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10 February 2021updated 12 Feb 2021 4:16pm

Why the British empire alone cannot explain the politics of the present

As two new books make clear, we cannot deny the influence of our colonial past on our society. But the empire is not the starting point of British history. 

By Stephen Bush

This review is the product of empire, and not just because the two books in question take empire as their topic. I am here today because my grandmother, the South African descendant of white British colonists – who erected a complex system of racial apartheid in order to continue minority rule – met and had a child with a descendant of the enslaved Javanese population, who were brought to South Africa by the Dutch empire. Heavily pregnant, my grandmother exercised her right as a Commonwealth citizen to come to the United Kingdom. There she met my grandfather, the descendant of eastern European Jews who fled the anti-Semitic persecution of the Russian empire to come to Britain in the 19th century. Years later, while working at the Africa Centre in London, my mother met a British Zimbabwean, himself only here because his ancestors, like many Commonwealth citizens, were encouraged to come to the UK to top up the labour force.

If any of those three empires had not existed – if just one of them had collapsed due to internal strife or external defeat a little earlier – then I would not exist and you would not be reading this sentence. (I leave the question of whether this fact goes in the “pros” or “cons” column of those empires up to you.)

The legacy of Europe’s empires is so bound into our society that trying to remove their influence upon us is as futile a task as attempting to remove the egg from a baked cake, to borrow an analogy that the author and Times writer Sathnam Sanghera uses in Empireland. As he superbly chronicles, the legacy of the British empire is everywhere you look. Perhaps most fittingly of all, the word “loot” is itself appropriated from the Hindi word “lut”: the spoils of war.

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Although Empireland is the product of wide reading rather than original research, it is a fantastic introduction for anyone who wants to learn more about the British empire. Sanghera shares his knowledge without pretension or affectation.

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He also has a peerless eye for a killer fact and a great story. My favourite is that of Sake Dean Mahomed, who in the course of just one life managed to become the first Indian author to be published in English, the founder in 1810 of the UK’s first curry house and the man who established the first dodgy massage parlour – though not in the same building.

My time with Sanghera’s book was so enjoyable that it feels almost churlish to admit that I found its overarching argument wholly unconvincing. Nevertheless, I am churlish, so here goes.

 Sanghera suggests that greater awareness of our imperial past would reshape our understanding of our post-imperial present. He argues that Brexit is, in part, “an exercise in empire nostalgia”. There is, to my eyes, an obvious problem here: it’s hard to claim that the Netherlands has fully come to terms with the Dutch empire, which left its mark on my family history as much as the British empire did. “Blacking up”, now rightly considered to be a shameful practice in the UK, is still widely tolerated in the Netherlands. Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the slave trade in 2007; the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, is still resisting making a similar apology in 2021. Yet it is unlikely that the Netherlands will follow the UK out of the European Union any time soon.

And what about France? As Robert Gildea details in his peerless 2019 book Empires of the Mind, France and Britain’s attachments to their empires were so great that, even when their struggle against Nazi Germany was at its bleakest, the French government-in-exile and the British government spent precious time squabbling over the future of their imperial possessions. France is an essential component of the modern EU, and yet like the UK struggles to confront its imperial legacy. Sanghera is right that we can no more disentangle the UK of today from the imperial power of time gone by than we can remove the egg from a cake – but if we’re comparing it to other countries we do need to be sure that they don’t have the same problem.

***

Sanghera puts far too much faith in the power of historical education to change minds and thus change the present. If only people were taught that so many of Britain’s “black and Asian people had been made citizens through the imperial project”, then the debate over multiculturalism would be “instantly transformed”.

This is obviously untrue. To take the system of apartheid in South Africa: it was not erected because its architects were ignorant of their imperial legacy but because they feared terrible retribution in the event of black majority rule. Nor would anyone sensible be reassured by the idea that immigration and multiculturalism are simply “colonizin’ in reverse”, as the poet Louise Bennett puts it. Colonisation was a violent, disruptive and sometimes extinction-level event for the colonised people. Anyone who thought that immigration was the same process via a different means would be mad not to resist it.

There is much to agree with in Sanghera’s book – his case for the restitution of stolen treasures is very powerful indeed – but I struggle to understand how someone who has read so much imperial history could think that a better public understanding of that past would in itself “instantly transform” our shared understanding of the world today. Even historians don’t agree on what the empire tells us about either the Britain of 1821 or the Britain of 2021.

In the UK, an improved understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust has not made our politics any more tolerant or welcoming to refugees and victims of genocide today. Since the Holocaust moved the world to recognise and define the crime of genocide, neither the United Nations nor the UK has ever managed to declare that one is taking place until after the crime has happened. Improved understanding of the past is a good thing, but it is not a substitute for winning political arguments in the present.

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One person who would agree with my assessment is Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He also agrees with Sanghera that you cannot remove the legacy of empire from the present economic and global order.

In The New Age of Empire Andrews argues that two of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, “provided the universal and scientific framework of knowledge that maintained colonial logic”, and that their own racism and bigotry was built into their thinking. In turn, the systems of thought that we have built on their ideas also bear the indelible stain of that prejudice. As the formal structures of empire have been abandoned, new and more insidious ones, in the shape of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have taken their place. They, too, are irretrievably tainted by the imperial ambitions of their founders.

Modern ideas of racial tolerance and unity do, unquestionably, have a racist ancestor. But the germ theory of disease can also trace its development through a number of discredited ideas: the miasma theory that illnesses are spread by “bad air”; and the idea that the mere act of smelling food could eventually contribute to fattening you up. Yet our modern understanding of how disease spreads is not doomed to failure because of its ancestry in what we now know to be flawed thinking.

***

Andrews derides what he calls the “white left” and its narrow focus. He dismisses the “Preston model” beloved by many Corbynite thinkers. “One of the cooperatives so praised in Preston is a coffee shop,” he writes, “and while we celebrate the benefits to the worker in Britain, the shop’s success is only possible because of the racial exploitation of the poor people farming the coffee beans it uses for next to nothing.” The new British left actually wants not a social democracy, but a return to the old “imperial democracy”.

His solution is to throw the whole cake into the dustbin of history. His focus is on “uniting Africa and the African diaspora to create a true revolution, which remains the only solution to the problem of racism”, and for the African diaspora to return to a “promised land” in Africa. This seems to me to be a little more difficult than simply getting the Preston café to pay a fair and equitable price for its coffee.

But it is central to Andrews’ belief system that it is easier to persuade the African diaspora that their aspirations are best realised back in Africa – and to persuade Africans to abandon both the borders inherited from colonialism and the dream of new borders for each of the continent’s many different peoples – than it is to get a northern English café to sell lattes at a fair price. As he writes at the conclusion of the book, “if you have come this far and believe that White people offering a meaningful hand of friendship is the solution then you have missed the point”.

I have to declare an interest here: I am the product of several generations’ worth of belief that enduring relationships can be struck across racial divides: a white South African can fall in love with a Cape Malay South African. A white British woman and a Jewish man can raise a family together. And, hell, a British-African man can father a child and disappear into the sunset without causing too much undue damage to the child in question. I have skin in the game: literally, my skin, the tone of which sits somewhere between my father’s and my mother’s.

It’s never made precisely clear in The New Age of Empire what the vision for people like me is in this united diaspora: do we get to return to Africa, or not? Is there a place for my white partner in the pan-African promised land? Do I ever get to see my mother and grandmother again? Would I have to reconcile with my father in the promised land? Would I be able to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, who are Jewish? I’m not saying that all of these questions are deal-breakers for me, but I would certainly like to know the answers.

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And if we are to discredit and discard the Enlightenment thinkers, how can pan-Africanism be the answer? Pan-Africanism is itself a product of the empire. The movement wasn’t dreamed up in Africa but by its displaced descendants in the West. The most influential and successful African supporter of the movement and a key force in the creation of what is now the African Union, Kwame Nkrumah, was likewise educated in the West, and was influenced by Marxism – which is, in turn, informed by the very ideas and philosophies that Andrews regards as irreversibly contaminated by their own imperial legacy.

Sanghera and Andrews share a common blindspot: while modern Britain is shaped by the empire, the British empire should not itself be seen as the starting point for British history. The empire was shaped by its pre-imperial past, and the Britain of today is shaped by both. The transatlantic slave trade, which undoubtedly still has an influence on the world today, can trace its roots to the slave trade within Africa, as the historian Marcus Rediker describes in his 2007 book The Slave Ship.

The empire cannot plausibly be the cause of what Sanghera considers to be a unique brand of racism, not least because that would account for neither the West’s pre-imperial anti-Semitism nor its pre-imperial racism. (As Sanghera recounts, long before empire, Elizabeth I was complaining that London’s Moorish population had grown too large.)

There is a similar problem in Andrews’ approach: my African ancestors, who sold the luckless members of other tribes, were not motivated by white supremacy but by a far older and universal sin: greed, and a desire to treat the perceived “other” – whether they look like us or not – as less than themselves.

History can illuminate the present. But it is only by confronting our shared and continued capacity for brutality against those we perceive as being unlike us – for profit or convenience – that we can build a better future. 

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain
Sathnam Sanghera
Viking, 320pp, £18.99

The New Age of Empire: How Racism and Colonialism Still Rule the World
Kehinde Andrews
Allen Lane, 288pp, £20

This article appears in the 10 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair