The British Empire Wasn’t Just About Race

It was a system of political and economic control.

by Kojo Koram

21 February 2022

Demonstrators take part in a Black Lives Matter protest in London on 12 July 2020.
Henry Nicholls/Reuters

In recent years, there has been an attempt to draw a stark line between people who care about race and empire, and people who care about the communities that have been economically “left behind” in Britain over the last few decades.

At times, those in favour of paying more attention to the legacy of empire have contributed to this false impression by making a moral issue of it: you learn about empire if you are a good person, if you are kind and concerned with righting the wrongs of the past. In response, their opponents have pretended that all this talk about empire and decolonisation is just part of metropolitan identity politics: real people don’t have time for such moralising nonsense. The overall effect is to reinforce a real desire in the UK to forget all about it. Let’s just move on, shall we?

It is more than just lethargy; discussions of empire and its legacy can provoke an almost audible collective groan when raised. Empire is bracketed off into debates about race, as though conversations around its legacy are essentially the concern of bitter racial minorities inflicting their frustrations on everybody else. But this is an old trick. For centuries, the discourse of race has always been used to cleave an artificial division between human factions. It lulls the dominant group into believing that the violence they saw being done to others has no possibility of befalling them too.

This was always a lie. Violence never stays neatly within its prescribed borders. Race just allows particularly vulnerable populations to serve as target practice. Sooner or later, the weapon always turns towards other bystanders.

Young people understand we must reckon with colonialism.

So much of the economic violence covered in my book, Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire, has been absent from political, economic and social discourse in Britain over the years due to the residual belief that Black lives do not matter, even if they were British until very recently.

When sovereign debt crippled the island of Jamaica, the accompanying images of impoverished Black fishermen only reinforced prevailing ideas of the natural order of the world. When structural adjustment programmes left millions of children across Africa and Asia living hand to mouth this was received as further evidence of old, unspoken ideas about a hierarchy among the world’s people. When nation after nation in the so-called Third World buckled under the pressure of globalised capitalism following decolonisation, this was viewed by many in Britain as a problem with them, rather than a problem with our global system. A new myth of cultural or even racial inferiority was whispered through corridors of power – “see, here is the evidence that these people were always too backwards, too greedy, too inherently unintelligent to handle the complex pressures of sovereignty.”

But recently, there has been a glimmer of hope that more and more people, especially the younger generation, are starting to appreciate the importance of countries like Britain reckoning with their colonial pasts, not just for the good of others but for the good of ourselves.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the decades-long suppression of any serious conversation about race and imperialism exploded onto the streets across the country. The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 were the largest anti-racism protests in British history, and sparked the closest thing to a public conversation about Britain’s colonial legacy this country has ever seen. Significantly, protesters poured onto the streets not only in the UK’s main multicultural centres of London, Manchester and Birmingham, but also in rural, primarily white areas like Buckinghamshire, Cornwall and the Shetland Islands. Witnessing this while writing this book was a revelation. Clearly, there were more people than I had thought with an appetite for these kinds of conversations; people who suspected that in the history of empire and its afterlife they might find answers to some of their questions about how the imbalanced world that they live in came to be.

Despite a barrage of government figures condemning the protest movement, by the end of the 2020, over half of the British public supported the Black Lives Matter movement, with that number rising to seven in ten for young people.

The interest that the younger generation showed in the issue of empire seemed to catch political observers across the country by surprise. Newspapers have been jammed full of articles despairing that the nation’s youth was being “brainwashed” into challenging the legacy of the British Empire by teachers, the media, pop stars, footballers or an ever-changing line-up of public enemies.

Statistics do point to a sharp change in ideas about empire among younger Brits, with only 18% of 18-24-year-olds now seeing empire as something to be proud of, compared to 43% of those older than 65.

But while this shift in attitude has generated a great deal of anger towards ungrateful, unpatriotic millennials, rarely is the question asked: why are the young, from all racial backgrounds, so receptive to conversations around decolonisation at the moment? Is it really mass generational brainwashing? The naivete of youth? Or is it grounded in a suspicion that, for young people, the systems that may have enriched their forebears are no longer serving them?

Young people are being failed by the system.

En masse, young people in Britain are witnessing the lives they envisaged for themselves now slipping out of view; the lives that they were told – as members of an advanced nation – they had a right to expect if they worked hard and played by the rules. Many have done just that but now recognise that they may never own property, they may never be able to afford to raise children, they may never have secure work and, in all likelihood, they could still be paying off their student debt when they are preparing to receive their pensions.

The bank of mum and dad has become many people’s only hope for salvation, leaving those without rich parents trapped. This isn’t just the case for teenagers. The students who graduated in the financial crisis of 2008 were approaching 40 by the time the coronavirus pandemic descended. Many of them were still concussed from the first event when this further economic sledgehammer hit them. Now, they fear their lives will once again be left at sea while the corporate world is rescued.

Disaster after disaster has struck them and yet asset prices continue to soar uninterrupted, houses are more expensive, jobs are more insecure, their options get more and more restrained. Can they really be expected to maintain their faith in a system even as it cuts them adrift?

When faced with a choice between honouring or rejecting a figure such as Edward Colston, not just a slave trader but the director of the type of colonial company that built the modern world, is it so surprising that many of this generation lined up behind those who were dumping Colston’s statue into Bristol harbour?

This isn’t just a moral stance, it’s a wholesale disassociation with the liberal promise of inevitable progress that tells us that racism is a personal prejudice, only held by ignorant people. They know that racism isn’t just a matter of politeness but about how ideas and institutions reproduce power, and that this won’t simply disappear if we all just promise to never, ever mention it again. The rejection of the Colston statue revealed a growing recognition that empire was not just about identity and race but also about poverty and wealth, democracy and control.

While government ministers seek to paint conversations about decolonisation as being as silly as they are dangerous, people on the streets are increasingly recognising that empire is, quite simply, at the root of this country’s political and economic system. You cannot hope to change the system significantly without grappling with its aftermath.

We must face our imperial past to deal with spiralling inequality.

However, this movement cannot stop with the toppling of statues if it really wants to create a fairer world. Speaking about culture and symbolism are powerful ways to describe how people experience the hangover of empire in contemporary Britain, but there must also be a reckoning with the primary reason why empire was created in the first place: to materially enrich some people at the expense of others.

Challenging the aftermath of empire in Britain means reinterpreting the British state and its constitution in light of its development through empire, understanding the role that English conceptions of property play in reinforcing global corporate power, placing the never-ending immigration debate in the context of Britain’s global legacy, looking at the role that the City of London and Britain’s overseas territories play in financial globalisation, and asking how many of the problems that Britain itself is now facing are themselves a consequence of the afterlife of empire.

In order to deal with its own spiralling wealth inequality, Britain needs to deal with the afterlife of its empire, both at home and abroad. Though the government is still invested in the idea that racism is a personal prejudice rather than a system maintained by institutions of law and economics, the global project of empire tells us something different. Racism did not spread because of an inherent fear and hatred of people of different appearance, but because there was a need to gain more resources and wealth, and that required making others disposable, particularly those who inconveniently lived on the lands where those resources were located.

Those who currently shout “Black Lives Matter” in the streets of Liverpool, London and Manchester must recognise not just the value of the Black lives next door but the value of those in Accra, Nairobi and Kingston. This version of Black Lives Matter may prove a little harder for global corporations to support via a well-placed social media post or celebrity endorsement deal. But it will help us to identify some of the economic transformations that would be necessary to make the changes being called for by the movement. It is possible that, one day, telling the story of the 20th century without reference to decolonisation will look as ridiculous as trying to explain the global changes of the 18th century without mentioning the French or American revolutions.

Everywhere, democracy is under threat from capitalism.

The idea that the process through which three-quarters of the world’s people freed themselves from legal subjugation is just a niche interest at best, should, rightfully, look bizarre to future generations. The figures who drove the period of decolonisation after the second world war were asking many of the same questions which we are all wrestling with today. What does sovereignty mean? How can we exercise control of the market? How can we share resources across the world equitably?

The initial generation of decolonial independence leaders certainly did not have all the answers and made many mistakes of their own. They were as convinced by the industrialised ideal of development as everybody else. They remained largely a boys’ club, ignoring the concerns of the women who had done so much to drive their successful national liberation campaigns. They indulged in autocracy and let themselves believe that whipping up the nationalism of their population would be enough to overcome the deep political and economic challenges they faced. Once they got their hands on the instruments of state sovereignty, they often found it easier to wield its power against their own people than against the multinational corporations profiting from their lands.

But in the rubble of their struggle and defeat, we find the building blocks of our own unequal world. Today, there is renewed value in reading Kwame Nkrumah on the limits of national sovereignty, or Michael Manley on the regulation of corporations. For too long, the conversation around economic inequality has been conducted as though it comes from a different solar system to the conversation around the legacy of empire.

In my book, I have sought to upend this assumption, illustrating how the attempts to maintain the machinery of empire in the decades after its all fall, combined with the erasure of all memory of decolonisation, has contributed to the unleashing of grim spectres that now haunt this island.

There is little point in trying to reform the tax system in Britain if we don’t address how Britain’s overseas territories have been turned into offshore boltholes for tax avoiders. It is very difficult to be able to hold corporations to employment or environmental regulations in Britain unless countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America are empowered to do the same thing. Whether facing systems of unaccountable corporate power, offshoring, bordering or debt, we can’t explain what we now call neoliberalism and all its accompanying inequalities and insecurities, without confronting the aftermath of empire.

Kojo Koram is a writer and an academic. This article is an edited extract from his book Uncommon Wealth: Britain and the Aftermath of Empire.

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