Britain’s Reckoning With Its Imperial Legacy Is Long Overdue

Conservatives like to paint a sanitized picture of British imperialism, but the empire was built on murderous exploitation. Modern Britain is finally coming to terms with the crimes on which its global power rested.

The Battle of Gujarat, 1849. (The Print Collector / Getty Images)

In June 2020, as Black Lives Matter protests swept across the United States, campaigners in Bristol tore down a statue of the infamous British slave trader Edward Colston and dispatched it into the dark green waters of the city’s harbor. Eighteen months later, in January 2022, a Bristol court acquitted four of those activists of illegally removing the Colston plinth and causing criminal damage to public property.

According to the academic David Olusoga, a professor of public history at Manchester University, the verdict signaled a “landmark” moment in the UK’s “tortuous journey” toward acknowledging its role in the transatlantic slave trade — a key pillar of Britain’s imperial infrastructure for more than three hundred years. An English jury has decided that the real offense was the existence of the statue itself, Olusoga told the BBC after the verdict was announced, “not that the statue was toppled in the summer of 2020.”

There are other, less vivid indications that Britain is in the midst of a minor cultural reckoning with its imperial past. In July 2014, research by the polling company YouGov revealed that 59 percent of people in the UK felt “more proud than ashamed” of the British Empire, while 19 percent felt “more ashamed than proud” and a further 23 percent didn’t identify with either sentiment.

In March 2020, YouGov published another poll. This time, just 32 percent of Brits viewed the empire as a good thing, historically, compared to 37 percent who thought it was “neither something to be proud nor ashamed of.” The anti-empire bloc stayed the same at 19 percent.

A Profitable Enterprise

As Kojo Koram argues in his excellent, panoramic new book, Uncommon Wealth, and Sathnam Sanghera affirms in his slightly less excellent but still highly engaging Empireland, imperialism wasn’t something Britain did in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries and then casually left behind in the twentieth. To a significant extent, empire built the modern British state, and the legacy of empire runs through every aspect of contemporary British society, from its class system and its immigration regime to its constitution and even its plush, secluded country mansions.

Koram is a legal academic and researcher at the Birkbeck School of Law in London. He argues that, through empire, Britain pioneered early forms of laissez-faire capitalism, outsourcing, and public-private partnerships. The Royal African Company (RAC) is one notable example of this long-standing trend in British political economy.

Founded in 1660 as a mercantile trading body by the Stuart family and the City of London, the RAC mined gold off the west coast of Africa before charting slave ships to Britain’s mushrooming colonial plantations in North America. The company is thought to have transported up to two hundred thousand people across the Atlantic between 1670 and 1730, forty thousand of whom died without ever reaching American shores.

Koram traces the roots of Britain’s heavily privatized public sector back to these embryonic imperial alliances — alliances that imprinted in Britain’s ruling elite a lasting preference for corporate control of state assets (or for joint corporate-state control of said assets). Serco is a modern-day equivalent of the RAC, he contends.

This multibillion-dollar company administers vast swathes of Britain’s contemporary justice, health, and immigration systems, including Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire, a notorious processing and detention plant for asylum applicants. Suitably enough, the company’s CEO is Rupert Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill and nephew of Lord Edwin Duncan-Sandys, a Conservative politician who served as “Secretary of State for the Colonies” in the early 1960s.

Serco is the latest addition to a “conveyor belt” of corporations that has performed much of Britain’s “colonial heavy lifting” over the centuries, Koram writes. Corporate outsourcing in Britain predates not only Thatcherism, but the “unification of the United Kingdom” as a political entity.

The Global City of London

Koram has a particularly relevant and revealing chapter detailing the relationship between British Overseas Territories (BOTs), the growth of global financial capitalism, and fiscal austerity. BOTs are pseudoautonomous microstates; former UK colonial possessions, like the British Virgin Islands, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands, that decided, after decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, to maintain the constitutional trappings of Britishness yet jettison key parts of Britain’s economic and financial regulation. By maintaining links to Britain, they can offer high-net-worth investors the stability and confidence of a major economic power anchored by a centuries-old legal system committed to the sanctity of private property.

At the same time, BOTs are subject to none of the “democratic pressures that a large, populous state like the UK might face,” and can freely opt out of Britain’s domestic tax and financial arrangements. This culture of secrecy makes them highly attractive investment locations for the vast oceans of capital that wash around global financial centers like the City of London, itself a bizarre constitutional anomaly — “an offshore island,” with its own police force and regulatory powers, “in the middle of a sprawling metropolitan city.”

BOTs are technically as British as “Sheffield or Swansea,” Koram says, but by channeling the wealth of the global superrich out of the hands of UK legislators, they have starved British public services of tax receipts during a period of sustained fiscal retrenchment. Offshoring is part of the “afterlife of the British Empire,” he writes, and its consequences have been particularly stark for the poorest communities in Britain, which shouldered the burden of spending cuts and Conservative-imposed “efficiency savings” in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Koram’s blend of narrative history and deep theoretical analysis makes Uncommon Wealth a hugely arresting and effective investigation of Britain’s imperial rap sheet. In addition to his engrossing account of the aftereffects of empire, Koram writes movingly about the scuppered hopes of anti- (or post) colonial leaders like Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah and Jamaica’s Michael Manley, political visionaries whose ambitious plans for a new, more democratic global order in the 1960s and ’70s were derailed by the hard pressure of Western strategic and economic interests, applied through institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Koram, who was born in Ghana and whose parents moved to Britain to work in the National Health Service (NHS), carefully threads his own biographical details through the text. In the 1990s, he spent summers with his grandparents on the west coast of Africa before returning to the UK for school. The line between the “wealthy,” “developed,” and “industrialized” North, and the “primitive,” “poverty-stricken” South is far more ambiguous than most white Brits were brought up to believe, he says. In the global megacities of Africa and Europe, he saw the same patterns of inequality and precarity repeat themselves.

The debate around decolonization in the twenty-first century is conducted almost entirely in the symbolic register, Koram writes, about whether streets are called “Diversity Grove or Kitchener Avenue. Or whether schools should have to fly the Union Flag.” But what if the “unemployed former industrial worker” in the Midlands was as much a byproduct of Britain’s imperial mis-development as the iPhone-wielding street vendor in Accra?

Challenging Amnesia

Empireland is a more conventional memoir of the British immigrant experience, filtered through the lens of Sathnam Sanghera’s late awakening to the horrors of empire. Sanghera grew up as part of a middle-class Sikh Punjabi family in Wolverhampton. As a teenager, he was largely indifferent to Britain’s colonial legacy, and to the impact of colonialism on British society. That changed after he became a journalist and began researching the behavior of the British armed forces abroad, not least on the Indian subcontinent.

In 1919, British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of pro-independence demonstrators in Amritsar, a predominantly Sikh region of north-western India, killing up to fifteen hundred people and wounding thousands more. In the days that followed, the British authorities engaged in acts of “ritualized racial humiliation” against their imperial subjects, cutting off water and electricity supplies to the city, and publicly flogging Indians who failed to salute British officers in the street.

Such practices were common during the Raj. The British army slaughtered three thousand Sikhs during the Battle of Gujarat in 1849. In 1872, a British officer summarily executed sixty-eight Namdhari Sikh prisoners by canon fire, deliberately dispersing their body parts across an open field in order to obstruct religious funeral rites. The Amritsar massacre illustrated how Indian Sikhs, otherwise fetishized as a “martial race” by the British and frequently conscripted into service, were viewed from an imperial perspective — quite literally as fodder, Sanghera writes, “racially inferior and dispensable.”

Sanghera is good at identifying the dissonances of empire in modern British culture. Empireland takes us on a walking tour of British colonial history, surveying the physical architecture of imperialism in some of the UK’s biggest cities: Liverpool, Glasgow, London, and Bristol, all of which, to varying degrees, owe their enduring Georgian and Victorian grandeur to profits generated by the slave trade. Rural Britain, too, gorged on the proceeds of empire. In total, almost a fifth of Britain’s country houses — the classically imposing edifices you might see in Downton Abbey or the latest high-budget reboot of Jane Austen — were built on the back of colonial largesse.

Britain’s bloody heritage is hidden in plain sight, Sanghera says, but the instinct of the British media to dismiss demands for decolonization as politically correct wokery, and the absence of any sustained teaching on empire in the UK education system, has left a void in the country’s social conscience. “Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, has been catastrophic,” he concludes.

Uncommon Wealth and Empireland are separated more by style and structure than they are by argument and interpretation. Sanghera — a centrist columnist for the Times — tends to qualify his assessment of Britain’s imperial history with apologetic acknowledgements that there are, in fact, plenty of good things about the UK, too. In one chapter, he insists that the empire developed haphazardly, without any overarching political or economic agenda. In another, he shows how the imperial economy systematically enriched British elites for decades.

Koram is more clearly focused on the Césairean “boomerang” effect of Britain’s imperial policies and the corrosive influence of neoliberalism on the country’s social fabric. Yet the two authors reach near-identical verdicts: the UK is trapped in a kind of colonial feedback loop, unable to fully accept the scale and violence of its imperial experiment but nonetheless condemned to relive its lessons domestically.

The End of Britain

In that sense, it is no coincidence that enthusiasm for the empire crashed during a period of intense turbulence in British political life. A lot happened in Britain between the middle of 2014 and the start of 2020. There was a referendum on Scottish independence, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, and England and Wales voted for Brexit. David Cameron was replaced as prime minister by Theresa May, who gave way in turn to Boris Johnson. Corbyn resigned as Labour leader after the electoral defeat of 2019, and the UK officially left the European Union. Meanwhile, Johnson’s Brexit deal established a de facto trade border in the Irish Sea, and a deadly pandemic swept the country.

In How Britain Ends, Gavin Esler locates the sources of British instability in the collapse of empire after World War II. Esler is a former BBC News presenter turned full-time anti-Brexit celebrity who ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for Change UK in the 2019 European Parliament election. He views the empire as the glue that bound the Union — England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — together. Brexit, he says, is only the latest and most visceral expression of Britain’s postimperial crisis and decline; a nostalgia-soaked testament to England’s increasingly obsessive belief in its unique national destiny.

He is half-right: Britain was always an inherently transactional endeavor. The 1707 Act of Union, which dissolved Scotland’s independent parliament in Edinburgh and folded Scottish MPs into the English House of Commons, was a marriage of elite economic convenience. Scotland’s leaders were out of cash after the Darien Scheme, a disastrous colonial misadventure in Panama, and sought access to English imperial markets. For their part, England’s leaders wanted a secure northern border (and to limit the prospect of a resurgent Catholic Jacobitism).

The growth of the empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries fired Britain’s industrial development. In 1700, Scotland was the poorest country in Europe. By 1900, Glasgow, having profited handsomely from what is still euphemistically known as the “North American tobacco trade,” was one of the richest cities on Earth, a thriving global capital of textile manufacture and shipbuilding.

Ireland split from the UK in 1922. India followed suit in 1947, and Ghana in 1957. The Gambia, the United Arab Emirates, and a host of other countries exited Britain’s colonial orbit not long after. As the material benefits of empire began to fade, imperialism lost its domestic unifying appeal. By the time Britain ceded control of Hong Kong, its last major colony, to China in 1997, Scotland and Wales were on the brink of home rule and a powerful, revanchist current of English nationalism was beginning to stir.

Esler sees this version of Englishness, nudged awake by legislative decentralization and the erosion of imperial ties, as the primary driver of British unrest. The Brexit campaign, he says, shrouded in the libidinal rhetoric of submission and control, unleashed latent imperial impulses in the English psyche — impulses largely missing from the more liberal, civic, Europhile cultures of the Celtic periphery. The result: an irreparably damaged union, coupled with the wholesale destruction of the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Tories, in their traditional guise as guardians of the British state, no longer exist, Esler writes. Instead, they have become “a radical voice and vehicle” for provincial English interests.

National Interlude

Another theory, advanced by the historian David Edgerton in his 2018 book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, is that the end of empire created a brief but unparalleled moment of national unity in Britain, running from the late 1940s to the early twenty-first century. Before World War II, Britishness was a global concept, intimately tied to the empire’s twin prerogatives of military (chiefly naval) dominance and the spread of free markets and deregulated trade. Its reach was vast: in 1920, the empire spanned half the globe, governing the lives of more than four hundred million people, a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

But the predicates of Britishness changed after the defeat of Hitler and the election of Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1945. Britain didn’t “stand alone” against the Axis powers in 1939, Edgerton says. Its resistance to fascism was bolstered not just by a massive auxiliary force from the “white dominions” — Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa — but also by more than a million Indian and two hundred fifty thousand African troops. The Churchillian myth of self-sufficiency nonetheless formed a key part of Britain’s post-conflict identity. “The war that had been an internationalist war of diverse peoples fighting together became, in the national imaginary, a British ‘people’s war,’” Edgerton argues.

One reason for this was that the Attlee government was quite literally engaged in nation-building. Labour brought huge chunks of the British economy under public control, expanded the welfare state, and established the NHS. At the same time, two new military-political superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, eclipsed the UK on the world stage. At the height of empire, the word “Britain” conjured up a global capitalist commonwealth stretching from Vancouver to Victoria State. After 1945, it referred to the core home nations — the Anglo-Scottish partnership plus Wales and Northern Ireland — anchored by a single, unitary political system, two dominant unionist parties, and a strong, interventionist state.

Just as people of color had been victims of British expansionism in the decades leading up to World War II, they found themselves on the wrong side of the UK’s newly insular postwar political culture. In 1968, the House of Commons passed the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, stripping colonial citizens of the automatic right to UK residency. In 1971, the Immigration Act tightened the racial vice still further by imposing specific restrictions on immigrants from “new” Commonwealth countries, such as Uganda and Jamaica, while maintaining open-door concessions for citizens of “old” Commonwealth countries, like Canada and Australia. In both instances, the influence of ultranationalist Conservative MP Enoch Powell — a pivotal figure in late-twentieth-century British politics, brilliantly profiled by Koram and Sanghera — was clear.

For Edgerton, postwar Britishness had a strikingly short shelf life. Successive Westminster administrations dismantled the Attlee settlement from the 1970s onward, and the ascendancy of transatlantic finance and the City of London crushed the central institutions of British national capitalism (the industrial economy, the labor movement, the welfare state). Margaret Thatcher didn’t just privatize Britain’s economic assets — she globalized them. North Sea oil was once seen as the centerpiece of Britain’s national energy strategy. Today, Wall Street hedge funds and sovereign capital from China, Norway, and the Middle East dominate the industry.

Edgerton believes it is this narrow, “decaying” nationalism of the 1970s, not the imperial nationalism of the nineteenth century, that has now run aground. Beneath the quaint Victorian aesthetics, Brexiteers cleave to the idea of Britain as a distinct national unit and, since 2016, Tory politicians have sought to roll back Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish autonomy. But for Edgerton, Johnson’s brand of “muscular unionism” is a dead end. The material basis for Britishness vanished in the dust clouds of Thatcherism and the devolutionary reforms of the late 1990s are too deeply embedded to be reversed.

Under the Rug

Uncommon Wealth and Empireland subject Edgerton’s sweeping revisionist narrative to an implicit critique. For Koram and Sanghera, imperialism remains the lodestar of British identity. As Koram points out, even Clement Attlee — next to Winston Churchill, the principal author of Britain’s autarkic conceit — was sentimental about the supposedly civilizing influence of empire.

In 1947, as India was negotiating its independence from the UK after a century of colonial rule, the then Labour leader told the House of Commons that Indians owed their “freedom and unity” to Britain. “According to Attlee, India had only become part of the Empire in the first place because of the ‘voluntary cession of authority to the British,’” Koram writes. The years of strikes, protests, and civil disobedience leading up to independence were “swept under the rug.”

It is instructive to compare Attlee’s sanctified place in the British national imagination, and that of his foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, to the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s own party hounded him for questioning Labour’s commitment to nuclear weapons, the clearest symbol of Britain’s lingering imperial disposition. In Scotland, on the other hand, opposition to nuclear bases like Faslane remains a symbolic touchstone for the Scottish National Party, long after its leadership pledged an independent Scottish state to NATO membership.

Koram’s decision to trace the link between Britain’s network of offshore tax havens and its spiraling rates of homegrown inequality has recently been spectacularly vindicated. In April of this year, it emerged that Akshata Murty, the billionaire wife of Tory chancellor Rishi Sunak, had avoided paying millions of pounds worth of income tax as a result of her “non-domiciled” status. As Koram explains, the “non-dom” loophole in the British tax code is a direct inheritance from empire, enacted during Britain’s imperial heyday to “allow those who owned lands or businesses in the colonies to live in the UK but avoid paying tax on the wealth they possessed overseas.”

While Murty was maximizing her family’s tax arrangements, Sunak — the richest MP in the House of Commons, a Goldman Sachs graduate whose parents and grandparents were born in British-controlled India and Kenya — was implementing the latest in a series of deep cuts to the UK’s welfare safety net. According to a 2017 study, Conservative welfare reforms disproportionately hit the living standards of black and ethnic minority Britons — a constituency already heavily overrepresented on the margins of the British class system.

There are limits to Britain’s newfound appetite for self-reflection. Conservatives remain staunchly opposed to any kind of meaningful engagement with the social and economic consequences of the country’s colonial past. In late 2020, sections of the right-wing press became incensed by the suggestion that the bloated imperial anthem “Rule, Britannia!” had been banned from the Proms, a classical music festival broadcast annually by the BBC. It hadn’t: the festival’s organizers had decided to play an instrumental version of the song in line with pandemic restrictions on public singing that were in place at the time.

Still, as David Olusoga suggests, something has shifted post-Colston. Uncommon Wealth and Empireland offer two distinct but complementary accounts of British decline. The empire was once an awkwardly repressed memory in the mainstream of British culture, bubbling up either in the racist jingoism of the Powellite right or in the (deceptively) cartoonish rituals of the Royal Family. Now, it is firmly back in the political realm. The more Britain’s legacy of imperialism is interrogated, the looser and more fractious the UK itself seems to become.