Windrush and ignorance in the face of Brexit are products of lingering British imperial ideology

Post-colonial Britain has been shaped by the ideologies, structures and ideas which have stemmed from the Age of Empire. The arrival of the Windrush generation in the 1940s irrevocably changed Britain. The thousands of Caribbean migrants brought with them new conceptions of what it meant to be British; signalling a move away from being defined as racially white. Louise Bennett famously labelled Windrush “colonisation in reverse” and to this day we are still grappling with the task of creating a new, post-imperial Britain.

The most striking example of how, as a nation, we are still intrinsically bound to our imperial past is the issue of racism. Undoubtedly, over the last few decades, things have improved drastically for members of the Windrush generation; the various race relations acts have made it easier for people of colour to integrate into public life.

However, racism is still prevalent in the UK. Cultural disorientation brought about by immigration from the old British Empire and the quest for a post-imperial identity has fostered hostility and division. Immigrants have been demonised, seen as the “other”; much in the same way as they were at the time of the Empire itself. Institutionalised racism has manifested itself for decades since the end of Empire. Famously, Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech gave a voice to those fearful of mass migration from the colonies. Anti-immigration rhetoric has since been weaponised, employed to foster a sense of anger and betrayal to fuel ugly forms of populism.

To this day, the Windrush generation have been demonised and treated with contempt; Hostile Environment policies have discriminated against black British citizens, denying them healthcare, classing them as illegal immigrants and wrongly deporting them. The demonisation of Black immigrants has singled them out as the “other” a group who may live in Britain but who themselves are not truly British. This idea of the “other” is a blatant reminder of the Age of Empire where native people were routinely perceived as uncivilised, backwards and violent people.

These assumptions have fuelled prejudices against black people and these stereotypes are reflected in official crime statistics today. Stop and Search statistics show that there were 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 White people, compared with 29 stop and searches for every 1,000 Black people. In addition, the Lammy Review showcased how despite making up just 14% of the population, BAME men and women make up 25% of prisoners.

The British Empire very much still exists in the realm of politics and remains a topic of much disagreement. The British Empire, in particular notions of power and prestige, have fed their way into mainstream political discourse. Jingoistic rhetoric is readily employed by politicians on the right to spawn a sense of pride and patriotism.

Despite its decline over half a century prior, Brexit epitomises the centrality of the British Empire to modern day understandings of British politics and identity. Gary Younge of The Guardian argues “the Brexit vote was certainly underpinned by a melancholic longing for a glorious past” and many journalists have coined the term Empire 2.0 to describe this phenomenon. Brexit “goes to the heart of Britain’s identify”, asserting claims of exceptionalism which Britain had lost in the post-imperial world yet is capable of rediscovering. The British Empire no longer exists, Britain is no longer the superpower it once was, but it is precisely this memory, this sense of what was and could be again which has underpinned Brexit.

Debates over how we, as a society, should remember the British Empire have been pivotal in post-imperial Britain. Empire still plays a crucial role in the construction of our identities; influencing what we choose to educate our children. Whereas many argue that it is our duty to educate people in British history others are concerned with the potential “white—washing” of history; rendering history to a celebration of the British Empire. Dr Andrea Major has coined the term “collective amnesia” to describe how the education system has overlooked the “levels of violence, exploitation and racism involved in many aspects of imperialism”.

The British Empire has, and continues to, shape modern British life. Although it would be inaccurate to say it still exists in a geo-political sense, or that it has as much real-world influence as it might have once had, the extent to which we are still living in a post-colonial age is clear. The social, political and economic effects of the Empire are still being felt by people in this country. Most importantly, the legacy of the British Empire has formed the basis of people’s identities and irrevocably changed the question of what it means to be British.


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