Brexit Will Force Us to Face Up to the Grisly Truth About Empire

Theresa May can't get away with calling former colonies "old friends".

(Top photo: an EDL supporter – someone who presumably has great things to say about Empire. Photo by Chris Bethell)

Who are Theresa May's "old friends"? In the speech last week in which she announced Britain will be leaving the single market, the prime minister made reference to "old friends" three times when outlining her post-Brexit orientation to the world. Britain will "reach out", "build new relationships" and "reach new trade agreements" with these absent buddies when it's free from the shackles of European-wide trade agreements.

Since there hasn't been any clarity on her choice of words, we can only assume that "old friends" is a euphemism for the former the British Empire, later the Commonwealth of Nations, now simply The Commonwealth – a pointless institution headed up by the Queen that no one pays attention to, apart from athletes every four years.

These "old friends" are former colonial subjects – vast territories of the world, around 50 independent countries, that were dominated and exploited by the "great, global trading nation" that was the United Kingdom. I wonder if the hundreds of Kenyans tortured – even castrated – by the British for fighting for independence are old friends. How about the five million Indians starved to death in the Bengal Famine at Churchill's behest (an event conspicuously absent from Boris Johnson's biography of the man)?

No one talks about Empire in Britain. It's what gave this country the resources to industrialise and become the preeminent capitalist hegemon in the 18th and 19th century; it's what allowed it to establish trading routes and military bases in key strategic centres around the world; it's where Britain experimented with the use of aerial bombardment and concentration camps as a means of controlling populations well before they were used in World War Two; it's what gave the post-war Labour Party the resources to build the welfare state and, later, the labour to come and service the NHS. The Empire gave Britain its very identity, and wasn't built through the reciprocal nature of "friendship" but through a monopoly of violence established by sheer force.  

One of the many things Brexit has revealed is this unprocessed legacy of Empire. To think that Britain's dominions, many of which are economically outpacing their former master, can be referred to as "old friends" is a delusion. It wasn't just May's speech that signalled this return of the repressed. Another example was the "Britannia Rules the Waves" nostalgia of the Telegraph-led campaign to bring back the Royal Yacht. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson expressed a desire to revive the rotting corpse of Empire, too, saying, "We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny civil service… Are we really unable to do trade deals?"

Leaving the many crimes against humanity aside, the trading relationships with the Commonwealth weren't exactly those of besties. Well into the 1950s Britain used the Sterling Area – the dominions forcibly pegged to the Sterling currency – to buy stuff in the colonies for less than market value. For instance, "Colonial marketing boards" obliged West African countries to sell their palm oil to Britain for much less than they could have got selling them at the global market rate. When Harold Wilson was thinking of ways of make up for Britain's trade deficit, he pointed out that no one in the House of Commons could "deny that the answer to all our problems may be well found 200 or 1,000 feet below the soil in the Colonial areas".

Theresa May (Photo: Policy Exchange, via)

Ironically, it was Britain's decline as an Empire as those dominions secured independence that encouraged the Conservative Party and capitalist class to turn towards economic integration with Europe. But 50 years later, now that much of that same class feels stifled and neutered by Brussels, what sort of relationship with Africa – where 18 out of 53 Commonwealth countries are found – can Britain expect?

An article published on the LSE blog by academic Peg Murray-Evans makes the case that, contra to the desires of Commonwealth-fetishising Brexiteers, "there will likely be no reinvigoration of trade relations with Africa". The European Union, not Britain, is by far the largest market for African exporters, and throughout the past few decades Africa has been further integrated into free market deals with Europe that allow "unilateral duty free access to the EU market". (It's worth pointing out that others claim EU tariffs in general constitute a considerable barrier to African development.) Murray-Evans' point is that a post-Brexit Britain would basically need to go about reproducing the agreements it already has with Africa by virtue of being in the EU. Although some more ambitious and individualised trade agreements could be hashed out, this would take a lot of time, approval from the World Trade Organisation and is practically impossible given the "severe constraints on trade negotiation capacity after Brexit".

Well... if Africa, home to some of the fastest growing economies and markets in the world isn't looking good, then what about the jewel in the crown, India? The country suffered calamitous de-industrialisation under the Raj, but now under control of the right-wing BJP is fast-becoming a neoliberal paradise – surely the Indian elite would be happy to draw up deals with a "tax haven Britain"?

Again, it's unlikely. When Theresa May donned a sari and went on a trade delegation trip to India last November, Brexit put a question mark over everything. It's true that Indian companies "invest more in the UK than anywhere else in Europe", but the objective reality that underlines this relationship is, according to tycoon Lord Bilimoria, that "they see it as being a bridge to the EU". Now that the bridge has been well and truly burned, Indian-owned companies like Jaguar Land Rover have said they will "realign their thinking" on UK investments.

But Brexit isn't just a set of economic agreements. It's a cultural agreement between the government and the people, a nativist-turn against the Other, which has worried many in India too. Theresa May's crackdown on foreign students when she was home secretary was received poorly in India. Just last week, the Times of India reported that her refusal to relax visa restrictions for Indian students and skilled workers is putting any post-Brexit trade agreement at risk. A senior Indian official has been reported as saying, "We cannot separate free movement of people from the free flow of goods and services." Sound familiar? It's much the same as every European bureaucrat pointing out that Britain can't cherrypick its terms for accessing the single market.

For centuries Britain has repressed the truth about its Empire, obscuring the violence that allowed it to function. Brexit is bringing these truths to the fore. The post-imperial delusion of "old friendships" is going to shatter in the coming months, revealing a relationship of coercion that no longer holds. Britain is a bully going to a school reunion, only to find his victims now have better jobs and better lives than him. It needs to stand in the corner, alone, listening to the others dance to "Crazy Frog", and have a serious think about what it's done.



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