On the afternoon following the EU referendum result, I found myself in an Oxford pub garden. Close by was a large and boisterous table of university lads celebrating what for them was a brilliant victory. There had been the odd loud outburst of patriotic feeling but the biggest cheer of the evening occurred when one shouted: “Today we’re free of the EU! Next we reconquer the Empire!”
Though it was clearly a joke, the sentiment that such a thing was desirable seemed clear. As someone who has spent the past few years studying the sobering realities of that empire, I couldn’t imagine how such a thought would arise or why the notion of “Empire” was so quickly linked to Brexit.
But these young men are not alone, recent comments from Cabinet ministers and Conservatives contain the hallmarks of imperialism. Grant Shapps wrote only a week after the Brexit vote that:
We must resolve to make ourselves the world’s greatest trading nation. As an island, we need to rediscover that swashbuckling spirit of the 19th century when we practically owned the concept of free-trade.
That phrase “swashbuckling, free-trading nation” has entered the political lexicon alongside others that have clear imperial undertones – such as “promoting British values” or being a “force for good in the world”.
New imperial dreams
Then of course we have Empire 2.0, the project to build stronger trading relations outside the EU, which has put a heavy emphasis on those countries – such as India – with which Britain has an “historic relationship”. This is a return to British trade policy prior to 1973 when it relied strongly on the Commonwealth. Joining the EEC that year was the result of Britain’s changing trade priorities and the seeking of a new way to assert British influence on global politics.
But, as most historians agree, Britain never really gave up on empire – rather it reconfigured its constitutional relationships as the global order shifted in the post-war world. The speed of the British exit from many of its former colonies from the 1940s was often propelled by a desire to retain as much good will as possible with the new independent governments – and thereby convert direct rule into an informal empire via the Commonwealth. By the 1970s, however, it was clear that this had failed.
Within the British psyche, there is also a great deal of decolonisation that hasn’t taken place. For instance, when asked in a 2014 YouGov poll, a third of respondents answered that they would like the empire back. Then there are the regular newspaper articles that hold up the successes of the Raj or the cultural products and documentaries with imperial nostalgia. British Euroscepticism has one of its major roots in EU membership being seen as an unsatisfying alternative to great power status and the empire that went with that.
Those reading about the Rhodes Must Fall campaign are likely aware that black and minority ethnic (BAME) students had a “Fanonian moment” in 2015. Faced with pervasive colonialism in the curriculum, they used the language of post-colonial writers such as Frantz Fanon to attack the way in which universities continue to frame the West as the sole producer of universal knowledge. More recently, following the release of Viceroy’s House, there were accusations that British Asian film director, Gurinder Chadha, was herself suffering from “a deeply colonised imagination”.
The continued negative effects of colonialism on former colonies and British citizens whose ancestry goes back to former colonies, may now be more familiar to the British public – but the work done by historians to uncover the deep roots of empire within British culture has had less exposure.
One way of understanding this dual significance is to look at the story of a single text. Published in 1817, James Mill’s History of British India had a profound influence. It came at a time when the ideas of the civilising mission were beginning to take hold and, rightly or wrongly, has taken on the position of a foundational text in the narrative of colonial inferiority.
Mill was certainly hostile to Indian culture and was a clear influence on Thomas Macaulay’s infamous Minute on Education from 1835, which stated that a “single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India”. Yet Mill’s goal had been the complete rebuilding of a society into a utilitarian utopia. His writing was just as scathing of the British ruling system in India at the time – which he saw as corrupt, regressive and unscientific – and an undemocratic and aristocratic Britain. Despite its radicalism, his book soon became the standard history and James Mill, and his son John Stewart, were given senior posts in the East India Company.
As a result, his thoughts on India and Britain’s imperial project were taught to generations of British colonial administrators who were sent to govern India during the Raj. A leaf through something as innocuous as the 1960s Children’s Britannica, or the 11-plus syllabus of the period, reveals that the ideas of Western superiority and the civilising mission, pioneered by Mill, were still being taught to the baby boomers. Those spearheading Brexit and Britain’s “global future”, Theresa May and David Davis, are the right age to have unknowingly internalised this education.
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, Indians take a very dim view of a British culture and diplomacy tinged with what appears to be continued imperial assumptions. Indian MP Shashi Tharoor, for example, stated recently that in India, talk of Empire 2.0 would “go down like a lead balloon”. Further, the proposition of a trade deal which excludes Indian citizens from Britain is seen as typical of colonial arrogance and double standards.
In India, Mill, the brutality of the Raj and the policies based on assumptions of British superiority are well remembered and publicly reviled. Policy makers would do well to remember that – and the painful realities of the Raj – at the stroke of the Brexit midnight.