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Calls to ‘make Britain great again’ draw on pseudo-intellectual defences of Empire

Are white academics and politicians finding the space in Brexit Britain to rehabilitate colonialism, even as they claim victim status themselves?

Image: Rhodes Must Fall Oxford.

The British Empire was a white supremacist project of conquest, plunder and dispossession requiring the most extreme and brutal forms of violence. But since the Brexit vote – with questions of immigration to the fore – the nation’s appetite for imperial mythology and fantasy has grown. In place of the European market, government officials expected to revitalise long-abandoned trade relationships with the Commonwealth, expressing a preference for Indian and Australian migrants over Europeans.

Dubbed ‘Empire 2.0’, the policy mixed the arrogance of former imperial grandeur with the recycling in commodity-ready form of a discredited and shameful era in British history. Brexit has created the space for an unapologetic reassertion of colonialism. The hankering for Britain to be ‘great again’ has not only infused British politics, but has been mirrored in the renewed appeal of mythical narratives about Britain’s imperial history in academia. Pseudo-intellectualised attempts to rehabilitate Britain's imperial past have surfaced, partly in response to the ground gained by effective anti-colonial movements.

Last year Oxford University announced a five-year project entitled ‘Ethics of Empire' to be led by Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar. Biggar is a long-time apologist of the British empire, and as such has unsurprisingly seized the opportunity to gain institutional support for his research on empire. Biggar and Oxford are seizing on the post-Brexit appetite for the notion that Britain was once ‘great’, and, crucially, can be so again. Biggar’s project, in seeking "to develop a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire" not only threatens to replicate the British empire as a project premised on Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, but also appears to countenance a future for such a project.

Biggar is not alone in the academy in his efforts to rehabilitate colonialism. Last year, Portland State University political scientist Bruce Gilley published his article, “The Case for Colonialism“, in Third World Quarterly. It was eventually withdrawn following resignation letters from its editorial board. That it could have been published in a traditionally anti-colonial journal is symptomatic of a perceived demand, and click-bait potential, for the sort of colonialism-friendly ideas Gilley espouses.

Renewed attempts to ‘complicate’ colonialism in a bid to repackage it for resale in the Trump and Brexit era, follow popular, successful anti-racist and decolonial campaigns such as Black Lives Matter, Rhodes Must Fall and Why is My Curriculum White. These campaigns are challenging apologists of racism and colonialism and the institutions which house and fund them. Students across the UK, as well as the US and beyond are refusing to tolerate racism on campus, resisting the systematic exclusion of non-white scholars from their curricula, and standing in solidarity with victimised tutors of colour. Post-colonial theory is only tolerable by the mainstream if it remains at the fringes of the academy – but it is seen as threat to be eradicated when it begins to inform practice and demands for redistribution and representation both in and outside the academy. As historically marginalised groups fight back, scrutinising and interrogating the structures which sustain their exclusion and disproportionate vulnerability to poverty and state violence, and as mainstream popular culture cedes ground to black culture and artistic expression, whiteness is closing ranks.

Post-colonial theory is only tolerable by the mainstream if it remains at the fringes of the academy

Oxford University and Third World Quarterly attracted strong criticism for their platforming of Biggar and Gilley. Oxford academics and 170 international academics co-signed letters condemning Oxford’s support for Biggar’s project. While Biggar rejected the accusation of ‘racism’, Gilley has owned it, commenting that the terms ‘racist’ and ‘white supremacist’ have "become something of a compliment", and describing critics of colonialism as "loud-mouthed minorities". In turn, Biggar has accused his critics of "collective online bullying”. Yet both Gilley and Biggar have succeeded in mobilising the right-wing press in defence of their advocacy for colonialism. Biggar has written columns in the right-wing British press defending his ideas, and helped the Daily Mail to launch a public and personal attack on Cambridge academic (and outspoken critic of his project) Priyamvada Gopal. Biggar and Gilley seem to be perversely trying to appropriate victimhood while capitalising on their white male power to publicly attack non-white anti-racist critics and turn the accusation of bullying and victimisation on them. Meanwhile Cambridge University has remained silent on the attack on Gopal. By contrast, Oxford University did not hesitate to defend Biggar when his 'Ethics of Empire' project came under public scrutiny.

Adopting a position of feigned victimhood is a long-favoured strategy of powerful white elites who wish to argue for racial exclusion. Nigel Farage has often claimed victimhood, arguing that people who oppose immigration are afraid to speak out for fear of being called racist. Gilley and Biggar have adopted a similar refrain. According to Gilley, "no one can talk about colonialism without being silenced, debate on colonialism has become impossible". Advocating for ‘inequality’, says Gilley, has become ‘taboo’. Biggar has glibly parodied his critics, stating, "the topic of ethics and empire raises no questions to which widely accepted answers are not immediately to hand. By definition, ‘empire’ is imperialist; imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical. Nothing of interest remains to be explored”.

Adopting a position of feigned victimhood is a long-favoured strategy of powerful white elites

The white man’s penchant for exploration, particularly of the colonial kind, has already done enough damage. British colonies from Canada to Australia continue to see what remains of their indigenous populations dispossessed of their land and living in abject poverty, marginalisation and affected by disproportional state violence. Brown and black people seeking safety in Australia by boat are met with a militarised response and confined to remote island prisons, indicative of a nation in fear of confronting the fact it is built entirely on land stolen by white Britons who once arrived by boat. And Black South Africans, too, continue to suffer the lasting effects of land and resource dispossession.

From the Falklands war to its military intervention in Iraq with its 2.4 million Iraqis dead, Britain’s ongoing desire for renewed greatness has, as Paul Gilroy has argued, had calamitous results for colonised people. Spatially, Britain remains racially and colonially configured, with poor brown and black descendants of colonised and enslaved peoples made disproportionately vulnerable to premature death – as we saw in the Grenfell tower fire in June 2017. 

Britain’s imperialism of recent decades has been masked in the language of humanitarian intervention, international trade and European cooperation. The Brexit era has created renewed purchase for the idea of the next British empire. Left unchallenged, imperial pride and nostalgia coupled with institutional support for pseudo-intellectual research advocating colonialism will see imperialism advocated for in its own name.

This article is an edited version of a piece written for IPPR’s journal, Progressive Review. The article can be viewed in full here.

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