Britain must look forward, not pine for a lost past

The UK must realise the days of empire are over, writes Shelina Janmohamed

British prime minister Theresa May signs the official letter to launch Brexit. Christopher Furlong / Reuters
Powered by automated translation

My great grandparents left India around the turn of the 20th century and travelled to East Africa for new lives. In the 1960s, my parents echoed their migrant footsteps and left their homes and settled in Britain. In hindsight their trajectory followed the path of the British empire’s disintegration. This is no coincidence, as they were its subjects. India gained independence in 1947. Tanzania, my parents’ first home, became independent in 1961.

This was a period during which the empire – the one upon which the Sun never set and spanned three quarters of the world’s population – was crumbling.

Now I find myself in London in the week after the United Kingdom’s prime minister, Theresa May, formally triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, putting the country into a two- year process towards exiting the European Union.

Scotland is reconsidering its place in the union that binds it to the UK; the status of Gibraltar is once again the subject of heated discussions between Britain and Spain. Even London is looking to retain a relationship with the EU.

There’s the potential to read this as the British empire reaching its ultimate disintegration. And it’s very much self-inflicted. The question for Britain is, if this really is the end of the empire, does anyone else really care? And more importantly, if they don’t, what do those of us who live here do next?

Domestically, the argument for leaving the EU was centred around how much the UK has to offer the world, how people will be clamouring to do business with us and how we don’t need the EU because we have the world and our Commonwealth partners. To implement this vision, Whitehall officials have even been rumoured to have been discussing “Empire 2.0”.

Historian David Olusoga expresses that hopes of reigniting the economic wealth Britain enjoyed during the empire are based on nostalgia for a relationship that never existed. And while Britain has spent time reminiscing about its greatness, slips of the tongue such as “Empire 2.0” and what “we” did, are misplaced.

He explains that African and Commonwealth journalists are busy ridiculing the notion of a revived empire. The Chinese have moved in. Buying and trading power has shifted eastward. Even large and friendly relationships have changed. The likes of Canada and Australia now move in different circles determined by the neighbourhoods they live in.

Olusoga drives home the point that “we” don’t really pay any attention to the recipients of what “we” did, and think of Britain as a kindly uncle bestowing goodness to the infantilised and wayward colonies.

He's right. Take the example of Shashi Tharoor, an Indian member of parliament and former government minister. The video of his debate at the Oxford Union arguing that Britain owes reparations to India for what it did to that country went viral. It was shared over four million times and dubbed a must-watch for every Indian. His hypothesis has been expanded into his latest book Inglorious Empire expounding that it is a myth that Britain benefited India when in fact Britain governed in the interests of Britain. He states that India's share of the world economy dropped from 23 per cent when the British arrived, to 4 per cent when they left. He says: "Britain's industrial revolution was actually premised upon the deindustrialisation of India."

Having said all that, Britain still has the potential to play a significant global economic and political role in the future. The key is to become more outward-looking and think about our core offering to the world.

This has to be a conversation about the future and what it looks like, rather than the past and attempting to reclaim it. But with Brexiteer attitudes focusing on battening down the hatches, and with Trump-esque language around making countries great again, it’s not just a new global brand that the UK needs, but a shared internal vision.

The good news is that despite colonial legacies, the British brand – whether in goods or services or as a nation state – still evokes surprising positivity and goodwill.

The challenge for us in Britain is how to reinvent ourselves not in the light of a past empire, but of an innovative, forward-looking global citizen that recognises what it has to offer in a brave new world.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of the books Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World and Love in a Headscarf

On Twitter: @loveinheadscarf