Following a 2014 YouGov poll in which 59 per cent of people admitted to having ‘pride’ in the British Empire, questions have been raised as to how ‘collective amnesia’ around colonialism continues to prevent an honest conversation about what it means to be ‘British’ in 2020. 

Britain’s Empire developed during the 1600s, ‘officially’ ending with the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Only 14 British overseas territories now remain, but the living legacy of empire in today’s dialogue on immigration and identity persists. Critics of the 2016 Brexit referendum cite the notion of a misunderstood history, explaining how a return to Britain’s powerful past would require a regression in our nation’s morals. Strikingly, in the three months directly following the 2016 referendum, reports of hate crimes rose by 50 per cent on the previous three months. 

Of the 59 per cent that expressed a ‘pride’ in empire, many would not have known about the (at least) 1,090 ‘convicts’ hanged by the British administration during the Kenyan Mau Mau rebellion of 1952-1960, nor of the over 1 million victims of sectarian killings during the partition of India.  

Characterised by the academic Nadine El-Enany, as ‘a domestic space of colonialism in which the racialised poor find themselves segregated and controlled’, such critics of contemporary British attitudes to immigration reflect on the ways in which a notion of white exceptionalism is found in our attitude towards who can, and cannot, enter ‘our’ country. El-Enany goes on to explain how ‘colonialism and slavery were key to Britain’s industrialisation and the growth of its capitalist economy’. A 2018 study by The Economist found that migrants continue to contribute more to the UK economy than they take out. Whilst recognising this, it is also important to note the research suggesting that the poorest in our society may be negatively impacted by immigrants arriving in the UK, whilst those who are better off may benefit. This has been shown by University College London’s findings which reveal that the arrival of immigrants equal in size to 1 per cent of the UK-born population leads to a 0.6 per cent decline in the wages of the poorest 5 per cent of workers, whilst creating an increase in the wages of higher-paid workers. 

The view that people from overseas are a burden rather than a boost to our finances is perhaps revealing of how colonialism established the idea of a threatening ‘other’, wherein Britishness was portrayed as necessarily synonymous with whiteness. In a multicultural society, what it means to be British is fluid, varying from person to person. Yet, looking beneath this fluidity one finds a more concrete, exclusionary notion of identity. 

Again, a misunderstanding of empire is relevant here. Many of the major migrant communities in the UK, such as those from India and the Caribbean, travelled from within spheres of empire, rather than moving into colonised areas to gain citizenship. Political sociologist Christian Joppke explains:

‘When the ‘natives’ moved from the periphery into the centre of empire, there was no presumption of their becoming ‘British’ or ‘English’ in any way.’

This is despite legislation like the 1948 British Nationality Act, which established the status of ‘Citizen of the United Kingdom and its colonies’. The ‘British’ status is now criticised as a tool used to exclude individuals from sharing this collective identity, as much as it is to be a part of it. 

At the 2018 Conservative Party conference, the then Home Secretary Sajid Javid explained how being British is ‘about integration, not segregation’. Ironically, it is the Conservative Party that has been most criticised for its stricter stance on immigration. Mr Javid, whose father was born into The British Raj, has been challenged for promoting an unhelpful rhetoric, such as pledging to ‘slash EU immigration by 80%’ during his time as Home Secretary in 2018.

In short, if we are to have an honest discussion about what it means to be British today, then first we must address the realities of our past. With an empire that once covered one-fifth of the world’s population, the legacy of the British empire spans globally — beyond the current borders of our nation. Whilst the legacy of our violence remains, a new narrative on colonialism is needed. Although the sun may never have set in the British Empire, if we prevent the faults of our past from filtering into our present, we may hope for a brighter future. 

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