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Thu 21 November 2019
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A sense of British exceptionalism based on our colonial past is “alive and kicking” in hearts and minds – and we must make ourselves aware of it, warns Lord Victor Adebowale.


An unconscious “empire in the mind” led some people to vote for Brexit and is one of the most dangerous myths being propagated in Britain today, according to a member of the House of Lords.

Crossbench peer Lord Victor Adebowale said the psychological construct that Britain’s exceptional abilities can see us through cutting ties with the European Union and standing alone is “very much alive and kicking” and was used during the 2016 EU Referendum by leave campaigners to feed people’s underlying prejudices.

Speaking at the 2019 Byline Festival, he said: “There’s two kinds of Empire. There’s the real empire, which was the largest empire in the world. And it was an Empire. The notion of it being a friendly club in which everyone got on is a myth. The British subjugated a massive chunk of the world and that was a real thing.

“Then there’s the other empire which is the empire in the mind… and it was that which [the leave campaigns] plugged into. That somehow this country still has an empire, an intellectual empire, which, through some form of magic, can lead yet again to a physical empire. 

“Britain has done some amazing things, and we still do, but we’re not alone in having intellect. And we’re not alone in having creativity, and we’re not alone in influencing how people think and feel… the notion that [Brexit] just gave working-class people this sense of an empire in the mind is wrong. It gave middle-class people a sense of meaning too.”

The anger felt by some Brits towards the EU after the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s largely unsuccessful negotiation with it ahead of the referendum is “the heart of the empire in the mind”, said Lord Adebowale, as it speaks to the belief in British exceptionalism.

“Our Prime Minister goes over to Europe and it’s seen as him going over with a begging bowl to these foreigners, Johnny Foreigner,” he said. “Britain doesn’t do that. We go over there and tell Johnny Foreigner what we want and Johnny Foreigner, particularly if he’s black, says ‘yes sir’ and gets to it. That’s what we expected and, you know what, Johnny Foreigner, who went to university too and had read the same books as Cameron, turned around and said ‘no, we’ll have a conversation with you but we’re not going to do what you say’ and that [caused people to feel] irate.

“I think… some people did vote Brexit because they were outraged that our Prime Minister should be treated like a human being by Johnny Foreigner. The thing they have to unlearn is that Johnny Foreigner doesn’t think that we are the top of the tree anymore. They think that they should have a rational conversation with us and that’s not unreasonable.”

Some ethnic minorities, many of whom will have been immigrants to Britain themselves, voted to leave the EU, Lord Adebowale believes, because they do not feel any connection to Europe.

“When I look at the European Union, I don’t see no black people,” he said. “I don’t even see them carrying the bags, serving the tea, opening the door, polishing the glasses, nothing. So oddly enough a lot of black people voted leave because ‘what the hell has Europe done for us?’” 

There was also a desire for immigrants to “pull the ladder up” for others wishing to come to Britain. “If you’re poor and at the bottom of the pile and somebody tells you that half of Turkey’s going to come to your town and take what you’ve got, it’s not unreasonable,” Lord Adebowale said. “I don’t blame people for voting Brexit, I blame the liars who lied to them.” 

He said that it was not surprising to find ‘divide and rule’ tactics at work within ethnic minority communities because “that’s why empire worked”.

“The last thing you want is these people getting together and saying ‘you know what? We’re all the same’ so what you’ve got to do is make damn sure that they have myths about each other and never get to meet,” he added.

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The peer said he often tells people “if you do not understand how your country is run, your country will run you” and that this is happening because many people do not understand how the political system works, how the EU is run or Britain’s history of empire.

“The people who champion the empire in the mind… see a tsunami of change coming towards them,” he said. “They see the environmental degradation – the implications of that are political, they’re not just environmental. They see that other nations are competing with them intellectually, economically, emotionally.

“They see that their place in the world may not be theirs by right anymore, that they might have to justify it… and it’s terrifying… and so what they do is sell the notion that actually ‘it is my right’, the empire was a lovely thing and it still exists and it’s one of the most dangerous lies which is being told to all of us and we have to be really disciplined in saying the world’s changed.”

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