Newsletter #38: The Absurdity and Danger of British Imperial Nostalgia, with Kojo Koram

By Michal Schatz

Living in Britain right now is like paying to sink on the Titanic. This year has brought the most severe drop in the standard of living in Britain ever recorded: rents have increased 11 percent nationally since last year, energy bills have increased by an average of £191 per month, inflation is expected to reach 13 percent, and the Bank of England has forecast that the country will slip into a year-long recession by 2022’s end. I moved to London a year ago this month, just before the country’s economy descended into freefall, and have spent the past year trying to understand the politics of Brexit and its proponents’ political vision.

After listening to this week’s Dig interview with Kojo Koram, I kept coming back to the connection he draws between the Brexit slogan of “taking back control” as a project to return the power of self-determination not to the supposedly left-behind British people, but to Britain’s ruling class, and the country’s ambiguous narrative of its empire.

Popular political conceptions of the British empire and decolonization may operate, as Koram points out, primarily in the symbolic domain, but Britain’s right-wing elite never seems to lose sight of the materiality of empire and its loss. In an astounding fit of imperial nostalgia and condescension, now-disgraced Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote in 2002, “The continent [Africa] may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Just over a decade later, Brexiteers like Johnson envisioned Britain’s departure from the EU as an opportunity to rebuild the empire in trade terms — what they, incredibly, marketed to African Commonwealth countries as “Empire 2.0.

Listen to this week’s episode here.

Six years after the Brexit referendum, the project to rebuild the empire through free trade agreements has not come to fruition, and in July Johnson was forced to announce his forthcoming resignation from his position. In the face of Britain’s deteriorating economy and collapsed government, the “take back control” slogan that sold Brexit to Britain seems straightforwardly cynical, as Dan suggests in the episode. Looking back at British debates around its empire over the last two decades, though, it’s clear that leaders on the British right feel that they’ve been unfairly denied a global position of power that their predecessors enjoyed. Johnson’s 2002 article captures the Tories’ stubborn commitment to the empire’s legacy and the resentment that so much of Britain’s right-wing elite feels towards their former colonial subjects’ ingratitude.

A similar type of imperial anxiety manifests itself among both Republicans and Democrats in the US: fears of diminishing American power, fearmongering over the “rise of China,” the decline of the dollar as the world’s currency, and insufficiently aggressive military intervention. US leaders who emphasize this American decline narrative tend to support the further neoliberalization of US society and the expansion of finance capital to the detriment of working people who are already suffering the effects of mass disinvestment and privatization. But the US position as an empire is hardly part of American consciousness — even on the Left. The example of Britain demonstrates how critical tackling the reality of empire head-on is to building a strong leftist movement that is up to the challenges we’re facing today.

Further reading

Kojo Koram’s book Uncommon Wealth is really worth reading in full. You can find it here. Aimé Césaire’s concept of the “boomerang effect” helps frame how Koram talks about the British empire’s enduring effects at home. Césaire originally developed the concept in his Discourse on Colonialism, which you can read in full (for free) here.

If you’re wondering why the majority of Americans don’t think of the US as an empire, you’re in luck: Daniel Immerwahr offers a compelling historical answer in his book, How to Hide an Empire.