Much of the debate around the referendum on continuing membership of the European Union was about ‘reclaiming our national sovereignty’. However, Britain has always been an imperial state, not a national one. When Britain was formed through the Act of Union in 1707, the Kingdoms of England and Scotland already had established colonies, including that of Ireland in the case of England and other territories in the so-called New World. After Union, they went on to establish an empire that, at its height, covered one quarter of the earth and governed over one fifth of its population – including by the 1920s, over one half of the world’s Muslims. This British state was an imperial state and, as such, necessarily multi-ethnic, multi-religious, and multi-cultural from the outset.
The Leave victory has been seen as an expression of frustration by those who believed themselves to have been betrayed by a metropolitan elite. The problem was that ‘newcomers’ had been given equal status as citizens and this had undermined the conditions of those presented as ‘insiders’. Belonging to the history of the nation was presented as necessary to be a legitimate agent within politics and a legitimate object of policy initiatives in the present. This failure to recognise Britain’s imperial past limits the population that gets to be considered as ‘inside’ the polity historically and thus to have legitimate claims to determine it in the present.
The standard view of the British state is expressed by Garry Runciman: that the institutional modes of production, coercion and persuasion, deemed to be characteristic of British society, were all fully formed by the First World War and have remained relatively stable since then. Empire forms no part of his account of those modes and the decline of empire similarly has little import in terms of understanding Britain subsequently.
However, the British state and its institutions developed in the context of imperial expansion and through the appropriation of the material resources of empire. In the broadest terms, colonialism is about appropriation, settlement, and possession. It is about the establishment of political authority over populations to which there was no legitimate claim. Dispossession, enslavement and other forms of forced labour were employed to the profit of those who established their private property in empire and wealth was also extracted through coercive forms of taxation. As Utsa Patnaik (2017) has argued, the drain from the colonies was immeasurable in terms of financing the imperial state.
Indeed, in his 1884 address on ‘The General Statistics of the British Empire’, Sir Richard Temple set out that over half of the annual revenue of the British national government came from taxing the labour and resources of those within empire, beyond the national state. That is, over half of the income at the disposal of the government in Westminster came from the land, labour, and resources of those who, today, are deemed to have no historically based claims here.
These colonial relations, established on racialised hierarchies, were imported back into the imperial metropole and translated into second class citizenship for darker British citizens – something that we are seeing playing out today with the Windrush scandal which, incidentally, does not only affect populations from the Caribbean, but from across what was the British Commonwealth. The colonial imaginary of the British state turned darker citizens into migrants while allowing white migrants – or at least their children – to become citizens. Where once racialised hierarchy described unequal membership in the imperial polity, it now functioned as the basis of discrimination and domination within the national polity.
Until the 1967 and 1969 Race Relations Acts were passed, it was legal to discriminate on the basis of race in housing, employment, education, and access to public services. Access to good working-class jobs was often mediated by trade unions, however, many unions operated an informal colour bar and refused to allow the employment of darker citizens. This only began to change once the Race Relations Acts had been passed and were used for legal redress. The outlawing of racial discrimination can be seen as one step in the process of remaking the polity on the basis of understandings of equality. However, the political moves, half a decade later, of Britain entering the European Economic Community suppressed the political framing of this as part of the process of what it would mean for Britain to decolonise. As such, it never had to reckon with what it meant to go from being a global empire to being a small state.
While the predominantly white population of the imperial metropole may never have been asked if they wished the country to become multicultural, this is not a postwar process, but arose out of empire building. There was no complaint about the multicultural polity when those others were being exploited for the benefit of the metropole. Rather, objections were only raised when, making return journeys back to the metropole, racialised others sought to participate in it as equals. To situate the arrival and presence of these people as illegitimate in order ‘to take back control’ is more than disingenuous. It trades upon racism while simultaneously eliding it. This is how commentators have recently been able to argue ‘white self-interest’ is legitimate and not to be understood as problematic. There is no legitimacy to a framing of history that rests on underpinning assumptions of white supremacy and the domination of others.
What we are currently witnessing with Brexit is what the end of empire looks like. When the history of empire is elided and repressed – instead of being reckoned with – there is no real way forward. If we are to have a future as a liberal democratic state it has to involve addressing the past injustices which continue to disfigure our contemporary social and political landscapes.