exodus novel

Natan Sharansky, right wing Israeli politician and former Soviet dissident, was awarded the 2020 Genesis prize in Israel. A prestigious award, it is given to prominent personalities for their promotion of human rights. Sharansky, born in what is now the Ukraine, gained international fame and recognition as a courageous human rights and democracy advocate in the 1970s and 80s. A famed prisoner of conscience, his ostensible lifelong advocacy of human rights does not extend to the Palestinians.

Let’s unpack this subject.

Sharansky, a maths whizz and chess prodigy, became known as a refusenik – a description given to Soviet Jews denied permission to emigrate to Israel. Imprisoned by the Soviet authorities in the early 1970s, Sharansky’s cause for freedom was taken up by numerous conservative heavyweight politicians in the United States, West Germany and other nations. Spending time in solitary confinement, Sharansky was released in 1986 as part of a prisoner exchange.

He became a celebrity dissident, writing books and giving lectures about the triumph of individual liberty over government tyranny. The Sharansky cause célèbre seemed to achieve vindication in the late 1980s, when former Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev permitted Soviet Jews to emigrate. Sharansky’s status as a hero of our times seemed assured.

Sharansky’s career as a political operator in Israel since the 1990s undermines his portrayal as a human rights hero. His politics is that of the ultranationalist and religious chauvinist Right, based on the large Russian Jewish constituency. Quashing any kind of compromise with the Palestinians, Sharansky has promoted the cause of ultra-rightist nationalism in Israel, and has encouraged annexationist policies in the occupied Palestinian Territories.

Sharansky, and his staunch ally Avigdor Lieberman (a similarly former Soviet Jew) have voiced hateful sentiments about the Palestinians and Arabs in general, have protested any moves by Israeli governments to withdraw from Palestinian territories, and have advocated near-genocidal policies with regard to neighbouring Arab states. For instance, Lieberman, a former settler and defence minister, suggested that Israel bomb the Aswan dam to force concessions from their Egyptian counterparts.

Sharansky has consistently and enthusiastically supported the Israeli government’s hostile and discriminatory policies towards African Jewish refugees. While Tel Aviv has presented itself as a friendly homeland for the Jewish communities in the diaspora, its mistreatment of Ethiopian and African refugees indicates otherwise. African asylum seekers, Sharansky stated, were not welcome in Israeli society, were unassimilable in his opinion, and constitute an unnecessary drain on precious financial resources.

Every person has the right to express themselves without fear of persecution, including Sharansky. If he wishes to write books and give lectures – good luck to him. During the Cold War, anti-Soviet dissidents were glorified, even though many of them had ultra-rightist and racist views.

When a person is elevated to a status of a human rights icon, upheld as a courageous advocate for democracy, we have the right to expose and denounce their hypocrisy. If Sharansky’s politics make him a solid ally of the American neoconservative Right – the politicians who advocated for war against Arab-majority nations – then Sharansky deserves condemnation for his pro-war views.

Sharansky’s contemptuous view of, and racialised hostility towards, Arabs and Palestinians in particular is not uncommon in the wider Israeli society. In fact, the heroic view of Jewish immigration to Palestine – framed as the Aliyah – has served to disguise the colonising project of Zionist ideology. That template of Jewish return to Palestine has also defined Anglo-American (and Australian) attitudes to the Palestinian question.

Leon Uris, the late Zionist writer, set the tone for Western audiences with his best-selling 1958 novel, Exodus. The latter was made into an award-winning movie in 1960. The novel sets out a fictionalised version of escaping Jewish refugees, who fight official British intransigence and indifference, to make their way to Palestine. Upheld as heroic settler-pioneers, the novel and subsequent movie have formed the basic framework through which audiences have interpreted the Israeli settler state.

It has been an exceptional work of propaganda, and it is its depiction of Arabs that most concerns us here. While the Israeli settlers are portrayed as valiant, dedicated fighters for the cause of liberation, the Arabs (if they rate a mention) are portrayed as dirty, uneducated, irrational savages. The Israelis of Uris’ imagination – generally white-skinned and blond – are resourceful in developing the land. The Arabs in contrast, are stuck in medieval ways, live in unsanitary conditions and are motivated only by an obsessive and fanatical anti-Semitism.

When the colonised people are dehumanised – the word ‘Arab’ is consistently prefaced with the adjectives ‘dirty’ or ‘smelly’ – their humanity as a people is denied. There is an abundance of Palestinian writing – novels, short stories, poetry, academic books – that articulate the experiences of dispossession and exile. Their suffering is ignored or minimised, and their works do not receive corporate or government largesse available to Sharansky.

While the Palestinians have appealed for international support from antiracist groups, such as Black Lives Matter, Sharansky has shown where his sympathies lie – with the Hong Kong ultranationalist protesters. The latter have consciously allied with far right American politicians, as well as the Trump administration, who advocate the suppression of BLM and the antiracism protests.

A commitment to human rights cannot exclude the demand for Palestinian self-determination. The hypocrisy of at the heart of Sharansky’s perspective stands exposed.