Backwards BritainHaving Rejected a European Future, We Can Only Hark Back to an Imperial Past
Hardeep Matharu explores how the Russian invasion of Ukraine has exposed the UK’s perilous retreat – at a time when collaboration and a new vision of itself is required to navigate the dangerous realities of a changing world
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Bridge to Nowhere
When Boris Johnson stood up at a conference in Blackpool and told his party why they understood what Ukrainians were going through, the Prime Minister was attempting another of his bridges to nowhere.
After 23 days of Russian bombs raining down on Ukraine, Johnson claimed his Tories knew that Brits had the same “instinct” as the people of Ukraine “to choose freedom every time”. He had a “famous recent example”.
“When the British people voted for Brexit in such large numbers, I don’t believe that it was because they were remotely hostile to foreigners, it’s because they wanted to be free, to do things differently for this country, to be able to run itself,” he declared.
It was another crass Johnson moment. Outrage swirled among politicians and the media; an invite to an EU summit reportedly rescinded. Ukraine’s former President, Petro Poroshenko, recorded himself asking Johnson “how many citizens of the United Kingdom died because of Brexit” and instructed him: “Please no comparison.”
But it was also a revealing moment. One which exposed an impossible problem: at a time when Vladimir Putin is bringing genocide back to Europe, when a collective stand by united Western democracies is required to fight against Russian neocolonial fascism, Johnson’s Brexit Britain is utterly at odds with our shifting world.
Inward-looking, insecure and with delusions of past grandeur, ‘Global Britain’ in a world of Putin’s aggression, a global crisis in democracy and climate catastrophe cannot reconcile its infantilised state with the demands of reality.
With no new ideas, and imagination deeply lacking, it finds itself in a pathetic and perilous position – in retreat as an apparent form of advance. The very idea of itself that Ukraine is fighting for – one of a different, brighter future – is the very idea of itself that Britain lacks, choosing instead to rest on its laurels. Johnson’s provocation suggested he too had spotted the problem.
In an audacious attempt at reconciliation, he laid out a blueprint for one of his fantastical bridges – to nowhere: that Brexit and the resistance of war-torn Ukraine embodied similar values; that the UK leaving the EU meant Brits understood Ukraine’s instincts in fighting to join it.
This is the same Brexit that painted the EU as a form of neocolonial fascism; of which Boris Johnson said “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically”; and Nigel Farage declared “June 23 is going to be Independence Day”. The same EU which Russian propaganda has characterised as a fascistic super-state.
But this is, after all, Backwards Britain.
For Timothy Snyder, Professor of History at Yale University – a specialist in the history of central and eastern Europe and the Holocaust – Brexiters were right in one respect, “that Brexit would bring back Empire”. “This time, though, England would be the colonised, not the coloniser.”
By comparing Brexit Britain and besieged Ukraine, Johnson was also distancing his country further from Putin. But parallels remain.
While Vladimir Putin’s quest to create a ‘greater Russia’ has taken a barbaric and murderous form – thankfully such brutality is nowhere in sight here in the UK – Boris Johnson’s ‘Global Britain’ is also a dangerous project rooted in an imperial past and future fantasy; of a ‘memory politics’ which obscures and justifies how neither country has a politics that can deliver tangibly for its people.
With no new vision, and colonial nostalgia the one constant, neither Britain nor Russia have reconciled with their pasts.
As Putin presides over a vastly unequal Russian kleptocracy, dominated by oligarchy and the country’s wealth looted by its leaders; Johnson’s Government is overseeing an increasingly captured state and a governing party dominated by wealth, a spiralling cost of living crisis, worsening inequality and the biggest drop in living standards in generations.
To distract from their economic failures and lack of policy, both men have whipped up divisive ‘culture wars’ – advancing ‘wedge issues’, targeting minorities and cracking down on those they believe question their mythic narratives. Putin’s fury about the West ‘cancelling’ author JK Rowling, because she “fell out of favour with fans of so-called gender freedoms”, came in the same week as Johnson kicked off another Conservative bash by saying “good evening ladies and gentleman. Or, as Keir Starmer would put it, people who are assigned female or male at birth”.
These manufactured conflicts around ‘wokeness’ – of which the majority of the public in Britain have been shown to know little – are nothing compared to the actual conflicts (living costs, healthcare and crime to name a few) that people must contend with in their daily lives, with little support from politicians such as Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, Brexit – the ‘anti-establishment’ revolution which made the Prime Minister its iconic leader – has left Britain permanently on the outside looking in; encouraged by the Russian President, who saw the UK’s farewell to the EU as the first step in his “information blitzkrieg” in destabilising the West.
Both Putin and Johnson have backed their countries into a corner. In this era-defining moment, their myths are now on a collision course with the reality they seek desperately to avoid.
Brushed Under the Carpet
Britain’s willingness to deny and distort its history, combined with its exceptionalism – vaccines, refugee schemes and the economy are all on a long list of “world-beating” achievements – has birthed a nation unable to mature or grow into a true sense of itself. The present feels hollow, perhaps best exemplified by the hollow men now at Britannia’s helm.
Myth is the country’s fail-safe, when a vision of itself rooted in reality is necessary.
That Britain has no outward-looking ideas of what is possible is not only true of its current leadership under Johnson, but also of its opposition politics where no defining story of the future is being advanced. In the land ideas vacate, myths take root and concerns of emotion and identity are encouraged to bloom.
Tony Blair recently spoke of “the “two competing ideas” Britain has about itself, and how an “older narrative has reasserted itself” in recent years.
“Britain finds it very difficult to tell a story about itself, because there is a narrative that supposes our best days are behind us, and that’s caught up with what happened in the Second World War: Churchill defeated Nazism, Britain’s finest hour,” he told the New Statesman. “My idea was to take what I think are the enduring best qualities of Britain – open-mindedness, tolerance, innovation – and try to give Britain a different narrative that would allow it to think its best days are ahead of it. I think, for a time, that succeeded… We quite deliberately put Britain forward as a multicultural, tolerant society, looking to the future.”
The London Olympics in 2012 seemed to be the culmination of this confident, forward-looking Britain – with its scientific innovation, diversity, Shakespeare and the NHS all at the forefront in its celebratory opening ceremony. Alongside its ‘Cool Britannia’ ethos, New Labour also positioned Britain as a “bridge” between Europe and America, maintaining strong relationships with both. The limits of this became apparent in Blair’s controversial decision to follow the US into Iraq – a move which has defined, and eclipsed, the achievements of his party’s era in power.
But even this reinvention felt like an attempt to brush the “older narrative” under the carpet. Reforms to the state, including the Union, were partial and measures to tackle issues such as institutional racism incomplete. The desire to hark back to the past and the legacy of Britain’s imperial history were not examined, in and of themselves.
And so the older narrative remained brushed under the carpet, ready for a band of hollow men keen to pull the rug from under us all.
A Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion… I was brought up with those values and values are not mythsGina Miller
Picture of the Past
Free from the shackles of the EU, Britain would be free to build partnerships and trade with the rest of the world, the Brexiters told us. It would stand alone and still be a leader on the world stage.
The promised trade deals have not materialised, war in Ukraine has highlighted the difficulties of Britain’s continued friction with Europe, and the UK’s response to both Afghan and Ukrainian refugees has underlined its closedness.
But ‘Global Britain standing alone once more’ was always a myth. This country was victorious in two world wars it could not have fought without the help of its soldiers from across the Empire. That their subjugation continued after 1945, and little recognition was made of the colonies’ contribution to the conflicts, led to the drive for independence in Britain’s ‘jewel in the crown’ – India – and then elsewhere.
These are inconvenient truths not found in Britain’s grand narratives dominated by Blitz spirit, Rule, Britannia! and Churchill.
The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, showed the power of these historical touch-points in his address to the UK Parliament, when he told MPs he was fighting the Russian invasion in “just the same way you once didn’t want to lose your country when the Nazis started to fight your country and you had to fight for Britain”. Borrowing from Britain’s favourite wartime Prime Minister, he added: “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”
It’s not that we shouldn’t feel pride in this history – but this pride alone cannot be the basis for a thriving, modern Britain. To move forward, a more accurate and rounded version of our past must be engaged with, in which unpalatable facts can provide perspective and greater, messy truths.
In 1946, when he said “we must build a kind of United States of Europe”, Churchill was one of the first to express his commitment to the idea of European integration in this way. But from Boris Johnson’s cosplaying of his hero, the man on the street could be forgiven for thinking that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister was a passionate Eurosceptic.
Our British history is a selective history, intolerant of contradictions and complexity. Yet, its problematic nature is not discussed.
For German journalist Annette Dittert, the Russian invasion shows that – despite the praise it has received for its practical support of Ukraine, which has been acknowledged publicly by President Zelensky himself – Britain “cannot afford to see the EU as a failing entity” any longer, and that its inability to engage with its past is part of its present difficulties.
Speaking on Friday Night With Byline Times, she said this “has a lot to do with Brexit”.
“If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily anymore, and you understand that cooperation is a real good, cooperation with other countries, with other people is the basis of democracy. I think that somehow that escaped some people in this country,” she said.
“That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand reality. And the reality is we have to engage with each other. Britain has to start to operate with the EU as a political entity.”
Britain has arguably not experienced any event which has forced such self-reflection – the loss of the Empire wasn’t seen as a revolution or a defeat. Accompanying this complacency are its other trappings.
One look at Prince William and Kate in their ceremonial dress atop a Land Rover surveying troops in Jamaica last month was enough to transport anyone back to the 1950s; into a bygone era of patronising recognition of native subservience and the white man’s burden being discharged in all its finery. If ever there was an image that conveyed Britain’s lack of imagination and lack of ideas, it was this photo of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge on their recent tour of the Caribbean – a trip beset with controversy over its colonial optics and calls to remove the Queen as head of state by those in Belize, Jamaica and the Bahamas.
While Prince William expressed his “profound sorrow” about slavery, he did not follow in the footsteps of Belgium’s King Philippe who in 2020 apologised for his ancestor King Leopold II’s brutal abuse of colonial subjects in the now Democratic Republic of Congo.
This reluctance to hold a mirror up to its past is a position also pursued by Britain’s current Government, which characterises any meaningful attempt to present a fuller account as ‘rewriting history’ and the questioning of complex historical figures ‘cancel culture’.
As Corinne Fowler, the historian hounded for helping the National Trust document which of its properties has links to colonialism, told me: “The near hysterical response on most occasions when researchers have simply tried to provide new information about specific ways in which heritage sites relate to the British Empire is worrying.”
But then “part of the colonial legacy,” she added, “is a resistance to having an honest discussion which is evidence-based about what our collective past looks like.”
Mysticism & Memory Politics
Discussing the problem of disinformation, “Russia is a very emotional country”, a former Cabinet minister told me recently. They were speaking about a trip to the country shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when a Russian guide said she “can’t believe” what was being said of Stalin’s atrocities.
Timothy Snyder’s analysis of Russia under Putin is that it is stuck in a ‘politics of eternity’ with the “replacement of history with myth”.
Both Brexit and Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ movement are examples of this – of a grand narrative placing “one nation at the centre of a cyclical story”. Both advocated a return to a successful past snatched away; offering recognition and meaning but no practical solutions.
According to Snyder, such projects are also ‘sadopopulist’ – premised on the idea that people are willing to undergo pain in order to feel better about themselves. No matter that Trump and a hard Brexit don’t actually improve their lives, deliverance takes the form of a psychic ‘winning’ through which people feel better off because scapegoated others are to be made worse off.
“Eternity politicians imagine cycles of threat in the past, creating an imagined pattern that they realise in the present by producing artificial crises and daily drama,” Snyder observes. Russia, with its mystic tales of victimhood and suffering, is a prime example.
Speaking a fews days into the current Russian invasion, Snyder said that “the basic question in the 20th and now 21st Centuries is: what comes after empire?” In Europe, the answer has been a “process of integration with other post-imperial states”, through the EU. For Russia, the answer is “more empire – it’s an imperial war”.
In his seminal book on Ukraine, The Road to Unfreedom, the historian writes that Ukraine is “the axis between the new Europe of integration and the old Europe of empire”.
“The politics of integration were fundamentally different from the politics of empire,” he says. “Russia was the first European post-imperial power not to see the EU as a safe landing for itself.” Britain is now another.
At the heart of Putin’s 22-year rule has been an increasing reliance on ‘memory politics’. Just days before he sent troops into Ukraine in February, Putin lamented Russia’s loss of the “territory of the former Russian empire”.
His justification for the invasion, to ‘deNazify’ Ukraine, is premised on a baseless distortion of the past – which has also seen Stalin’s collaboration with Hitler in partitioning and invading Poland during the Second World War airbrushed out of official narratives. Ukraine has no significant presence of far-right elements and President Volodymr Zelensky is himself Jewish – his family members having been killed during the Holocaust.
As far back as 2011, academic Nikolay Koposov observed: “It is difficult to condemn Stalinism and to keep insisting on the Stalinist conception of history at the same time.”
“The new mythology of the war emphasises the unity of the people and the state, not the state’s violence against the people,” he wrote. “It stresses the peaceful character of the Soviet foreign policy and defends the memory of the state against charges such as complicity in initiating the war, the violence carried out by the Red Army, and its seizure of independent states.”
The source of Putinism’s legitimacy “lay not in future utopias but in past victories,” he added.
The war crimes being carried out by Russian troops to eradicate the Ukrainian people in the name of an (old and new) Eurasian empire, has brought horrors to Europe we all hoped lay long in the past. But the negation of truth always leads to dark consequences.
Here in Britain, we take our democracy for granted, with its human rights and rule of law within a rules-based international order. But, in our own ways, we negate the truth. This unwillingness to understand ourselves sets us on a dangerous path of a wider denialism of our own.
If you honestly engage with your own history – which Germany had to do because it was horrific – if you do that seriously, I think you do not fall for national myths so easily… That’s a big danger for a nation, if you don’t look into your past… you fail to understand realityAnnette Dittert
Working Off the Past
Britain and Russia are not alone in their memory politics. From Erdogan’s Turkey, where citizens acknowledging the Armenian Genocide have been prosecuted; to Narendra Modi’s India, in which the BJP leadership persecutes Muslims to advance its claims of a ‘Hindu civilisational destiny’ of the world’s largest democracy, countries with populist ‘strongmen’ everywhere are looking to stay wilfully ignorant of their pasts.
Germany, as Annette Dittert pointed out, is a rare exception.
Its decision to increase defence investment in the wake of war in Ukraine represents a paradigm shift for the country, since one of the legacies of confronting its past atrocities was its commitment to not build up military force again. Its departure from this is reflective of its pragmatism – the reality of Vladimir Putin’s murderous intent in the heart of Europe.
“I remember very well sitting in endless school days analysing Hitler’s speeches and having to write essays about why there should never be a war coming from German territory ever again,” Dittert told me on Friday Night With Byline Times.
Like many visiting Berlin, I was struck by the Stolpersteine I encountered under my feet – small plaques (or ‘stumbling stones’) commemorating victims of the Nazis, each starting with “here lived”. More than 75,000 of them are dotted around German towns and cities.
The number of different types of memorials in the capital, and the depth of Berlin’s cultural offerings and museums allowing people to access different elements of the country’s history, I found remarkable. Having touched remnants of the Berlin Wall, I looked into the faces of those killed trying to cross it; before learning about the families torn apart through state-sponsored deception at the original secret police headquarters, now the Stasi Museum. And just a short stroll away from the city’s famous Brandenburg Gate sits the ‘Europa Experience’, billed as a multimedia journey through Europe and the EU.
Germany provides an example of how a country can integrate its history in order to look to the future.
DeNazification didn’t start immediately after the Second World War, when many who had supported Hitler’s regime were still living in German society. But following the high profile trials of notorious Nazi figures such as Adolf Eichmann, things began to change.
From the 1960s, a grassroots movement, Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung – “working off the past” – started to take shape, to examine and learn to live with Germany’s dark history. The Stolpersteine, for instance, are researched and applied for by local residents. Denying the Holocaust is illegal in Germany, and in many areas – from education to those working in public services – Germans are made to engage with, and learn from, the crimes of the Nazis.
While this hasn’t eradicated all far-right feeling still found in small pockets, ‘working off the past’ is not seen as a one-off exercise, but a process – one which is still ongoing.
Sign of the Times
The British Empire is still not taught comprehensively in our schools, and even mentioning it continues to be met with awkward silence (as someone who grew up with a father who was born and brought up under the Empire in Kenya and a mother from India, I find these silences bizarre but telling).
From the perplexity at Priti Patel’s hardline approach to immigrants as the granddaughter of refugees, to the former Surrey Police and Crime Commissioner who told me Sir William Macpherson was suffering from “post-colonial guilt” when he conducted his 1999 inquiry into Stephen Lawrence’s murder, there is a distinct lack of interest in our collective amnesia and its consequences.
But perhaps a reckoning is approaching.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not only woken the West up to the need for unity in the defence of democracy, it has exposed Britain’s default, out-of-touch, ‘small island’ mentality – one that has come to particular prominence in the Brexit years.
Even the Queen, now in the twilight of her reign, can surely only hold the royal Firm together in its current form for so long. A uniquely respected figure – a bridge between Britain’s past and present – will the country feel so fondly towards those who succeed her? Or will it be a chance for that much needed self-reflection and real reinvention? A moment to consider the role of monarchy and the notions of deference and supremacy that Britain still willingly wraps itself in?
As former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall has observed in these pages, “is it not time to set the Royal Family free from their gilded cages and in the process free ourselves from the hierarchical mentality which accompanies royalty?” In a rare recognition, Prince William signalled that times are changing in the Commonwealth in response to his much derided recent royal tour. Maybe events at home will also force the Royal Family’s hand.
But genuine reinvention requires Britain to decide on its values; the lessons from its rounded history it wishes to carry with it, and the future it envisages for the best days still ahead.
Forty years ago, a Conservative Prime Minister struggling in the polls found political capital in war. Margaret Thatcher won an overwhelming majority following the Falklands conflict, with a victory parade drawing 300,000 people to the mile-long route through central London – the first time the city had celebrated a military event since 1949. At lunch in the Guildhall afterwards, Thatcher said the British people were “proud of these heroic pages in our island story”.
Years later, she wrote that the legacy of the Falklands was that “Britain’s name meant something more than it had” and that its significance “was enormous, both for Britain’s self-confidence and for our standing in the world”.
Though four decades have passed, Thatcher’s imperial spirit is still alive today. Endorsing calls for a Margaret Thatcher Day, Conservative Party Chairman Oliver Dowden recently tweeted that “Margaret Thatcher led the UK to victory in our defence of the Falklands” and “ended our national decline”.
While the Falklands was another harking back, Thatcher did look forward – with her, albeit divisive and at times destructive, vision of a free-market, privatised, ‘Big Bang’ Britain.
Can it now find a way to reconcile the lessons of the past with new ideas for its future; to build a more equitable country, one of genuine equality of opportunity and unafraid of looking ahead?
Speaking after a performance of Bloody Difficult Women, during its recent run at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, businesswoman Gina Miller – on whose story the play is based – told me what prompted her to take the UK Government to court over its plans to trigger Article 50 (and Brexit) without consulting Parliament: she had an idea of what Britain is which she felt was being violated by how the process was playing out.
Born and brought up in Guyana, a former British colony, she said many children of the Commonwealth feel attached to a certain notion of Britain in this way.
“We listened to the BBC World Service every night, the Queen was on the wall, my mother collected blue Wedgwood china – we literally were more British I think than the British… it’s British values that were taught to us growing up; respect and truth and honesty and doing the right thing. All those values are instilled in us and so, to me, it’s what you defend.”
Recalling her appearance on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, she said that the journalist observed off-camera – to her shock – that she and Nigel Farage were actually “really similar”.
“He said ‘you both have a very strong view of Britain – yours is different to his, but you have a very strong view of what you’re fighting for’. And I have a very strong view still of what I’m fighting for… a Britain that is about fairness and equality and has a place in the world, where it’s respected for our soft power and our humanity and for our compassion.
“I was brought up with those values and values are not myths. But the snake-oil salesmen [did sell] a myth… playing on people’s fear and anger and deep resentment.”
The biggest crisis facing Britain is the crisis of facing itself. Time is of the essence in integrating our past and looking to the future – lest we drift further, beyond a point of no return.