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‘A Disunited Kingdom? Britain is Built on Forgetting Our Imperial History’

Maintaining the illusory story of what Britain was is integral to the illusion of what Britain is – and the maintenance of political and economic hegemony, writes MP Clive Lewis

Jamaican immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush landed them at Tilbury. Photo: PA/Alamy

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Of the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we tell each other, and the stories the powerful and the political class tell the rest of us, the last one is of particular interest to me. Why?

We know those who control the past control the present. Therefore, the stories we tell ourselves about our past will determine the parameters of what today is considered politically possible and what’s ruled out. And it partly explains, for example, why England can have Brexit but Scotland can’t have independence.

It’s clearly powerful.

Why else do you think the Faragist-right of this country – the intellectual inheritors of Enoch Powell – are so intent on waging and winning their ‘history wars’. It’s because they understand that maintaining the illusory story of what Britain was, is integral to the illusion of what Britain is and the maintenance of their political and economic hegemony.

I switched on BBC News earlier this year to see the Trevelyan family (British aristocrats) apologising and paying reparations to the Caribbean island of Grenada. They were doing so for their ancestors’ part in the enslavement of thousands of Africans – including some of my own ancestors, it transpires, on my father’s side.

It’s led to a podcast, Heirs of Enslavement, which charts the story of Britain’s transatlantic chattel slave trade and plantations, all the way through to today and the continued exploitation of the same people by the same banks and financial institutions that made their money from that brutal exploitation in the first place.

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The former BBC journalist Laura Trevelyan, my co-presenter, told me something which stuck in my head because its redolent of a wider truth. She explained how her family had told itself for generations that they were part of the good and the great of British history (the Irish potato famine aside). They were renowned historians, civil service reformers and even Labour Party secretaries of state. But the realisation they had enriched themselves through the longest, most brutal, and exploitative crimes against humanity ever perpetrated, from what I could discern, was like being woken up by a bucket of cold slops; a shock to the system.

But it opened eyes – including my own. It’s allowed me to see that there has been a deliberate forgetting of our history. Whether the usual sanitised story of slavery that focuses on abolition to the assertion that Empire really wasn’t that big a deal (and if it was, well, it brought the rule of law to the world).

A deliberate forgetting. But why?

To cover up a crime scene that spanned the globe and hundreds of years.

To completely disconnect those crimes – and the wealth and power they generated – and how it ended up in the hands of the wealthy, corporations and financial institutions.

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To enable the construction of a new, national post-Empire narrative of Britain.

Together, I think they help explain a big part of our democratic crisis. ‘Britain’ is a construct born of that empire. As post-war decolonisation took place, those sat in the driving seat of Empire PLC needed a new story of what Britain was.

Enoch Powell, the first parliamentarian to embrace neoliberalism – and best known for his Rivers of Blood speech – is less well known for his role in this transformation. In 1950, he exclaimed that “Britain without an empire is like a head without a body”.

By the time he wrote his 1965 book, A Nation Not Afraid, he claimed that the Empire was simply an invention that never really happened; that Britain had never set out to conquer the world and that instead it had been landed with the colonies.

Rather, Britain was a pioneering Island where the laws, constitution and systems of government had been unbroken for a millennia. Powell and others gave birth to the lie the British state was born by immaculate conception, then growing organically into the modern day construct we now see. Plucky Britain, so different from its European neighbours.

If that’s the story we tell ourselves then of course the crisis of democracy makes no sense. Its like trying to square observational data of planetary orbits, holding onto the belief the Earth is at the centre of the solar system.

Therefore, this’ forgetting’ is crucial to both the maintenance of the British state as is – the monarchy, the Union, an unwritten constitution, and even our voting system.

It covers up the origins for the gross wealth inequality within our country. Why the city of London, the banks, the financial institutions wield such wealth and power over us. Why a racialised immigration narrative is so deeply embedded into our political culture. Why human rights commitments are now under attack. Why the Union is so fragile.

Everything begins to make sense when we tell ourselves the truth of how we got here. And by doing that, we can better work out what it is we need to do to tackle the crisis of our democracy.

Clive Lewis is the Labour MP for Norwich South. This is an edited version of his speech at the ‘Break-Up of Britain? Confronting the UK’s Democratic CrisisConference in Edinburgh on 18 November 2023

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