The countdown to leave the European Union began in the British summer of 2016, but nobody in the country seemed to know in which direction they were headed. Those who voted to leave don’t know what kind of future they would like; those who voted to stay don’t know what they can do to stop the process they are certain will create only misery. British politicians from the two major parties – Conservative and Labour – aren’t helping.
The Conservatives are led by a prime minister who voted to stay and seems reluctant to leave the EU; Labour is led by a man who never wanted the UK to join the EU, and must somehow convince voters who wish to remain that he can strike a better bargain.
A decisive vote would have made the politicians’ job easier. But just over half (52%) voted to leave, and nearly half voted to stay. Britain sees itself as a trading country – the EU began as the Common Market with free movement of goods, capital and people across national borders. Leaving would be easy, some politicians said; there would be new trade deals with the United States and China, as well as with the Commonwealth. Ministers spoke eloquently about re-establishing old ties with Commonwealth countries.
Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth
Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth
This showed the triumph of naive hope over experience, based on the misguided assumption that the Commonwealth countries were eager to forge new ties with Britain, instead of strengthening ties with the EU, the world’s second-largest economy.
Like a divorcee on the rebound, Britain is now desperately seeking to woo its old flame, the Commonwealth, even as its 51 other member states are not exactly sure what Britain wants, and whether Britain is what they need. They have all gone their separate ways. Canada, for example, is keen to protect the North American free trade agreement, which US President Donald Trump wants to revise, if not tear up. Australia and New Zealand have long seen their future in the dynamic Asia-Pacific region. India is growing, but wishes to be seen as a major power at the head table, and would not wish to jeopardise its ongoing negotiations for a trade agreement with the EU for a pact with the UK. British politicians are going to find it hard navigating fresh agreements with dozens of countries and rewriting many laws.
Resurrecting relationships with the former colonies is not going to be easy. Many in Britain feel nostalgic looking back to empire; those in the former colonies don’t always carry such happy memories. Some countries, such as Singapore, have surpassed Britain in per capita income and growth, and they see little need to indulge the UK. For many others, the core premise of the Commonwealth brings back memories that are not necessarily warm.
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Four films released last summer too recall that time, and present the empire in a way that comforts the British, rather than making them confront reality. In the eponymous film Churchill, the former prime minister is humanised. Viceroy’s House mythologises the disaster of the widespread violence that broke out at the birth of India and Pakistan during the empire’s disintegration into a desperate imperial attempt to rescue the situation by restoring order. Dunkirk shows how an ignoble retreat forms the foundation stone on which to construct national character. And in Victoria & Abdul we see an ageing queen shown utter devotion – nay, servility – by an Indian servant. That 2017 was the 70th anniversary of India’s partition is coincidental. As time passes, the act of remembering becomes more difficult, as fewer people remain who have witnessed that era. And without such remembering, any future relationship across the Commonwealth, between the former rulers and their former subjects, will be fatally flawed.
One wayto look at the British referendum to leave the EU is to see it as a leap backwards into a past that existed more in imagination than in reality. The yearning for the Commonwealth – expressed in the speeches of Boris Johnson, the the foreign secretary, and Liam Fox, the international trade secretary – sounds peculiar. It is nostalgia in its most basic sense: evocation of the past without the pain suffered or inflicted. Johnson and Fox have spoken confidently of deepening trade relationships with the Commonwealth based on shared ties, assuming that those ties can seamlessly replace those with the EU.
The era when Britain enjoyed favourable terms of trade with the colonies was very different, and it relied on the unequal power relationship inherent in the colonial set-up. There were rules, but Britain set them. It was the time when Britannia ruled the waves – and waived the rules when it wanted. The East India Company is mistakenly called a free-trade pioneer; it was more like a buccaneer that established control backed by the strongest naval power of the time, and conscripted soldiers drawn from the colonies.
Many Britons believe the empire was a good thing. A 2014 YouGov poll of 1,741 people across Britain showed 59% felt the empire was something to be proud of and only 19% thought it was something to be ashamed of. Almost half the respondents felt the colonies were better off for being colonised; only 15% felt they were worse off. Not surprisingly, the Harvard academic Niall Ferguson tweeted those results, saying “I won” because he believes the empire was, on balance, a good thing for its subjects. To me, those statistics actually showed how poorly history has been taught in Britain.
Regardless of British wishes, the once-subject nations are no longer supplicants. Prime minister Theresa May was in for a rude shock in November 2016 when she raised the topic of a free-trade agreement with her Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. Instead of agreeing enthusiastically, as a maharajah in the 19th century would at Queen Victoria’s durbar, Modi wanted something in return. He wanted more visas for Indian students and easier migration. May could not agree: reducing immigration was one of the prime drivers for those who voted to leave, and no British politician could go back to her voters saying that instead of Poles, Italians and Bulgarians, Britain would now welcome Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshis. Modi said fine – and there was no deal.
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Shashi Tharoor, the Indian diplomat-turned-politician, has written an engrossing account of British rule, Inglorious Empire (Scribe, 2017), which provides a powerful reality check. He called it An Era Of Darkness in India, and that title echoes – and mocks – the Nobel laureate VS Naipaul’s first and much criticised book about the country, An Area Of Darkness (Andre Deutsch, 1964). In a famous essay, the late Indian poet Nissim Ezekiel eviscerated Naipaul’s “discovery” of India, calling it “rubbish”. For while Naipaul to some extent saw India as an unmitigated disaster redeemed by the benign, benevolent hand of British rule, Tharoor forcefully argues that colonial rule not only impoverished India, but enfeebled it.
As Britain’s global influence has waned, nostalgic romance for the empire has taken hold among some historians – notably Niall Ferguson, although he is by no means alone. Some of this revisionist writing provides a comic-book version of the empire where the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was an aberration. The power of that narrative is formidable. Many in India are also unaware of the extent of despair the Raj brought – it is cringe-worthy to see Winston Churchill regarded as a hero in some circles in India, given his central role in allowing the creation of conditions that led to the Bengal famine of the 1940s.
Tharoor pierces this conceited bubble with facts, arguments, humour, sarcasm and logic. The “company sarkar” (government), he shows, carried out organised looting, preventing Indian businesses from challenging British monopolies by destroying competition, placing barriers at home on imports from India, making British exports to India tariff-free, manipulating the currency to increase Indian debt, setting standards that made Indian manufacturing uncompetitive in global markets, and requiring tea estates to be run by British managers. He challenges the notion that Indian political unity is a British gift.
When you place Tharoor’s book alongside the films that dominated screens last year, you realise how wide the gulf is between what Britain knows (or wants to know) and what really happened. It is also why reestablishing links with the Commonwealth is not going to be as simple as trying to arrange a date with an old flame.
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At the start of Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, a caption notes (without any sense of irony) that history is written by the victors. The film is crawling with images of supine, scraping and bowing Indians serving the empire – keeping the manicured lawns pristine green, the marble floors gleaming, the furniture polished.
Lord Mountbatten is depicted as in an enormous hurry to give India independence and leave. Note, he is the one doing the “giving”. He appears benevolent, an impression many Indians and Pakistanis share about him. By the time he arrives in India, partition has become inevitable, as relations between Hindus and Muslims have worsened so much that the British, who encouraged divisive tendencies among the groups, look like befuddled outside arbiters trying to bring peace.
If Viceroy’s House is seen in isolation, you would think the British left India only because of war-ravaged exhaustion: resources depleted, they can no longer run an empire because they must create jobs for the soldiers returning home to the UK and revive a devastated economy.
Jonathan Teplitzy’s Churchill is about how the wartime prime minister was preoccupied with saving the lives of his soldiers before the Normandy invasion. It shows a vulnerable Churchill, a man with a heart, aware of the loss of lives at the Somme, Verdun and Ypres during the first world war, and haunted by the prospect of repeating such horrors, trying to restrain battle-ready generals Eisenhower and Montgomery.
The world knows Churchill as a war hero. The silver-tongued orator’s powerful speeches comforted a dispirited nation bombed night after night during the Blitz. He has lost battles – in Singapore and in Dunkirk – but he has roused his nation. A chastened Churchill is now concerned about the lives he is about to put at stake.
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But as Indian critics have pointed out, his compassion was selective; it had its own hierarchy. The surprising aspect of India’s relationship with the empire is that while Churchill is not necessarily admired (he ridiculed Gandhi as a “half-naked fakir”), he is not disliked enough. And the credit for that magnanimity goes to the kind of politics Gandhi practised, of non-violence – without anger at a people, but only towards an idea.
The largest blot on Churchill’s record – discussed infrequently in Britain – is the Bengal famine. This famine was not a natural disaster. Amartya Sen, who won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998, has shown how famines are easier to prevent than droughts, because droughts are caused by lack of rainfall, whereas famines are man-made. Between 1942 and 1944, the famine led to millions of deaths.
Churchill made some spectacularly insensitive statements at that time, asking rhetorically: “If the famine is so bad why hasn’t Gandhi died yet?” In his papers, Leo Amery, the wartime secretary of state for India and Burma noted: “Naturally I lost patience … and couldn’t help telling him that I didn’t see much difference between his outlook and Hitler’s, which annoyed him no little.” The stories of the suffering and death are detailed and horrific, but little known outside the Indian subcontinent; unless a British student has specialised in late colonial empire studies, she is unlikely to come across any of them in the history taught in schools and colleges in her country.
One of the major legacies of the British empire is a body of laws that curb civil liberties
Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster Dunkirk is part of that pattern of partial reading of history. The film perpetuates the idea that Britain defended itself all alone and, with pugnacious determination and Churchill’s powerful rhetoric, liberated the continent from Nazi Germany by dragging a reluctant America to the battlefront.
Much of that is true, except the “all alone” part. The reality was more complicated. In The Raj At War: A People’s History Of India’s Second World War (Vintage, 2015), Yasmin Khan showed how the British war effort was collective; the British empire fought the war. Britain indeed suffered enormously, but its defence was vastly boosted by the largest mobilisation of a voluntary army from the colonies. Some of those soldiers were Indian, and they saw action at Anzio, El Alamein, Tobruk, Monte Cassino, Singapore, Kohima and Dunkirk.
Nolan’s film is not history, but well-made films often shape how history is seen. Dunkirk is well made, and reinforces a particular view of British history. It is not the only view, and it has been contested in Britain, but in the context of the Brexit debate, inadvertently, the film reinforces attitudes that boost the image of “plucky England”, influencing politics as well.
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One of the major legacies of the British empire is a body of laws that curb civil liberties. Many Commonwealth countries have identical sections of the penal code, drawn from the Indian Penal Code of 1860. These laws prevent public assembly, restrict free speech, have provisions to try people under sedition charges, and cover sexual morality – in particular, in outlawing sex “against the order of nature”, which implies homosexuality but covers an undefined swathe of intimate relationships between consenting adults. In a 2008 report, Human Rights Watch traced the origin of many of the laws outlawing sodomy to British rule. To its credit, the Commonwealth is trying to get member-states to undo those laws, but many states remain reluctant, citing “traditions” and beliefs. As the Ugandan gay rights activist Frank Mugisha told me recently, homosexuality is African, homophobia isn’t. Even as the “mature” democracies in the Commonwealth – Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada – seek to make the laws and practices in the Commonwealth more “humane”, they face resistance from Asian, African and Caribbean member-states that want to assert their sovereignty, even as they perpetuate colonial-era laws.
Many of those laws helped the new nations establish control and order, and curb dissent. They’ve outlived their utility, but they persist. These laws enable the states to restrict political opposition and stop “deviant” behaviour. As with the colonial era, it is rule by law, not necessarily the rule of law; it keeps people divided into neat boxes, preventing alternatives from emerging. Such methods enabled colonial powers to establish control in the past, but participative democracies need new laws.
The Commonwealth can atone for the empire’s brutal past by supporting activists, human rights defenders, and non-governmental organisations in the former colonies. Those civil society groups engaged with human rights, sustainability and education are the latter-day equivalents of Gandhi and Nehru, seeking freedoms from their own governments which have adopted colonial-era powers, and act like the former masters.
This won’t be easy. The countries that make up the Commonwealth do not necessarily share interests – they do share a language, but it is not the only language they speak. Some have twisted the fine traditions of English law into forms scarcely recognisable if placed next to the original. Strengthening the civil society in Commonwealth countries is one necessary step. The other is to educate a new generation of Britons about the past to prepare them to become better global citizens when they meet people whose nations were once part of the empire.
This is an edited extract from the Griffith Review 59: Commonwealth Now