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Brexit demonstrates the perils of ignoring Britain's colonial crimes Open in fullscreen

Imogen Lambert

Brexit demonstrates the perils of ignoring Britain's colonial crimes

Brexit is fuelled by colonial nostalgia [Getty]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2018

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Comment: The UK must challenge its nostalgia for empire before it can move towards a progressive political future, writes Imogen Lambert.
Just a few of the crimes committed by Britain during its colonial era include exacerbating famines in Ireland and India, the brutal suppression of the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya (leading to the deaths of up to 100,000 people), the horrific torture of Yemenis during the 1960s in Aden, the infamous Amritsar massacre where 1,000 Indian protesters were killed, and the pioneering use of internment camps in Malay (1950), Cyprus (1955-1959), Kenya (1950s) and during the Boer War in South Africa.

Yet it seems that the British establishment is determined to suppress this history, instead cultivating the popular narrative of the gentlemanly coloniser.  

In September, an academic article by Bruce Gillroy defending the legacies of colonialism ignited fierce debate. Meanwhile, Oxford Professor Nigel Biggers is carrying out a controversial study on the "ethics of colonialism", and a recent op-ed in The Guardian cited Singapore as an example of the positive effects of colonialism.  

Meanwhile, more than 1,000 documents from the National Archives relating to Britain's colonial history have gone missing while on loan to civil servants - suspicious as the British government has been known to deliberately withhold materials relating to colonial crimes.

These efforts to rewrite history have evidently been fruitful, as, despite the many documented atrocities of British imperialism, almost 60 percent of the British population feel proud of the former Empire, while 23 percent said they didn't know how they felt.
Germany has overcome its fascist past to become a force for social-democratic ideals


Valiant attempts are being made to de-colonise curricula, and to create a Museum of Empire, inspired by the Holocaust museum, as a memorial to the Empire's crimes.  These efforts are vital for the justice of formally colonised peoples and their descendants. Yet as Brexit unfolds on a wave of right-wing nationalism and nostalgia, initiatives that educate the British population on colonial history are also imperative for the political health and future of the country.    

Germany has overcome its fascist past to become a force for social-democratic ideals where the far-right in the country has been restrained, at least compared with its burgeoning popularity in other EU countries and the US. 

This is surely partly due to the presence of its Nazi history within the nation's consciousness, which, rather than being repressed, has been taught in schools and thoroughly examined by German historians.

There are many downplayed ideological similarities between fascism and imperialism.  German philosopher Hannah Arendt pointed out that the theories of racial superiority which were applied by settler colonialists in the Empire, were consequently applied in Europe, and imperialism was the necessary backdrop for the growth of anti-Semitism. 

A primary difference is where the colonialists used the labour of "inferior races" for profit, the Third Reich decided to exterminate them altogether through the final solution.

Yet where it is acceptable for Oxford University to conduct a study on the ethics of The Empire in 2017, it would never be acceptable for anyone to discuss the plus points of Nazism.

Although there remain disagreements on the precise nature of Nazism, and the extent of involvement of the German civilian population during the Third Reich, few would break the law to deny the Holocaust and the genocide, and the facts are broadly known. 

Generally, Germany's introspection has healed its international reputation, and improved the health of its political sphere.

Many have pointed out that support for Brexit stemmed from an arrogance fuelled by a mythical history of empire coupled with a present-day successful economy; this would explain why despite rampant anti-EU sentiments in Hungary (fuelled by the rise of the far right) and in Greece (by the EU's austerity measures) neither of these states would consider leaving, aware of the profound damage it would do.  

British Brexiteers however continually cite "the Commonwealth" as an alternative source of wealth, confidently adding that the country used to govern two-thirds of the world. No mention is made of the atrocities committed to sustain that colonial system, or indeed the successful independence movements which followed. 

Ironically, joining the EU probably "saved" Britain's international influence following the collapse of the empire, preventing the UK from falling into irrelevance - a primary motive of pro-EU Tories such as Ken Clarke who pushed for membership in the 1960s. 

Yet despite the effects of Britain's colonialism on its doorstep in Ireland still being in living memory of most of the UK, its astonishing that the effects on Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border have been so willfully ignored - yet another symptom of Britain's state of denial.
There is some poetic justice where the UK faces potential economic catastrophe and loss of international influence partly due to a denial of its colonial history


In the previous round of Brexit negotiations, where Theresa May had to make concessions due to Ireland's hard border "red line", it was pointed out that Ireland now wields more power than her former oppressor due to her continual membership of the EU.

There is some poetic justice where the UK faces potential economic catastrophe and loss of international influence partly due to a denial of its colonial history. But as a British citizen, I can't look forward to the economic crisis and loss of influence a hard Brexit is sure to bring; as post-war Germany showed, national humiliation strengthens far-right nationalists rather than humbles them.  

And the vast majority of the UK population is likely to be adversely affected in one way or another. 

While much of the left have recognised the ills of British colonialism, this seems to have led to an endorsement of withdrawal in the form of Brexit, often coupled with anti-imperialism, opposing revolutions that do not oppose "the West", and backing rival powers such as Russia which indulge in their own imperial projects. 

Symptomatic of the paralysis of guilt, this embrace of isolationism is another way of avoiding a genuine confrontation with Britain's past. And those who conflate progressive internationalism and diplomacy with neo-imperialism are simply buying into the coloniser's myth of a liberal empire.  

No one is responsible for the sins of their ancestors, but we are responsible for acknowledging history's realities, teaching these events to the next generation, and ensuring that the ideologies, sentiments and myths which nurtured the Empire are bound to the past. Only then can we possibly envisage a progressive and genuinely radical political future. 


Imogen Lambert is a Middle East-focused journalist. Follow her on Twitter: @InnogenLamb


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