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Mon 30 November 2020
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As the US moves away and Brexit crumbles, former Prime Minister John Major has exposed the isolation and colonial nostalgia of Britain, argues Hardeep Matharu

“Complacency and nostalgia are the route to national decline,” said Sir John Major in a speech this week. In the Brexit vote, “fiction defeated fact and fostered a belief in a past that never was, whilst boosting enthusiasm for a future that may never be… If that mode of politics takes root, it will kill all respect in our system of government.”

The former Conservative Prime Minister was speaking just days after Donald Trump was voted out of the White House. His rival in the US presidential race, Joe Biden, marked the announcement of his victory with a photo of himself smiling in a baseball cap stitched with the words ‘We Just Did’. The slogan was seen as a response and riposte to Trump’s most popular brand merchandise: his ‘MAGA’ hat, proclaiming his promise to ‘Make America Great Again’.

Claims of a glorious return to a fictionalised past and the creation of a better future can be seen in both the ascendancy of Trump and the Brexit vote in the UK. The appetite for messages with connotations to a lost greatness – the need to Make America Great Again and to Take Back Control – has had far-reaching consequences for both countries. 

But, while the US has decided to turn its back on Trump, although not decisively repudiating his toxic brand of authoritarian populism, Britain under Boris Johnson seems to be sailing ever more into winds swirling with dreams of a mythologised past; a new and mighty ‘Global Britain’; a return to an imperial state – without an empire.

Led by an Etonian ruling class who have shown that they will answer to nobody, Brexit has been portrayed by our leadership as signifying Britain’s return to the world stage, free of the shackles of the European Union. Not only does this display a ridiculous historical myopia and expose an unresolved identity crisis, it is a deeply flawed narrative.

“The prospect of Britain retaining its status as the leading global power in the face of the defeat of its empire was presented by British politicians in 1961 as a major reason in favour of joining the European Economic Community,” the academic Dr Nadine El-Enany has observed. “Britain’s profound colonial amnesia and imperial ambition now see it making a drastic manoeuvre away from the EU.”

Historian and Yale professor Timothy Snyder has said that “Brexiteers are right that Brexit would bring back Empire. This time, though, England would be the colonised, not the coloniser”.

In both Brexit and Trump’s MAGA, he sees projects embodying a “politics of eternity” – a grand narrative about what is possible placing “one nation at the centre of a cyclical story”. Vladimir Putin’s Russia, with its mystic tales of historic victimhood and suffering, is a prime example.

“Eternity politicians leap from one moment to another, over decades or centuries, to build a myth of innocence and danger,” he has noted. “They imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realise in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama.”

Both MAGA and the Vote Leave campaign’s Take Back Control advocated returning to a successful past snatched away; offering recognition and meaning for their supporters but no real practical solutions. But practical solutions are not the point.

For Snyder, such projects also tend to be ‘sadopopulist’ in their nature – premised on the concept that people are willing to undergo pain in order to feel better about themselves and their place in the world. No matter if Trump and Brexit don’t actually improve the lives of those who voted for them, their deliverance takes the form of a psychic ‘winning’ through which people feel better off because scapegoated others are to be made worse off. While proclaiming to empower, such projects cloak a politics of destruction and division. 

In the case of Brexit, the ‘others’ were European immigrants. With MAGA, it was Mexicans crossing the border, liberals and people of colour. While Trump’s ‘America First’ policy was seen as an isolationist approach to foreign affairs, its historical significance was not lost on those who recognised the slogan as a nod to the America First Committee – a pressure group set up to campaign against the US entering the Second World War with anti-Semitic and pro-fascist leanings.

While the US under Biden is likely to return to its more traditional, dominant role on the global stage, positioning itself once again as the ‘world’s policeman’, Sir John Major bluntly highlighted this week how far in the opposite direction Britain is going – despite its Government’s own rhetoric.

“We are no longer a great power,” he told London’s Middle Temple. “We will never be so again. In a world of nearly eight billion people, well under 1% are British. We are a top second-rank power.”

He said “our hefty international influence rested on our history and reputation, buttressed by our membership of the EU and our close alliance with the US. Suddenly, we are no longer an irreplaceable bridge between Europe and America. We are now less relevant to them both”.

Brexit is a “bitterly divisive policy” that “uncorked a populism that may be difficult to quell”, he added, while the EU Referendum debate showed how “emotion overcame reality”.

Brexit, however, while the key driver, is not the only outward example of Britain’s return to its old imperial ways.


Race & Colonial Mindsets

Ahead of the US election, reports surfaced that Joe Biden – who served as Barack Obama’s Vice President – would be frosty towards Boris Johnson if he won, given comments the Prime Minister had made about the United States’ first African-American President. 

In the run-up to the 2016 EU Referendum, and following an intervention on the vote by Obama, Johnson wrote in the Sun about the removal of a bust of Sir Winston Churchill from the Oval Office when Obama became President. “Some said it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire – of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender,” he said. The bust had been loaned to Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, by the UK Government in 2001 – a loan which ended as Obama arrived in the White House.

But it wasn’t the first time that the now Prime Minister has exposed his imperial deference and racialised colonial thinking in relation to Africa. In 2002, writing about a trip by then Prime Minister Tony Blair to the continent for the Telegraph, Johnson commented “what a relief it must be for Blair to get out of England. It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies” who he described as having “watermelon smiles”. 

In the same year, writing in the Spectator magazine as editor, Johnson said of Africa: “The continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”


Law & Justice: A Double Standard

Those arguing for a ‘balance sheet approach’ to Empire – in which the ‘good’ is weighed against the ‘bad’ – often point to Britain’s gift of the rule of law, democracy and its judicial system to its colonies. What is often neglected in this argument is how these were often undermined by the British who applied double standards to themselves. 

Shashi Tharoor, in his book Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, argues that the establishment of law and order in India was used as a tool of colonial power, rather than as a positive institutional development for the country. “The colonial ‘rule of law’ generally worked in favour of white settlers, elites and men,” he notes. “Racial discrimination was legal”.

Even as Britain continues to laud itself as a leader of liberal democracy and the rule of law, a minister stood up recently in the ‘mother of Parliaments’ and admitted that the Government’s changes to customs rules for Northern Ireland would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”. The provisions for the changes in the legislation in question, the Internal Market Bill, were voted down this week by the House of Lords, but the Government released a swift statement making it clear that it would be reinstating the parts struck out when the bill returns to the House of Commons.

In his speech, Sir John Major said that the bill is “unprecedented in all our history” and “has damaged our reputation around the world… Lawyers everywhere are incredulous that the UK – the ‘cradle of the rule of law’ – could give themselves the power to break the law”.

The vote on the bill by the Lords came in the same week as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, in an interview on the US election, refused to answer a question on whether he believed that all votes should be counted in a democratic election. Then again, it was his government which, a year before, had unlawfully prorogued the UK’s Parliament in an unconstitutional attempt by Boris Johnson to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s plans for Brexit. 

Meanwhile, the implications for democratic accountability of Dominic Cummings remaining in position, despite his lockdown trips to Durham, have set a new benchmark for impunity. Ministers, selected for loyalty rather than competence, enjoy a sense of untouchability, empowered by the knowledge that the public – colonised subjects as they are – will have to shut up and accept that Cummings drove to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight and that there will be no consequences. 


Exceptionalism

Cummings’ case fell into an exception, claimed the Prime Minister at the time. But then English exceptionalism has not lain dormant in the Government’s approach to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

Still discussing whether masks should be worn in public months after many places in Europe had made them mandatory, Johnson also claimed that countries such as Germany and Italy didn’t have lower COVID-19 rates because of effective test and trace systems compared to Britain – but because Brits are too “freedom-loving”.

“There is an important difference between our country and many other countries around the world and that is our country is a freedom-loving country and if you look at the history of this country over the last 300 years virtually every advance, from free speech to democracy, has come from this country and it is very difficult to ask the British population, uniformly, to obey guidelines in the way that is necessary,” Johnson declared in Parliament in September.

The casual ease mixed with a headmasterly tone of the Government’s communications around the crisis have also been striking. 

When the Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock hasn’t been dodging basic questions with his patronising statements, Dominic Raab has dismissed any suggestions of accountability with his matter-of-fact manner. One memorable example from the Downing Street Briefings came in April, when he was asked whether he had read the 2016 Exercise Cygnus report into the UK’s latest rehearsal for a pandemic. “It’s not something that immediately springs to mind,” he responded. So brutal. So effortless. It beggars belief.


Money, Control, Nabobs

Other key problems with the Government’s COVID-19 response have also highlighted its imperial leanings. 

The United Kingdom, a mini Empire ruled over by Westminster, is again teetering, with different responses by the devolved administrations highlighting the UK Government’s inadequacies.

A centralised grip on testing and reliance on outsourcing to private companies – with questionable experience and ties to the Government – has left the regions of England unable to provide adequate responses through local public health teams on the ground. 

The great procurement scandal, over which no transparency has so far emerged on the awarding of strange contracts for millions of pounds without competition, merely points to the commercial imperative of enrichment which was always at the heart of the British colonial project. Indeed, the British Raj in India emerged from the dealings of the East India Company, which brought huge wealth into the City of London and rural England through English nabobs.

What else did the East India Company provide to its members if not jobs for the boys?


‘Divide Et Impera’

While the Coronavirus crisis has continued, so have the ‘culture wars’ – which the Government is happy to lead and amplify. At the heart of them, sits the old colonial ‘divide and rule’. 

“Classifications… served the interests of the colonisers by providing them with a tool to create perceptions of difference between groups to prevent unity amongst them, and justifying British overlordship – which alone could be seen as transcending these differences,” Shashi Tharoor observes in Inglorious Empire.

A recent example of this was the Government’s emphasis that its Race Disparity Unit – set up following this summer’s Black Lives Matters protests – would also be focusing on the under-achievement of white working-class boys. While such a move is inclusive, it also alludes to the notion that the interests of the ‘white working-class’ are in opposition to ‘black and ethnic minority people’ – missing the significance of the sizable proportion of black and ethnic minority people who are also working-class.

Last month, the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch said that “critical race theory” – an American academic movement – had become a “dangerous trend in race relations” in the UK, which is “an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression”. 

Framing this issue as part of a ‘one group’s gain is another’s loss’ narrative speaks to the “classification” Tharoor highlights.

Responding to calls to make the National Curriculum more diverse, Badenoch also said that this didn’t need to happen as it is not “colonised”. The Government sees fit to dismiss as ‘woke’ anyone advocating for the British Empire to be taught prominently to school children – an exercise which should include everything from the Punjabis killed in India’s Amritsar Massacre in 1919 to the vulnerable white children who were shipped illegally from towns in the UK to colonies such as Australia, where they suffered mistreatment and abuse, by the British Government as recently as 1970.

As Professor Corinne Fowler, of the University of Leicester and leader of the Colonial Countryside project, told me recently following a backlash after the National Trust published a report highlighting which of its buildings have historic links to colonialism and slavery: “One of the true legacies of colonialism is the desire to shut down the debate.”


Reckoning

If the country wants to become ‘Global Britain’, Sir John Major said this week, it “must reject the narrow nationalism that some have imported into our politics” and “put aside the notion of ‘British exceptionalism’. It is a fantasy baked into the minds of those who do not know how the world has changed”.

Yet, a narrow nationalism and British exceptionalism seems a key part of Boris Johnson’s vision for its future. Under him, the Government is increasingly run like an imperial state. When will Britain accept that those days are long gone and confront itself?


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