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17 March 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 8:13am

Why Brexiteers need to update their reading of colonial history

Delusions about the British Empire do not a UK-India free trade agreement make. 

By Bhanuj kappal

Earlier this month, British author Nikesh Shukla tweeted about his experience of watching Viceroy’s House – Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama about the Mountbattens set in 1947 India – in an almost empty cinema. When the idea of partition is first suggested in the film, he says, an old white couple sitting behind him commented “now that’s diplomacy”. Could there be a better metaphor for many British citizens’ ahistorical, rose-tinted view of the British Raj than the idea that an event that caused the largest mass migration in human history (10m people), the deaths of over a million, and sowed the seeds for a simmering conflict that has continued for over 70 years, was “good diplomacy”?

I was reminded of Shukla’s tweets a couple of days later, when the Times reported that Whitehall officials had dubbed International Trade secretary Liam Fox’s plans to increase trade relations with the Commonwealth as “Empire 2.0”. The officials may have been using the term sarcastically, but such offhand references to empire betray a widespread – and deeply flawed – view of the British Empire. In this view it is a largely benign phenomenon, even one that Britons should be proud of.

Last year, a YouGov poll found that 43 percent of British citizens thought the British Empire was a “good thing”, with only 19 percent disagreeing. That view has gained even more widespread acceptance in the run-up to the election, with many in the Leave campaign playing on anxieties about non-white immigrants by weaving a fantasy of a revived – and implicitly white – Great Britain retaking its place as a great world power. How else do you explain Ukip’s paternalistic declaration that “outside the EU the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth the pearl within”. Or when Boris Johnson, dismissing the idea that Britain might find it hard to negotiate favourable trade deals post-Brexit, proudly referred to the country’s colonial past. “We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen, and with a much smaller domestic population and a relatively tiny civil service,” he declared. “Are we really unable to do trade deals?”

Perhaps British citizens wouldn’t be so quick to refer to the glories of Empire if more of them knew the bloody cost it inflicted on its subjects. When I came to Cardiff in 2011 to do my Masters in International Journalism (don’t worry Ms. May, I’m back in India now, though I did almost miss my flight home), I was amazed at the ignorance of some of my British peers.

Many were unaware of British atrocities in India, such as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 – for which then-PM David Cameron refused to apologise when he visited the country in 2013 – or the Bengal famines of 1770 and 1943, which killed millions, and were at least partly attributed to the policies of the East India Company and the British government respectively.

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“But we did give you English, and the railways,” some respond, as if the railways were built for our good and not in order to transport extracted – some would say stolen – resources back to British industries as soon as possible. They greatly helped speed up the process of bleeding India of its wealth, a process that saw India’s share of the world economy shrink from 23 per cent to 3 per cent in two short centuries, to Britain’s benefit. Similarly, the English language wasn’t a gift so much as a mechanism for imperial control, taught to a small minority of Indian elites who would act as intermediates between the Empire and those it ruled.

So thanks, but no thanks. As Sally Tomlinson and Danny Dorling pointed out in this publication last May, much of this ignorance stems from a schooling system that has long whitewashed the crimes of the British Empire. Maybe fantasies of a return to British greatness wouldn’t be so attractive, if more people knew that that greatness was built on murder and plunder.

There’s more at stake here than the settling of historical debts, especially as the UK struggles to define its new role in the world post Brexit. Because this delusion of a benevolent, much-loved British Empire has given rise to what Shada Islam calls the “Empire 2.0 myth” – the idea that the UK will find it easy to pick up where it left things off and bring all its former colonies back into the fold of a warm, free-trade loving family.

Theresa May implied as much when she spoke of the “desperate” desire of Commonwealth countries to sign free trade agreements with the UK. First of all, the Commonwealth is a poor substitute for the EU single market, which buys 44 percent of the UK’s exports compared to the Commonwealth’s 9.5 percent. Secondly, while many of the Commonwealth countries will welcome a trade deal with the UK, the British government will find that the world has changed much since the 1950s. The Commonwealth may have forgiven, but it has not forgotten. And this time, imbalanced “trade deals” which greatly favour the UK will be much sparser on the ground.

Take India, for example. May and others have made much of the “special relationship” that Britain has with India, perhaps emboldened by PM Narendra Modi expressing interest in negotiating a free trade agreement once the UK has left the EU. But that is a shrewd economic move, perhaps motivated by Modi’s constant need for big headlines, not an expression of love and admiration between master and emancipated slave. After all, Modi belongs to the same party that constantly rails against foreign – and especially British – influence on Indian culture, and loves to refer to Anglophone liberals as “Macaulay’s children” after the colonial educator.

So yes, India will happily come to the negotiating table. But it is going to negotiate hard, and as journalist Mihir S Sharma points out, it may just have the upper hand. In fact, Modi’s offer of a deal may just be a tactic to get the EU to budge on its own stalled out negotiations for a trade deal with India. After all, the EU is India’s largest trading partner, accounting for 13.5 per cent of India’s global trade. By contrast, the UK comes in at no. 18, accounting for only 3.4 per cent of exports and under 2 per cent of imports. No prizes for guessing which of the two will be our top priority.

Liam Fox may be drooling at the thought of selling British products to India’s 1.4bn people, but like most other countries we now buy most of our manufactured goods from China. And with the Modi government pushing its flagship Make In India programme, Indian demand for British manufacturing may not be as big as Fox thinks. It’s true that the picture is a little rosier when it comes to investment. The UK is the largest G-20 investor in India, while India is the third largest investor in Britain. But at least some of that investment is because Indian companies use the UK as a springboard to Europe. With a hard Brexit, that’s set to change.

Besides, any moves towards a UK-India FTA will stumble on the massive roadblock that is immigration, especially in light of the anti-immigration – and anti-immigrant – rhetoric that has accompanied Brexit. PM Modi will have kept a sharp eye on reports of increasing hate crimes against minorities, including people of Indian origin. He may also remember Home secretary May’s genius idea to have vans with big signs saying “GO HOME” drive around in areas of London dominated by families of Indian origin in 2013. The Indian diaspora in the UK is an important source of funding for his Bharatiya Janata Party, as well its sister organisations in the Hindu nationalist grouping called the Sangh Parivar. Modi cannot afford to be seen throwing them under the bus.

Even without the threat of xenophobia against Indian citizens in the UK as well as persons of Indian origin, May’s hard line on immigration is a major problem. In the context of Indian students being barred from getting post-study work visas during May’s tenure as Home Secretary and No. 10’s regular demonisation of “foreign workers”, any trade deal must involve a lessening of stringent visa requirements, especially for Indian business workers.

May learned as much when she returned disappointed from her India visit in November. As Indian government official Amitabh Kant retorted during a panel discussion as a part of the visit, “there’s no such thing as selective free trade.” That the UK cannot harbour dreams of being Global Britain while closing its doors to the world is obvious to anyone who isn’t a part of the Leave camp.

Maybe, if the Brexiters knew that their inglorious Empire was built not on British (read “white”) exceptionalism but on the backs of the nations they destroyed, they’d be able to see it too. And then maybe India will finally get the apology for British atrocities that that Shashi Tharoor and many others have been asking for. You can keep the reparations. Looks like you’ll need the money.

Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. 

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