A map of the world, showing the British Empire coloured in red at the end of the nineteenth century. Date: late 19th century Source: Advertisement for McVitie’s Biscuits and Oatcakes

Just to say that I will probably write a blog post around once a week, as work commitments are fairly busy at the moment, but I see I’ve picked up a handful of followers which is nice. 🙂

I touched on the legacy of the British Empire in my previous post on migration – the increase in non-white migration to the British Isles was an inevitable consequence of an global empire where all its inhabitants were ‘subjects’. But what if the wider legacy of empire has also been a contributory factor in making elements of the white population more angry and disenchanted? Might it also have been a factor in Brexit referendum in 2016, or exploited in some way? In fact I think this has less to do with racism, although still unfortunately a factor, and as much to do with economics.

The origins of the British Empire were ultimately exploitative, to make money from trade. The first privateers (some might say, pirates) were people like Francis Drake and John Hawkins keen to break into the lucrative Spanish transatlantic slave trade. The East India Company which established England’s foothold on the Indian sub-continent was about establishing commercial trading operations. Britain’s industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the claim to be the workshop of the world, was fuelled by raw materials dependent on slave and indentured labour overseas. It was built around the concept of “free trade” that opened up foreign markets for Britain under the watchful eye of the gunboat and ensured global economic control in case others tried to muscle in on that “free trade”. It wasn’t really “free trade” in the 21st century sense.

However this exploitative motive for empire started to go awry after the First World War. Far from being a sign of Britain’s global strength, the expansion of Britain’s imperial
responsibility after 1919 was in fact a significant catalyst of its decline. The priority of earlier empire-builders was to trade and make money but establishing a government and civil service in foreign territory was hugely expensive and was pursued only if it was the best way to secure favourable trading rights. It was even more expensive if you also needed to garrison troops and protect frontiers. The Paris peace treaties after the First World War followed a different logic. Through the League of Nations mandate system, Britain gained
responsibility for territories, including Palestine and Iraq, in which it had no previous
economic interest (oil in Iraq was discovered in 1923). Though prestigious, in reality these acquisitions represented little but increased costs to the British economy.

The decline of the British Empire after the Second World War was relatively swift, beginning with India in 1947. There’s still a nostalgia about the Second World War and the British Empire, but the two seem rather confused. If you have a nostalgic view of the British Empire *and* the Second World War – the latter is always odd to my mind as you’d have to be at least 85 years old to have any significant memory of it – you surely have to accept the reality that Britain’s contribution to the war effort came at the price of its empire. Britain was bankrupt in 1945 with massive debts owed to the United States that were only fully repaid in 2006. The other British institution for which there is great confused nostalgia and affection, the National Health Service would not have existed without the decline of Empire. A major incentive for the British Government to accept Indian independence, rather than face its war debt and maintain power, came from the new Labour Government’s desire to use its finances to look after the health and welfare of British citizens rather than keep colonial subjects in the Empire. Maintaining an empire abroad and a welfare state at home was just not compatible and aspects of the post-war welfare state have remained popular that even Conservative governments have dared not reverse them.

The collapse of Britain’s empire in the decades after World War II was followed by a huge growth, and then persistence, of extreme economic inequality – it persists even today in Britain’s north, ex-mining and industrial towns which never recovered from deindustrialisation. Britain’s relative economic decline occurred in tandem with the loss of almost all of its remaining colonies in the 1970s and the economic benefit they had provided and the affect on British industry. Britain had enjoyed a virtual monopoly of the consumer markets within the Empire, enforced by the closed Pound Sterling Bloc, but it could not compete once the territories gained independence and were free to negotiate their own trade agreements and take advantage of better quality, and in some cases cheaper, products from the US, West Germany, Italy and Japan.

The British thought that joining the European Economic Community in 1973 could replace this loss. It didn’t because the European relationship was mutual, rather than exploitative. The ‘having your cake and eating it’ approach didn’t work when you were in an economic union of relative equals like France and Germany. And even less likely to work 40 yearsc later outside of that economic union, with no Empire, when the rest of the world is ready to now exploit you instead! In some ways the British hostility to the EU is surprising in the context of empire because there were opportunities to exploit economically like the empire of old. Today’s Brexiteers did not like the EU’s single market and customs union, but Britain, including Margaret Thatcher, was actually very keen on the 1985 Single European Act that provided great opportunity for British financial services to exploit the benefits of wider European markets.

But anger with your lot in life isn’t necessarily rooted in the intricacies of global alliances, the rules and regulations of economic unions, and empires. They might be the object on which to shift blame, but the anger stems from real world affects on the individual. Unfortunately, post-Empire Britain has not fared very well. Here’s a few statistics:

  • income inequality rose from being among the lowest in Europe in the 1970s to the highest of all 28 EU member states in 2015, a year before the Brexit referendum.
  • an older, now nostalgic generation, lived through a period of close to full employment up to 1976 and rising living standards for all, only to see this lost over the next ten years of further industrial decline, particularly in Leave voting areas of northern England and the Midlands.
  • median wages did rise in real terms in Britain in the 80s and 90s, but they did not keep up with shareholder dividends. Wages at the top also rose far faster than those at the bottom. This was the story of the 1980s and 1990s.

In the absence of the opportunity of empire, which British people were now exploiting who? Were the descendants of those empire elites looking to the British economy and its people for their gains now?

This argument only goes so far. There were proportionally more ‘Leave’ voters in southern England, partly because it is more populous than the North, but perhaps surprisingly, because southern England has traditionally been more affluent. However, whilst a decaying factory site in northern England leaves an obvious trail of inequality and poverty, a different form of inequality and anger was happening in a less visible way in the south. Middle class largely Conservative/UKIP-voting people weren’t seeing their own lives damaged but the life chances of their children and grandchildren were being affected. Whereas their generation, when young adults, could more easily secure permanent housing, start a family, hold down a steady job and – if they were to secure a place – attend university for free, it’s primarily because of rising inequality that the next generations in England could not.

Arguably, there was a dynamic link between the end of empire and the rise of inequality in Britain for which a ‘take back control’ slogan found fertile ground across large parts of England for different reasons. That slogan was combined with nostalgic imagery of early 20th century empire as cosy Anglo-Saxon club, and “buccaneering Britain”, which in reality was already in decline as the First World War ended. But those prejudices were easily tapped into – and still are – as those who voted ‘Leave’ did have one clear trait in common: they were mostly older, English voters, many of whom are likely to remember Empire and lived through its decline.

However, the economics and inequality goes further and the decline of Empire also affected those at the top. In 1913, the richest 0.01% of households in the UK received 425 times the average household income per year. By 1976 that had fallen to just 30 times. But by 2014 it had risen to 125 times. The rich British did lose out too when the empire disappeared, but some how they made up the gap. Conservative governments, in the wake of Labour’s 1940s welfare state policies which the British have grown attached to, tried to redress the balance in different ways including the growth of financial services following deregulation of the City of London in 1980s which allow good and bad capitalism to flourish.

Some of this was cultural for sure. Tactics of divide and rule, and breaking dissent that had been applied overseas to different groups in different ways were now aimed at British trade unions, British activists and agitators, and British politicians who argued (and still do) for greater equality. And ‘Brussels’ was also an easy bogeyman – why send money there, when your older leave inclined voters need and value the NHS more than ever? However, much was also economic too. The loss of India in 1947 and most African colonies in the 1960s had effects that were felt most keenly decades later. It wasn’t long after the colonial investments of the wealthy first turned sour that Conservative governments in the early 1980s began to cut taxes for the wealthy at home and pulled the plug on poorer regions like Geoffrey Howe’s ‘managed decline’ of Liverpool after the Toxteth riots. This plug was pulled in many other ways, from ending the regional funding of poorer areas that had begun with the Special Areas Act of 1934, through to state support of industries and infrastructure in the south-east of England and especially London. But conversely deregulation of the City of London allowed a different type of economic gain for a minority, some might say exploitation.

So those with a left wing viewpoint have put forward an argument that as the opportunities of empire faded, a small group of those with a little financial advantage at home, began instead to exploit their fellow British citizens for more and more profit. The take of shareholders in British companies did began to rise and the wages of British workers didn’t keep pace. Perhaps it is no coincidence therefore that the Brexit movement was championed by millionaire, public school-educated financial traders, fronted by an Old Etonian who collectively radicalised and distorted views of empire to deflect the anger of the majority on people and institutions that were not actually to blame for their economic decline?

So economics of the decline of empire on Britain are my first thoughts on this. I’m sure this is inadequate, but I think it is a big underlying factor. I will need to think some more about the cultural impacts, racism, xenophobia, superiority complex, immigration and education as causes of anger in 21st century Britain.

I think the education point in particular needs to be explored more as older people – who were the driving force behind the Leave vote – have had much more experience of a more overtly British, jingoistic school curriculum. They didn’t, on the whole, go to university in large numbers or have wider life experiences beyond their home towns. The high point of empire, from the late 1880s onwards, coincided with the development of mass elementary education. A value system, based on military patriotism, xenophobia, racism and a nationalism that excluded foreigners, filtered down from the upper-class public schools to the middle-class grammar schools and into the elementary schools for the working classes. Into the 1960s, maps on classroom walls had large areas coloured pink, which illustrated the colonies belonging to “us”, and into the 20th century, school text books, children’s literature, and films extolled the adventures of those imperial adventurers who had made Britain ‘great’.

So we get back to romantic notions of Francis Drake, John Hawkins, Cecil Rhodes, and others, but also people like the slave traders and their direct and indirect descendants who wanted to make money and politicians (some of whom are the same people as the empire’s ‘buccaneering’ descendants) not just in the UK who wanted, allegedly, to ‘make things great again.’ For society generally, or for themselves?

More thoughts to come….


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