In every single country that was ever under British rule, you will find a significant number of people who praise colonialism or claim they would willingly welcome back the British. It’s a sort of meme – half joke, half genuine frustration over political or economic instability.
Sometimes these laments are wistful longings for things that never really happened, such as the trains running on time, or lost status from a period when “people knew their place”. But they are almost always issued by those who have internalised the logic of empire itself – which is that it was, overall, an improving mission, albeit with a small number of unsavoury excesses.
In messages leaked last week, Conservative MP and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch made these points, familiar to anyone who comes from a former colony. “I don’t care about colonialism,” she wrote. “They came in and just made a different bunch of winners and losers. There was never any concept of ‘rights’, so [the] people who lost out were old elites not everyday people.”
Idle nostalgia about empire, or indifference to it, can rarely be separated from the sort of worldview that established the empire itself: that there is some inherent natural order to the process of colonisation; might is right. If the British had the more evolved means – both in terms of technology and finance – to dominate a people and commandeer their natural resources, then they also had the right to do so.
The propaganda that then sustained empire, which imbued the “might” with the “right”, was the lie that empire was in fact really a civilising mission – a burden on the white man who brought not only Christianity to the heathen but also the order and hierarchy of his more sophisticated society. All the fraught discussions about empire still basically revolve around that coding – one embedded deeply not only in the British psyche but in that of much of the rest of the world, forged as it was in the furnace of colonialism and its monopoly on power for so long.
Empire has not only shaped British attitudes towards the rest of the world; it has shaped, to a large degree, the attitudes of those who have come to this country from the ex-colonies. In west Africa, in particular, the centralisation of power in the Christian church and the colonial administration, away from traditional structures and religions, vested both moral and political power in the coloniser. To become part of the local elite required learning English, adopting Christian values, aligning oneself more and more closely with Britain, maybe even being educated there. In creating this hierarchy, Britain created a centre of gravity, both cultural and political, that still has a powerful draw.
In my native Sudan, colonialism was a relatively gentle and short-lived experience (Sudan’s resources were not easily extractable and most of its lands inaccessible). The British underinvested in the country’s agriculture and overinvested in creating an army of local soldiers to support its military missions, first in Egypt and later during the second world war. By the time the British left, an entire generation of farmers had left their lands to become underemployed and overpaid soldiers. The result was the creation of a new set of values that fetishised the the anglicised elite and gave urban life a higher social status.
Britain’s current culture wars instantly marshal accounts of colonial and postcolonial life into supporting material for either “pro-” or “anti-” empire stances. But what is closer to the truth is that British minorities’ views on empire, race and immigration are very much the product of colonialism itself, creating a class of winners and losers (Badenoch wasn’t wrong there): the winners being those closest to the source of power and the political establishment.
When combined with the precariousness of the migrant experience, these competitive pressures can sometimes lead to an emphasis on social mobility and status, rather than group solidarity, and produce a sort of dog-eat-dog assimilation into the new society. Older, first-generation British minorities were more likely to vote for Brexit than those born here, and reported feeling anxious about the ease with which eastern European migrants were allowed into the UK.
Any criticism of Badenoch will no doubt be used by the right to show that non-“woke” black people aren’t “allowed” to have positive thoughts on empire. But black people both in former colonies and in the UK have long held these views. When we disagree with them, we know we are not arguing against facts, but against the loud echo of empire in a world where the power to define the colonial experience still resides with the colonising force.
Like most other non-democratic regimes, empire thrived through coercion and complicity. This isn’t complicated stuff. But so integral is empire to British identity that any attempt to come to grips with it is degraded into a matter of loyalty: whether one is patriotic, “proud” of one’s history, or a migrant who doesn’t appreciate the freedoms bequeathed by past colonial leaders. In this climate, challenging Badenoch’s account of empire becomes an act of treachery.
The rise of a particular type of prominent ethnic-minority Conservative politician has made it even harder to have these conversations. Ministers such as Priti Patel, Sajid Javid and Badenoch all simultaneously decry identity politics while leveraging their own identity to delegitimise others’ accounts of Britain’s racism.
With such powerful and prominent figures refusing to engage with the reality of the country and its history, we remain stuck: unable to move on from the logic of British rule as anything other than benign and above reproach; unable to understand how it still impacts on our politics, foreign policy and race relations. Badenoch is free not to care about colonialism. But I am not sure she, or any of us, can afford not to.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist