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How We Came to Forget: Imperial Amnesia Helped Propel Brexit – It’s Time to Set the Historical Record Straight

Hardeep Matharu explores a new National Trust project designed to shed light on the colonial roots of country houses and the need for a more honest, less mythical discussion of Britain’s past.

Sutton House. Photo: Hardeep Matharu

How We Came to ForgetImperial Amnesia Helped Propel Brexit – It’s Time to Set the Historical Record Straight

Hardeep Matharu explores a new National Trust project shedding light on the countryside’s colonial roots and why we need to have a more honest, less mythical discussion of Britain’s past

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Past Glories

Yearning for the past can be a dangerous pursuit, especially if it didn’t exist in the way we’ve been conditioned to understand it. As the country teeters on a hard Brexit cliff-edge, can the past help us?

Perhaps it depends on what version of it we’re talking about. Making what seemed like a last-ditch attempt last month to convince the country of the damage to be inflicted on the UK by its wrenching from the EU, Tony Blair spoke of the myths we comfort ourselves with in times of despair.

Brexiteers, the former Prime Minister observed, enjoyed drawing “a parallel with the Second World War, a period of our history which, rightly, make us proud. The speeches of the Brexiteers… are replete with references to this feat of glory.” However, “it casts a long shadow over the British psyche,” he added.

“It creates a longing to live the moment again, to see each new circumstance through the lens of its narrative, a life and death struggle between us and those who would harm us, where against all odds we triumph, a series of Darkest Hours from which we emerge to the sunlit uplands.”

Will we emerge this time?

Hidden Treasures, Hidden Loot

A week after Blair’s intervention, I met Dr Corinne Fowler to talk about the power of the past, the need to confront myths, and how setting the historical record straight is potentially one of the most powerful tools we have to understand how we arrived at this point and where we go next. 

An associate professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester, for the past year, she has been exploring the relevance of Britain’s collective relationship with our past through a project called Colonial Countryside, designed to present visitors to country houses owned by the National Trust with a history of these establishments through the lens of their Empire roots.

On the day we met, I accompanied Dr Fowler on a visit with schoolchildren to one such property, Sutton House, an outwardly unremarkable building two minutes’ walk away from Hackney’s high street – the oldest house in the east end of London, once owned by a founding member of the East India Company. 

For Dr Fowler, it is important that we “understand how we came to forget”. 

“One of the pretexts for Brexit was ‘well we used to run an Empire, if we can run an Empire, we can run our own business’,” she told me. “There was a lot of Empire nostalgia which is built on all kinds of myth-making. One of the things Britons generally don’t realise is how far Empire has brought us to where we are today, how far our institutions – our galleries, schools that were built with philanthropists’ money, our laws, everything – it’s all been influenced by Empire, but not in a way that is benevolent but is fundamentally, as all empires are, equally about an exercise of profit and extraction.

“If you’re going to confuse history with nation and you’re going to confuse history with PR or a kind of marketing of the country, then you’re not going to really get very close to the facts.”

Discovering that her relatives were slave plantation owners in Haiti who had used their profits to build a country house in Brittany prompted Dr Fowler to set up the Colonial Countryside project, to set the record straight on this “haven of whiteness” at the “heart of Englishness, the repository of where the nation resides in its purest form”.

“Country houses seem to be the jewel in the crown of English heritage, which in a way is an apt metaphor because there’s lots of loot in these houses,” she said. “The focus has been for heritage organisations to get people through the doors… But, increasingly, they’re very conscious of the need to tell what they call uncomfortable stories… [not] just preserve things in aspic.”

Reclaiming National Trust

At Sutton House, I met esteemed photographer Ingrid Pollard who has recorded each of the 10 visits completed by Dr Fowler with schoolchildren at different National Trust locations across the country. “You can never get away from the sense of this thing called Empire,” she told me. The problem is “the way it’s been taught”.

Known for her work exploring race and the countryside and the feelings of otherness experienced by black British people in rural areas, she said the idea was to challenge the notion that “black people are in urban areas and that’s the only place you see them”.

“I just had holidays [in the countryside] like most people but my response was different to the white people I was with and it was worth investigating,” she said. “I’m a Londoner, but I live in the whole of England so why shouldn’t I go anywhere, why shouldn’t I claim ownership of National Trust or English Heritage?”

Lacking immediate gains and catchy soundbites, politicians are not much interested in the need for an honest confrontation of our past. But, as Britain looks over the edge of the precipice, it matters – now more than ever.

“We’re happy to talk about other traumatic things like the First World War (although we don’t always talk about the Commonwealth troops),” Dr Fowler said. “So if we can talk about that trauma and the Nazi era, why are we not talking about this? It’s fundamental to understanding how we got to where we are today.”

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