Empire, debts, and delusion
Statistics show that over half the British public approve of – and derive pride from – the global impact of the British Empire.
A recent auction at Christie’s saw $109 million worth of Indian artefacts sold privately, centuries after they were first stolen by Britain in the Age of Empire. The sale prompted a resurfacing of the figure – $45 trillion – that is estimated to capture the total of Indian wealth that was appropriated by the British under Empire.
The amounts are gigantic enough but, with Britain being ravaged by a national complex wrapped up with its attempts to leave the European Union, they are all the more striking when presented alongside statistics showing that over half the British public approves of – and derive pride from – the global impact of the British Empire. Just a quarter of that figure feel that the thefts, the wars, the manufactured famines, and assorted other crimes, might leave the modern country with a case to answer.
Attention to this historic moral dilemma has arrived at the same time as another throwback to British days of Empire. As Hong Kong protesters continue to lock down their city with demonstrations against legislation seeking to extradite islanders for trials in mainland China, Boris Johnson’s rival for the Conservative leadership, Jeremy Hunt, made an unlikely intervention on the part of the protesters. Hunt pledged the UK’s commitment to its former-colony, Hong-Kong, and called for China to back down in its threats against the island, where democracy is protected under the policy known as “one country, two systems”.
Hunt’s talk was as welcome as it was empty – as anyone outside of the Conservative Party’s flag-wrapped membership of 165,000 could have told you. His party has shown no moral concern about democracy as it continues arming Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. China’s UK ambassador, meanwhile, said Hunt was “basking in the faded glory of British colonialism”. If anything, it is now China that can make demands to which the UK must give heed. The UK has invited China to help fund and build key national infrastructure, including a possible new generation of nuclear power plants. In a further statement on the waning importance of the UK outside of the European Union, it will be the US that makes the final call on whether the UK is permitted to use 5G technology manufactured by China’s Huawei, a company beset with concerns about spyware and overseas control of telecommunications services.
It is not entirely true to suggest that the UK has suffered a steep decline in national influence since voting to leave the European Union, but the sort of statements Hunt and other Conservative politicians have felt emboldened to promote have not fared well when met with reality. British influence has not declined, but the appearance of influence has, to quote the ambassador, faded.
A nationwide state of delusion, similar to that which compels so many Britons to believe Empire a thing of pride, has in these circumstances surfaced. One of the most notable features of ongoing efforts by the Conservative Party to remove themselves from the European Union has been their singular and clear lack of competence. In some ways, this has come as no surprise to many within the UK. The left-leaning, the Scottish, many Northern Irish, and less deferential members of the middle and working classes are none of them strangers to the idea that the UK is awash with such elite nepotism that was always likely to deliver the sort of chaos we are now seeing. Within the country, where many of the upper-middle-class and media establishment still struggle to shed their hand-wringing deference at this elite’s entitlement to rule, those most discontented with UK leadership are typically regarded as irrationally angry. ‘Chipped shoulders’ is the British Establishment’s favourite putdown of those carrying a determination that things should, or even could be, any different. Efforts to leave the European Union have broadcast globally what was once safe as an unfortunate but mostly private family secret.
In all this, however, and whether it is the voters who drove the decision to leave the EU, or the growing movement to bring the end of the Conservative Party as it has been known, there is a warning sign from history of the singular potency of political movements formed in the lower middle classes. It is in that social bracket that there always resides the necessary quantity of both outrage but also rights, of privilege but also injury, absence but also entitlement, to provide the power for any form of revolution. Whether it was the sans-culottes of pre-Revolution France, the Young Turks who helped bring the end of the Ottoman Period, or Hitler’s appeal to those Germans humiliated by the Versailles Treaty and its economic hardship. Britain’s surprisingly well-off retired plumbers and decorators of South East England, those who understand both what it was to once be working class and then to become comfortable, drove the fake struggle for liberty from the European Union just as many went on believing that the British Empire was a thing in which to feel pride.
The principle success of the billionaire class that paid for so much of the campaign to leave the EU was to have the necessary referendum on Europe, rather than on any of the other injustices – banker bailouts, deep public sector cuts, nationwide domination by Westminster – that have truly hobbled the UK, its cause for national pride, its ability to change political course. As a bounty stolen from India is sold at auction, and a Foreign Secretary vying to be Prime Minister is put in his place by Beijing, the British understanding of its own history needs to be revised if the country stands a chance to form a better future.