As the march towards Brexit rekindles arguments over British nationalism and the strength and merits of the union between England and Scotland, the mass of conflicted feelings over the British Empire is naturally bubbling to the surface again.
In the UK itself, two main tendencies are in full flow. On the one hand is an unease with nostalgic nationalism and imperialism: notions like the much derided vision of “Empire 2.0” from the trade secretary, Liam Fox, come across as either shocking and distasteful or the natural progression of reclaiming a proud historical heritage. On the other is a more upbeat sort of post-colonialism: March 13 saw celebrations for the 40th Commonwealth Day, and the UK is preparing to host the 2018 Commonwealth heads of government meeting.
Both these approaches to Britain’s imperial heritage are wrongheaded, and the reality of the imperial legacy is both more pedestrian and arguably more dangerous. The British Empire never really died; it just morphed into a new form.
Much of its official architecture may have gone or been reduced to vestiges, but many of its most distinctive impositions remain in place. More than a billion people are still living in countries that criminalise acts of homosexual intimacy via held-over colonial laws, notably the infamous Section 377 which was introduced in 1860 in what was then the British Raj and then exported to other parts of the empire. A vast majority of the 52 Commonwealth member states have retained this toxic remnant – but whatever their reasons, global narratives of decriminalisation often forget where the laws came from.
This is just one example to illustrate why nuance is so important.
The sun still rises
Postcolonial states are more often than not victims of a form of neocolonialism; their respective independence movements came from a rejection of empire, but because they still depend on the world system and its dominant nations, the power dynamics of empire were never truly dismantled.
All Commonwealth states are parliamentary democracies. Their judiciaries are based on the model of the British justice system, and more than a few still recognise the British monarch as their head of state. This uniformity completely erases the diversity – and the tensions – that are a vital part of these nations’ identities.
Before British rule, governance, law, social structures, and cultural norms across the empire varied enormously. Many social issues were actually dealt with more progressively before the empire arrived, and would even be considered progressive today.
To return to the Section 377 example, the pre-imperial Indian Subcontinent did not view sexuality and gender, either legally or culturally. Many regions not only accepted homosexual intimacy but promoted it as a positive and organic part of society. Yet a look at the local discussions around removing 377 tend to focus on homosexuality – not legalised homophobia – as a forward-looking Western import while completely ignoring the realities of history.
The danger here is that the rhetoric of “civilisation” could take hold once again. Empire was often justified as a means of enlightening, and thereby saving, the populations of the colonial outposts. If Western neo-liberalism and paternalism can be reframed as liberating tendencies, that false narrative will return with force.
Talking past each other
Discussions about trade, aid, and diplomatic pressure tend to recreate the power dynamics of the past. This arrangement is painfully familiar to the populations who’ll be affected. Aid is rarely provided unconditionally, and most conditions are aimed at creating targets based on Western standards of growth and development. Trade deals, as Liam Fox effectively acknowledged, carry the same implicit assumptions of Western superiority.
In short, many of the “past sins” about which power-brokers like Fox declare themselves “unapologetic” are still being committed. And complicating matters further is the historical revisionism that takes place not just in the UK, but in its former colonies themselves.
Many of their governments are all too keen to comply with the postcolonial neo-liberal order. And for all that their nationalist parties claim ownership of traditional, pre-imperial past glories, they nonetheless rely heavily on Western support and decline to uproot the imperial elements of their legal and political systems.
The legitimacy these parties enjoy is often nothing to do with pre-colonial culture, but instead closely entwined with the imperial legacy. Look at how the conservative governments of British allies Malaysia and India have recently suppressed LGBTQ+ expression in the name of traditional values even though those values are imperial, not traditional.
All the while, the voices that need to be elevated most are silenced, and marginalised groups in Britain’s former colonies are marginalised even further. Whether counted as victims of oppressive regimes or traitors to national pride, they are deprived of agency and subjugated to the status quo.
Shamefully, the politics of neocolonialism and postcolonialism as currently practised fail to deal with the nuances of these people’s positions; instead, one side simply reiterates the white saviour narrative while the other rejects it. As long as they’re stuck this cyclical trap, notionally post-imperial initiatives such as the Commonwealth heads of government meeting will simply stagnate.
Real emancipation means sincerely engaging with both the past and the present. Otherwise, empire will be the future as well as the past.