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.

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