Brexit and Colonialism: Empire 2.0

It is indisputable that the UK’s political landscape has been changed dramatically by the referendum decision on 23rd June 2016 to leave the European Union. Naturally, attention turned to the question of how the UK would ‘take back control’ from the supposed bureaucracy and dominance of the EU. Since taking office, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, and in particular, Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox have been upbeat about the numerous trade deals that the UK will strike with countries around the world, now that it is apparently free from the shackles of Brussels.

Other than the frankly fanciful notion of negotiating a trade deal with the EU which allows the UK to opt-in to individual sectors (this is exactly how the EU does not work), trade deals have been mooted with Australia and India, in addition to other Commonwealth countries. At first sight, there seems to be no problem: Australia has a higher GDP per capita than Germany, whilst India is an important emerging economy. It is the prospect of a trade deal with the latter on which I wish to focus more.

The way in which the UK seems to want to go about its withdrawal negotiations with the EU is revealing; not for the substance of the deals to be struck, but because of the British attitude manifested therein. In my view, it boils down to this: a sense of entitlement to all the benefits of EU membership, but without the fundamental principle of free movement of labour and the associated burden of immigration. One can only speculate at the source of this sense of entitlement, but it may lie in the imperial dominance of Britain in the twentieth century, before it joined the then European Community. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Brexit has focused on a return to the ‘old days’; notionally, this is before 1972, but may in fact stretch further back.

This sense of entitlement seems to have coloured the UK’s recent diplomatic relations with India. Theresa May journeyed halfway across the world, and though supposedly sealed £1bn worth of deals (though EU trade law prevents their official conclusion), hardly left a good impression, effectively refusing to make any concessions on immigration. This is unlikely to engender good relations, especially due to her reluctance for the UK Home Office to issue visas to Indian students during her time as Home Secretary. Furthermore, her authorisation of the wrongful deportation of thousands of students on the basis of flimsy evidence of language test fraud (deemed unlawful in Qadir v Secretary of StateImmigration Tribunal) only serves to reinforce what comes across as a deep dislike of foreign students.

The negotiating position reduces to this: we want a lucrative trade deal, but we don’t want to give Indians access to the UK in return. This is also known as ‘having one’s cake (or mithai, as the case might be here) and eating it’. Some might say that this amounts to an ambitious negotiating position on the part of world-leading economy. There does, however, seem to be an underlying assumption that, as with the EU, the UK’s future trade partners will simply sit back and accept whatever terms are offered to them.

How does this relate to Britain’s imperial past? Allied to the sentiment of ‘taking back control’ and returning Britain to a rosy-tinted past where everything was better than the Brussels-infused present, a 2016 YouGov opinion poll on the UK’s colonial past seems instructive. 43% of respondents said that the British Empire was a good thing, whilst 44% said Britain’s colonial past was something to be proud of. It is not implausible that Britain has hung onto a colonial supremacism; an enduring belief that it is simply ‘better’ than the countries that it once colonised. The current sense of entitlement may easily stem from the idea of ‘little’ Britain dominating half of the world in the twentieth century.

This notion is part of the still pervasive ‘colonial consciousness’ that I believe colours how the UK, and by extension Western culture, views the former colonies in the East. At the outset, colonialism must be distinguished from the related concept of Orientalism (see Said, 1978), which details how the West formed entirely innocent misconceptions about Eastern cultures through viewing them from a Western lens, which distorted unique socio-cultural phenomena. In colonialism, the colonised are denied their own cultures and experiences, but instead are subjugated and forced to accept a deliberately distorted version of their own experiences, eventually mimicking this distorted version and losing their authentic identities. To take India as an example, the distorted notions of the varna system (a fluid social institution facilitating the non-hierarchical division of labour) and the concept of Hinduism (read: Sanatana Dharma) as an organised religion linger not only in the West, but in India even today. Neither are celebrations of a rich cultural heritage, but evidence of inherent immorality.

All of this, in my view, suggests that there remains a strong sentiment of British supremacy and imperial entitlement in the UK. This colours both the negotiations for EU withdrawal, and diplomatic relations with other Commonwealth countries, and has become more apparent under a Conservative government that has swung out to the right of the political spectrum. In leaving the EU, Britain arguably yearns for the ‘glory’ days (they were not ‘glorious’) that it has enjoyed during the days of the British Empire.

How the UK’s notional future trade partners respond to this remains to be seen. It would not, however, surprise me at all if Theresa May’s newly mandated Conservative government (for any other conclusion seems unlikely given the current state of the Labour Party) runs up against significant difficulties in its trade negotiations with India. It is not fanciful to suggest that given the British attitude towards negotiations, Indian visa applications and tourist visits might drop dramatically; in such a climate, why would they want to come here?

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