In her novel Beloved, through its examination of America’s violent and brutal history of chattel slavery, Toni Morrison warns against the forgetting of painful pasts. If a society is to ‘come to terms with its own raced history’, painful memories must be ‘“re-membered”… [or] they will haunt the social imagination and disrupt the present’. Catherine Hall, writing almost 20 years ago, warned European societies against discarding ‘uncomfortable memories of colonialism’, and emphasised the ‘need to do some “memory work” on the legacy of Empire’. Britain’s drastic manoeuvre away from the EU is intricately connected to its imperial history, one that it has long refused to confront and acknowledge for the brutal legacy that it is. Britain’s unaddressed and unredressed colonial past haunted the recent EU referendum and prophesied its outcome, writes Nadine El-Enany.

Recent policy soundings suggest that the British government wishes to strengthen economic ties with Commonwealth countries 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 into the EU in 1973. Its membership followed decades of post-war decline and ensuing indecisiveness about whether to 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 European Economic Community (EEC). Britain’s imperial nostalgia has long fed its extreme discomfort at 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. The decision to join the EEC coincided with the closure of Britain’s borders to people from its former colonies. The explicit target of these controls was people racialised as non-white. Post-war immigration control was intricately connected to the ebb and flow of Britain’s imperial ambitions and attachments. The British Nationality Act 1948 had rolled out British citizenship to encapsulate Britons together with all nationals of independent Commonwealth countries and those of British colonies – a status which included a right to enter and remain in Britain. This granting of British citizenship to Commonwealth citizens was principally an attempt to hold together what remained of the British Empire. British politicians accepted migration of non-white people from the New Commonwealth countries into Britain as a trade-off, an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of maintaining the relationship between Britain and the Old (white) Dominions. Although the British Nationality Act prompted the establishment of some employment recruitment schemes targeted at New Commonwealth migrants, it is significant that post-war labour shortages were primarily addressed through the facilitation of (white) European labour.

Brexit is intricately connected to Britain’s unaddressed and unredressed imperial past

The principal beneficiaries of the British Empire’s system of citizenship were Britons, who could move and settle throughout the Commonwealth pursuant to sponsored emigration facilitated through agreements with Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada. Despite the legislators’ lack of enthusiasm for non-white immigration from the colonies, the 1948 Act’s provisions had the effect of facilitating the arrival of around 500,000 people racialised as non-white in Britain. These arrivals and those who followed were not only exercising rights granted to them under the law, but were also escaping economic hardship and an absence of employment opportunities, along with other dispossessive effects of slavery and colonialism. Post-war arrivals from Jamaica, for example, were leaving a country profoundly marked by both the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. By the time Britain colonised Jamaica in the seventeenth century, the country’s ‘indigenous peoples had already been wiped out by the Spanish, and [it] was populated mainly by enslaved Africans and white settlers’.

It was not until 1962 that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act brought all Commonwealth citizens formally under immigration control. The exceptions were the (majority white) citizens who had been born in Britain or Ireland, or who held a British or Irish passport issued by either one of these governments. The Act was designed to restrict the entry of non-white people. In the late 1960s, Britain saw an increasing number of East-African Asians enter the country, many of whom possessed a British passport issued by Kenyan authorities. This movement followed the introduction of policies discriminating against Asians in Kenya by President Kenyatta. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act further narrowed the exceptions to control. Rights of entry were limited to Commonwealth citizens born in Britain, or with at least one parent or grandparent born or naturalised in Britain. That the effect of the 1968 Act was to discriminate on racial grounds exposes the hypocrisy and conceit in the British government’s position. The Act ‘created “second-class citizens” who did not have immediate right of entry into Britain even though the only passports they had were British’. The British not only bore much of the responsibility for the divisions in Kenyan society pursuant to their colonial exploits, but also the presence of Asians in Kenya. Although Asians had lived in East Africa for centuries, the majority arrived as labourers and traders following the expansion of the British Empire over the area. In general, the Act had wide cross-party support, despite its severe consequences for Asians whose lives and futures depended on escaping persecution in Kenya.

American cartoon of John Bull (England) as an Imperial Octopus (Public Domain).

As Britain closed its doors to non-white Commonwealth migrants, it turned towards Europe in search of opportunities for economic growth – first applying to join the EEC in 1961, and ultimately becoming a member on 1 January 1973. However, Britain maintained its distance from the EU political project, in particular as far as migration control was concerned. Its obsession with its island status and the perceived advantages this brings in relation to security and border control has long plagued its relationship with the EU. While Britain grudgingly accepted the principle of free movement of EU citizens, it insisted on maintaining control of its borders wherever it could. Britain never joined Schengen, and not only continues to exercise border controls in relation to EU nationals, but also has a flexible opt-out from EU law on immigration and asylum – which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude, and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards. In view of this, Britain’s decision to depart from the EU primarily over the question of immigration and border control demands scrutiny. The Leave campaign argued that exiting the EU would allow Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’ and would ‘make Britain great again’. The referendum debate was eclipsed by the topic of migration, and not exclusively that of European citizens. The epitome of the Leave campaign’s scaremongering about migration was perhaps the moment Nigel Farage unveiled a poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan ‘Breaking Point’.

Brexit is not only an expression of nostalgia for empire, it is also the fruit of empire

The terms on which the EU referendum debate took place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire. Present in the discourse of some of those arguing for a Leave vote was a tendency to romanticise the days of the British Empire, a time when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by her racial and cultural superiority. Brexit is not only an expression of nostalgia for empire, it is also the fruit of empire. The legacies of British imperialism have never been addressed, including that of racism. British colonial rule saw the exploitation of peoples, and their subjugation on the basis of race; it was a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of colonial authorities. Imperial nostalgia is sometimes combined with ‘a reluctance to see contemporary British racism as a product of imperial and colonial power’. The prevalence of structural and institutional racism in Britain today made it fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanising rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point”. The Brexit and Trump victories have resulted in the legitimisation of racism and white supremacy to an unprecedented degree. A week prior to the referendum, pro-immigration Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered by a man who shouted ‘Britain first’ as he killed her, and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as ‘Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain’. Since the referendum, racist hate crime has increased by 16% across Britain, and peaked at a 58% rise in the week following the vote. Weeks after the referendum, Arkadiusz Jóźwik was beaten to death in Essex, having reportedly been attacked for speaking Polish in the street.

Britain’s impending departure from the EU now sees it turning once again to the Commonwealth. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage expressed a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth. Theresa May, in her speech on the government’s plans for Brexit, referred to the Commonwealth as being indicative of Britain’s ‘unique and proud global relationships’, and declared it was ‘time for Britain to get out into the world and rediscover its role as a great, global, trading nation.’ It is telling that the Old Dominions [Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada] ‘were Britain abroad, what was called – in the jingoistic heyday of imperialism – “greater Britain”’. Economic policy is being oriented towards a revival of Commonwealth ties, in a manner that patently ignores the brutal reality of the British Empire. This ignorance was aptly captured in MP and Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox’s statement last year in the run-up to the referendum that ‘The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history’. Paul Gilroy has observed that the tendency to romanticise colonial times – ‘this embarrassing sentiment’ – manifests itself today in ‘an unhealthy and destructive post-imperial hungering for renewed greatness’. The hankering after the halcyon days of empire was expressed in a tabloid headline following the referendum: ‘Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again’. This slogan, taken from Trump’s presidential election campaign, has since become popular among those who backed Brexit.

The rhetoric of ‘making Britain great again’ is entirely divorced from an understanding of British colonial history – including the country’s recent imperial exploits, which have destabilised and exploited various regions and set in motion the migration of today. In the absence of an acknowledgement of the racism, violence and brutality of British colonialism, and its ongoing dispossessing effects, imperial nostalgia can fester and work in harmful ways. Paul Gilroy notes that ‘[t]he appeal of being great again was central to Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, particularly after her South Atlantic triumph, but it did not vanish with her. It has endured and mutated and emerged again as one significant element that propelled a largely reluctant country to war against Iraq in 2003’. The ‘desire’ for ‘renewed greatness’ thus ‘feeds Britain’s vicarious investments in US preeminence’, the calamitous result of which was the violent and premature deaths of nearly half a million Iraqis. Britain’s commitment to its close relationship with the US has gained new vigour in the wake of the vote to leave the EU. British Prime Minister Theresa May, wary of the notion that Britain might have set itself adrift through its vote to leave the EU, isolating itself from centres of global power, is working to ensure that post-Brexit Britain is firmly aligned with the new Trump administration.[38] Britain’s rose-tinted view of its imperial history, and its refusal to recall and confront the reality of the British Empire and its legacy of racism, haunted the EU referendum, foretelling its outcome and casting Britain into an uncertain and dangerous future.

An extended and fully footnoted version of this blog post was part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This post represents the views of the authors and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.

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

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