Imperial nostalgia is not a Brexit phenomenon, nor is it even a recent one. As David Olusoga writes, ever since the loss of the thirteen territories that were to become the United States of America there has been ‘a nostalgic yearning for lost colonies’ and, perhaps more importantly, ‘the wealth and global influence that came with them.’
While the loss of the American colonies was mitigated through subsequent colonization projects across Asia and Africa, the dismantling of this second major imperial project was mitigated, as least temporarily, by Britain’s entry into a new transnational federation, that of the European Union, or European Economic Community as it was then.
Britain’s formal entry into the European project in 1973 enabled it to continue to exert disproportionate influence upon the world stage. As such, it masked the loss of global power and status that came with the concurrent processes of decolonization and the dismantling of empire.
What we are witnessing today, I suggest, are the belated death-throes of empire as Britain reckons with what it means to become a small country. The failure to properly account for its imperial past or to reckon with the consequences of that past in configuring the nation are all too apparent in current debates on the nature of citizenship and who belongs and has rights; or, as it’s more usually articulated, who shouldn’t belong and not have rights.
These issues have been most starkly demonstrated in relation to the Windrush scandal where the British government has sought to ‘deport’ its own citizens through a racialized process of stripping away their rights and entitlements to citizenship.
The people who disembarked from Empire Windrush in 1948 came not as migrants but as British citizens having this status enshrined in the British Nationality Act of that year, which set out two main forms of citizenship. One, you could be a ‘Citizen of the UK and its Colonies’ – this was a form of shared and common citizenship for all those living within the UK and its colonies.
Two, you could be a Commonwealth Citizen – this was available to all those living within countries that had formerly been colonies or Dominions of the British Empire and were now members of the British Commonwealth.
As an aside, it should be noted that this citizenship was also made available to Irish citizens even though Ireland had refused to join the British Commonwealth after gaining its independence. As such, a work around was created whereby Ireland was to be treated as if it was a member of the Commonwealth and Irish citizens as if they were Commonwealth citizens.
This explains why Irish citizens resident in Britain were able to vote in the referendum on continuing membership of the EU, alongside all other Commonwealth citizens living here, while other non-UK EU citizens resident here were not.
The point about asserting the citizenship rights of those who came from the British Empire and Commonwealth to work and live in Britain is not to draw a distinction between deserving and undeserving ‘migrants’.
Rather, it is precisely to point to the racialized logics at work in taking citizenship away from some people on the basis of race and forcing the question, in its own terms, about how these logics are then further mobilized in contemporary deportations and arguments about irregular migration.
We should be acutely aware of the processes, as Rieko Karatani has outlined, by way of which citizens were turned into migrants with all the loss of attendant rights that this entails.
The debates preceding and following the referendum oriented around particular understandings whereby belonging to the history of the nation was presented as central to the possibility of being acknowledged as being a legitimate part of politics and object of policy initiatives in the present.
Such arguments, however, profoundly misunderstand the history of Britain, which has never been a nation but an empire, and thus misidentify the extent of the populations who are historically part of the polity and would, as a consequence, be understood as belonging.
While there may have been a national project within the imperial polity, this was always a racialized project that precisely sought to distinguish the subjects of empire that mattered from those whose lives were deemed to be expendable or less valuable.
This form of imperial reason was continuous with the establishment of national democracy and is being starkly reasserted in the present not just in relation to darker citizens, but also in relation to paler ones, with non-UK EU citizens being disenfranchised in much the same way as their Commonwealth cousins had been fifty years earlier.
Even if some accommodation is made for the 3 million non-UK EU citizens resident in Britain, it is not clear – especially following the Windrush scandal – that their rights will be secure. This is particularly so in relation to the rights of family life.
Britain already has among the least favourable rights in this regard of any EU country and some of these rights are currently only provided and guaranteed under EU law. What happens, not just to non-UK EU citizens, but also to children holding British citizenship, with non-EU parents, who potentially lose their rights to reside in Britain, as Iyiola Solanke has set out here.
While those committed to Brexit often assert an expansive role for Britain in the world – perhaps best exemplified by the idea of ‘Global Britain’ – the reality is rather different.
There is a shrinkage of Britain’s understanding of itself, of its ideas of citizenship, and the very real prospect of a shrinking economy. This is a consequence of its failure properly to confront its past, rather than simply rhetorically and bombastically to rehearse it.
Andrea Levy’s novel, Small Island, plays with the term referring both to the island of Jamaica, from which some of the main protagonists come, and to their realization that Britain itself has become a ‘small island’ after decolonization and the loss of empire.
Their shock at what the ‘mother country’ was, in contrast to what they had been told it had been, is as apparent to them as it is hidden from the local characters, who continue to understand themselves as somehow better than their Commonwealth cousins.
Similarly, it could be argued that darker British citizens today – being aware both of Britain’s imperial past and its decolonizing present – have greater insight into contemporary transformations, the historical processes from which they ensue and the possible futures that are entailed.
By Gurminder K Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex.
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.