The Prime Minister’s recent visit to Jamaica with the latter government’s claim for reparations and high-profile student-led campaigns at both Oxford and Cambridge have ensured that Britain’s colonial past has been a prominent feature of recent political and media discussion. At the same time, recent elections and the build up to the EU referendum on 23 June have seen UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics weave an altogether different narrative about that past.
Over the last few years, UKIP have argued that we should leave the EU, set up trade relationships with the Commonwealth and install an Australian points-based migration policy. These arguments are also being made by leading Conservative Eurosceptics. Such arguments depend upon re-imagining the finer details of Britain’s colonial past and by denying the realities of the present, especially those of ‘race’.
In 2014, UKIP Leader Nigel Farage appeared on the Andrew Marr Show arguing that the party’s local election broadcast would highlight ‘black, minority ethnic candidates who are proudly standing for UKIP’. A few days later, the Party’s ‘Black’, ‘Asian’ and ‘mixed-race’ candidates joined Farage on stage at a UKIP rally, where Farage declared that this was ‘UKIP’s Clause IV moment’, proving once-and-for-all that UKIP are ‘no longer racist’. A year later, Farage appeared on Trevor Philips’ Channel Four Documentary ‘Things We Want To Say About Race That Are True’ claiming that it is ‘probably valid’ that racism was prevalent forty years ago, but that he did not think that was the case today. This led Farage to argue that there was no longer any need for legal requirements preventing discrimination on the grounds of race or colour.
While UKIP claim to be ‘colour-blind’ and post-race, they tacitly accept that Britain is a multiracial nation. But they only do so while arguing that existing legislation should be changed to allow employers to discriminate. This is a denial of the historical legacies, and contemporary realities, of racism. It is a denial of the role that both play in the reproduction of racial inequality today.
In recent times, Farage has also used rallies, such as the one mentioned above, to propose that should Britain leave the EU. We should, he argues,
…open ourselves up to a group of countries who have within them just over two billion people. They speak English. They have common law. They have similar contract law. They are our friends. They are our cousins. They are our extended family in the world…let’s have a trade deal with the Commonwealth.
Recent articles on UKIP’s website have defined the Commonwealth as a ‘voluntary organisation of nation states’ promoting ‘shared values, culture, history and interests [that] can be the catalyst for wealth creation without the need for unwieldy political structures’. For UKIP, ‘Nigeria, Kenya and India want to trade with dignity’. UKIP’s Commonwealth spokesman has recently claimed that this has left him ‘deeply ashamed of how we have turned our back on our Commonwealth Kith & Kin when we joined the European Economic Community in 1973’.
But UKIP have no intention of opening up Britain’s borders to our ‘Kith & Kin’ in the Commonwealth. In their 2015 general election manifesto, UKIP outlines a plan to set-up a Migration Control Commission that would oversee an Australian points-based migration policy, supplemented by ‘reciprocal arrangements for visitor visas and fixed term entry passes’. This approach is usually also laced with anti-East European sentiment.
In recent weeks, high-profile Conservative Eurosceptics have started to march to the beat of Farage’s drum. For example, Chris Grayling, Leader of the House of Commons, praised Farage’s ‘barnstorming’ arguments at a rally in Stoke-on-Trent, while the Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove, has asserted that:
…Under democratic self-government countries such as Australia, Canada, the USA and New Zealand all enjoy excellent economic growth, global influence, the ability to control their own borders…We could emulate [Australia’s] admirable record of taking in genuine refugees, giving a welcome to hardworking new citizens and building a successful multi-racial society without giving into people-smugglers, illegal immigration or subversion of our borders.
The fact that UKIPers and Conservative Brexiters have a nostalgic view of the Commonwealth should not really come as a surprise. This can be traced back to the 1960s and formation of the Anti-Common Market League which largely attracted Conservatives in favour of maintaining trade relations with particularly ‘white Commonwealth countries’.
For UKIP and Conservative Brexiters, the EU referendum campaign has been an exercise in what Paul Gilroy (2004) has referred to as ‘postcolonial melancholia’. This condition is characterised by a mixture of guilt and pride which prevents Britain from being able to mourn its imperial history without facing up to the barbarity that this entailed. To compensate, the nation clings desperately to the memory of its ‘finest hour’ – victory in World War Two.
As Gilroy notes, highly selective and nostalgic accounts of Britain’s imperial past have been fashioned in order to deal with these feelings. Britain is very good at remembering its role in ending the slave trade and ‘granting’ independence to former colonies. It is even better at forgetting the brutality and violence used to crush rebellions such as the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.
The EU referendum campaign is a good case in point of the prevalence of imperial and colonial nostalgia in British politics today. Residual memories of imperialism and the end of empire inform how UKIP and Conservative Brexiters imagine Britain’s future, should the nation vote to leave the EU on June 23rd.
Referring to the Commonwealth in familial and friendly metaphors provides a false front to a whole a manner of sins. It is no coincidence that UKIP and their Conservative bedfellows make repeated references to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. These countries are white settler colonial states in which the struggle for indigenous land rights continues today. Their very existence came through the violent replacement and subjugation of indigenous peoples. Racism was deployed to impose British sovereignty on the indigenous peoples and then fashioned nationalities that pivoted on what Ghassan Hage (2003) has termed ‘white colonial paranoia’.
By referring to the Commonwealth as both a ‘voluntary association’ and an ‘independent fellowship’ of nation-states, UKIP purposively conceals the fact that the Commonwealth is an economic and political structure. It is a structure that continues to afford Britain a position of economic and political dominance over its former colonies.
The purpose of any trade deal with the Commonwealth would not be to spread the wealth. For UKIP and Conservatives such as Gove and Grayling, the EU prevents Britain from being great. For them, Britain’s resurrection is to be found in the Commonwealth. They would rely on both old and new forms of economic, political and cultural domination to control former colonies. So when UKIP and others make reference to shared laws, customs and traditions, it must be pointed out that these are products of colonial rule.
In After Empire, Gilroy (2004) also reminds us that postcolonial melancholia undergirds ‘hostile responses to strangers and settlers’. So much so, that ‘incomers may be unwanted and feared precisely because they are unwitting bearers of the imperial and colonial past’. Here we might remember the state and street-level racism and violence that greeted Britain’s ‘Kith & Kin’ when they migrated to the colonial ‘Motherland’ after the Second World War.
Neither UKIP, Grayling nor Gove have any intention of opening Britain’s borders to our ‘Kith and Kin’ in the Commonwealth. For example, they have no intention of restoring the British Nationality Act 1948 in order to grant ‘our friends’ and ‘our extended family’ the right to enter, settle and work in Britain. Since 1962, these rights have been withdrawn by Conservative and Labour governments through a succession of racist immigration controls.
By drawing inspiration from what Gove calls Australia’s ‘admirable record of taking in ‘genuine refugees’, UKIP and Conservative Eurosceptics also rely on our ignorance of the Australian system and hope that we buy the line that people seeking asylum are more frequently ‘criminals’ and ‘welfare scroungers’. They also hope that we are blissfully unaware that since 2001, the Australian government has reached agreements with the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea. These agreements mean that any asylum seeker trying to reach Australia by boat is transported to detention centres on the Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea until their refugee status is determined. These agreements have been put in place by a settler colony that has used its relative wealth and political power precisely to re-animate old colonial structures and relations.
Human rights groups have reported that ‘conditions in the Papua New Guinea and Nauru camps are totally inadequate, citing poor hygiene, cramped conditions, unrelenting heat and a lack of facilities’. These reports have also revealed that people detained on Nauru ‘suffer mental illness and are likely to harm themselves’.
On 26 April, Omid Masoumali, a 23 year old Iranian refugee died after setting himself on fire at the Nauru detention centre. Three days later, Hodan Yasin, a 21 year old Somali refugee, also set herself on fire. On the same day that Masoumali set himself alight, the full bench of the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court ruled that the detention centre in Manus Province be shut down.
These are the lived realities of the immigration system that Britain is urged to ‘emulate’ if we leave the EU. All told, Farage, Gove and Grayling are proposing models of governance, institutions and power based on Britain’s colonial past which displays all the amnesiac qualities and hallmarks of postcolonial melancholy. They are trying to sell us a ticket back to imperial greatness, while denying racist injustices and oppressive realities of the present.
Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or convivial culture? Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Hage, G. (2003) Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for hope in a shrinking society. London: Merlin Press Ltd.
Stephen Ashe is a political sociologist working in the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity at the University of Manchester where he is researching ‘hidden histories’ of Britain’s anti-racist civil rights movement between 1966 and 1990. Stephen is also currently writing a monograph documenting the electoral rise and fall of the British National Party in Barking and Dagenham. Twitter: @sd_ashe
Image: by Curious Expeditions CC BY-NC-SA 2.0