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Empire en vogue

Nadine El-Enany examines the imperial pretensions of Britain's post-Brexit foreign affairs and trade strategy

June 24, 2017
7 min read

Recent policy suggests that the British government wishes to re-build economic ties with Commonwealth countries and other former colonies in lieu of its fast-deteriorating relationship with its European neighbours. This is an ironic turn of events considering the historical context of Britain’s entry to the EU in 1973.

EU membership followed decades of post-war decline and ensuing indecisiveness about whether Britain should jettison its economic dependence on ailing Commonwealth markets, and with it any prospect of a lasting imperial role for Britain, in favour of joining the EU.

Imperial nostalgia has long fed Britain’s extreme discomfort with its place as, formally, an equal alongside other EU Member States, rather than first among equals, as was its pride of place in the Commonwealth.  

Ministers have shown no hesitation in jet-setting off to ‘cosy up’, in the words of a number of media commentators, to various authoritarian leaders in a bid to establish new trade deals, despite the British government’s claim to be a global leader on human rights.

Liam Fox MP, for example, was lambasted for declaring that Britain and the Philippines have a ‘well-established and strong relationship built on a foundation of shared values and shared interests’, despite Philippines President, Rodrigo Duterte, likening himself to Hitler and saying he wants to kill three million of his own citizens.

There is of course nothing new about Britain fostering economic ties with countries with heinous human rights records. But what is more disconcerting than the questionable economic rationale and the hypocrisy behind this new strategy is that Whitehall officials have described it as ‘Empire 2.0’, like the latest must-have product to emerge from Silicon Valley.

Definitionally, 2.0 is ‘used to denote a superior or more advanced version of an original concept, product [or] service’ indicating the commodification of colonial exploit.

Whether or not this branding is cynical, there is no doubt that colonialism is in vogue.

Colonialism – the occupation of territory, the theft of land and resources, the murder, enslavement and subjugation of peoples as part of a system built on ideas of racial superiority – has not only become palatable, but is fashionable, an exploit to be proud of the world over.

It matters not that colonialism as experienced by the colonised resulted in mass murder, starvation, torture, dispossession, the effects of which continue to torment and suspend life and progress for peoples across the world.

Shashi Tharoor has argued that India’s ‘several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, ‘is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities… pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity’ and that were it not for its resources having ‘been drained away by the British’, ‘there is no earthly reason’ why this would not be the India of today.

For a time, post-colonial and critical race activists and scholars worried that ignorance about the true horrors of colonialism meant that legacies of racism and dispossession would remain unacknowledged, apologies would not be made, reparations would not be paid.

We now find ourselves contending with an unbridled, unashamed, branded form of colonialism, a trend that has long-brewed unchecked and infused British popular culture and culinary tastes.

Liam Fox MP can tweet that ‘The United Kingdom, is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history’, and then be appointed Secretary of State for International Trade.

The fact that 20th century British colonialism brought about the deaths of millions of people is apparently irrelevant.

Theresa May has said we should celebrate the Balfour Declaration with ‘pride’, the document which initiated a policy of British support for Israel to the detriment of the occupied Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza and five million Palestinian refugees.

Israel, in its own expression of ‘unapologetic’ colonisation has just approved the first illegal settlement in two decades, rendering any peace deal out of the question.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen has stated in a recent interview that ‘colonisation gave a lot’ despite the death of 1.5 million people and the torture of hundreds of thousands under France’s 132-year occupation of Algeria.

Former colonies, previously laboratories for colonial powers to hone tactics of authoritarian rule, today display unabashed pride in their own colonial exploits.

Mohamad Junaid, commenting on the Indian army’s public and gratuitous beatings, torture and humiliation of Kashmiri people, writes ‘[w]hat we now have in Kashmir is a colonialism unashamed of itself’.

Kavita Krishna has described the Modi government’s attempt to shield Indian soldiers who rape women from prosecution as ‘significant at a time when the [BJP] is trying to create a climate where even to suggest that armed forces personnel can rape results in being branded “anti-national”.’

Shashi Tharoor has sought to reveal the origins of the post-independence violent conflict that continues to plague India – a racism that British colonialism has planted the world over – writing, ‘The creation and perpetuation of Hindu-Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy’.

In 1857, he continues, ’the sight of Hindu and Muslim soldiers rebelling together, willing to pledge joint allegiance to the enfeebled Mughal monarch, alarmed the British, who concluded that pitting the two groups against one another was the most effective way to ensure the unchallenged continuance of empire” – divide and rule.

Through a system of rigid classification of formerly undefined distinctions between Hindus and Muslims, the stage was set ‘for the violent “shambles of that original Brexit” — the departure of the British from India’.

Britain’s colonial legacy should elicit something other than pride and nostalgia. It should urge the establishment of a system for the payment of reparations to colonised nations. It should prompt the education of children about the true horrors of empire, without which there will be no apologies or reparations.

It should induce a period of deep reflection on the legacy of racism the British Empire sowed in Britain and in other parts of the world and should activate the study of the British institutions and structures that enabled the country’s leaders to preside over the mass murder, torture, enslavement and dispossession of people the world over.

Perhaps only then, once colonialism is acknowledged as the system of racist and violent exploitation that it is, will it cease to be a brand that sells this dangerous nostalgia.

Dr Nadine El-Enany is Senior Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck University of London.

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