‘Project Hope’ should be the right and proper name of the Brexit campaign, says Michael Gove. The British Justice Secretary made this declaration on Friday night during a live TV interview on Sky News, in which he also lambasted the Remain campaign for belittling Britons and telling them that their country is “too small, too poor and too stupid” to stand alone outside of the European Union.
Gove and other prominent Leave campaigners, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, have long been arguing that Britain will be better off if freed from the “shackles” of the EU, and that the country can only venture towards becoming great again if that happens. In a speech given in April this year, Gove even argued that a British exit from the EU could become an “inspirational example to the world” and spark a “democratic liberation of the whole Continent”. He likened the EU to past failed empires: citing the models of the Habsburgs, Romans, Ottomans and Russians, yet curiously failing to mention the British empire at all.
A lack of awareness, or even delusion, about the role of British imperialism in shaping British history is something that strongly pervades the EU referendum campaign. Let’s get one thing straight though: Britain has not truly stood alone for a very long time, one could argue for several centuries, ever since it had a global empire to lean on.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially, it actively drew huge amounts of manpower and resources from its subjugated territories in order to protect and expand British global power, largely regardless of the wishes of its colonised subjects. India alone sent over one million men to fight for the British in the First World War, and double that number fought in the Second. By 1945, Britain was actually in debt to India to the tune of several million pounds – a drain on the Indian economy that left rampant inflation and famine in its wake. Yet when it came to answering Indian calls for political freedom in return for all this support; Winston Churchill, Britain’s great war hero and champion of the right to ‘national self-determination’, was not interested in the slightest.
British people are, however, rarely encouraged by their national curriculum to think critically about a long and shameful history of invading, colonising and disrupting the cultures of many other peoples from around the world; not least since Gove, as Education Secretary in the previous government, was instrumental in changing the History curriculum to adopt a more triumphalist and celebratory view of the ‘achievements’ of British imperialism, rather than of recognising and understanding the perspectives of those who suffered under it. It is not surprising then that such a worldview fails to acknowledge the sad irony that is apparent in mounting complaints and bitterness against the number of migrants living and working in Britain.
In the second half of the twentieth century, former subjects of empire came to British aid once again, when workers from across the Commonwealth were called over to Britain by its government, to help rebuild the country’s post-war economy and to develop the newly-founded National Health Service. Yet these families faced huge amounts of racism and hardship, mainly because the governments of the day had ill provided for their arrival and accommodation into local communities.
Today we see many of the same problems rearing their heads across the country, as austerity measures imposed by the Conservative government weaken the ability of social services and local councils to cope with growing demands on hospitals and housing. Clearly therefore, little heed is being paid to the lessons of our past; an approach which could well be highly detrimental for Britain as a nation, not least as recent research suggests that migrants coming from the EU actually make a positive net contribution to the UK economy. Instead of engaging with such economic and historic insight thoughtfully, the right-wing media and pro-Brexit politicians arrogantly brush aside the research and voices of specialists critical to their arguments (as Gove classically stated in his Sky News interview, “people in this country have had enough of experts”) and increasingly rely on dog-whistle tactics to demonise migrants as potential terrorists or rapists.
The espousal of such uncritical and misleading views about the history of British imperialism and migration is a truly toxic feature of the EU referendum campaign, and it constitutes a huge disservice to the British electorate on the part of its political representatives. The EU is definitely not perfect, it desperately needs reforming, especially if it is to tackle one of history’s greatest migration crises effectively – but by storming off in a misguided fit of arrogance and xenophobia, Britain is highly unlikely to achieve much.
Britain is no longer (thankfully) a country with an empire to fall back on, but is instead one that has plenty to give and to gain from being a part of a broader European world. The sooner British voters reject Gove’s delusions of imperial grandeur, the better.
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Priya Atwal is a doctoral student in History at the University of Oxford, and is currently working on a research project about the evolution of Anglo-Indian royal relations during the nineteenth century. Hailing from a British Sikh background, Priya has long been interested in exploring the history of the British Raj and the British Asian community, and is committed to making historical research more accessible and engaging for the public. Find her on Twitter: @priyaatwal