Körber History Forum > 2018 > Interview Bhambra

“In Britain, there has been no reckoning with the imperial past.”

After the Brexit vote, the possibility of reviving the historical bonds of the British Empire featured prominently in public debates in Britain. The idea of an “Empire 2.0” was ill-received both domestically and abroad, with criticism directed toward Britain for lacking a sincere reckoning with the legacy of its colonial past. In an interview with the Körber Foundation, Gurminder K. Bhambra, Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies at the University of Sussex, gave an assessment of recent debates. On May 29th, Gurminder K. Bhambra will moderate the breakout session on “Britains post-colonial combat zones”, which takes place as part of the Körber History Forum.

Professor Bhambra, why has the legacy of Britain’s Colonial Empire recently gained such importance?

The Brexit referendum has had much to do with this. The debates prior to the referendum focused on concerns of national sovereignty and ‘taking back control’, which led to an understanding of Britain as a nation and has having a national past. Britain’s colonial empire was not particularly significant at this point. Decolonization processes around the world meant that, by the time Britain entered the European Economic Community in 1973, it was no longer the world power it had once been. Joining another supranational entity, however, deflected attention away from having to reckon with one’s own past and Britain’s status as a post-colonial state. Brexit and the fracture with Europe brought back those questions, which have been buried for the last forty years.

In which sense was that past buried? Could the colonial past of the largest colonial empire ever to exist really disappear from public consciousness? 

One problem of how Britain has failed to publicly address its colonial past shows itself in the way in which imperial concerns have mainly been discussed in terms of issues of immigration. And these have been largely racialised as Britain has sought to establish an understanding of itself as a nation-state by disavowing the Empire and those people associated with it. Historically, that already begins with the portrayal of victories in the two World Wars as accomplishments of an island nation, and not of the troops of the British Empire as a whole. That line of thought has had consequences that we see to this day. 

What consequences would that be?

One difficulty that follows from the conviction of the British past being that of a white nation is that it excludes large parts of Britain’s society from its shared history in its broader imperial past. And failure to acknowledge such a shared history means that it ultimately becomes very difficult to find common ground. The problem is exacerbated by the on-going prevalence of a dominant narrative on the Empire that presents it in a largely positive way. In contrast to Germany for example, in Britain there has been no reckoning with the imperial past, but rather the promotion of its greatness.

Have communities that came to Britain as a result of the Empire developed their own narrative? 

Those of us who have direct historical connections to  other parts of the former British Empire recognize that the imperial state was not benevolent – but that it was rather problematic, to put it mildly. We bring in other perspectives, but unless there is recognition that these perspectives belong to the same story and, more explicitly, that the Empire caused great injustice, I am unsure how we can move forward.

What chances are there to influence how white British see the Empire?

First of all, the history of the Empire itself needs to be made an issue. One of the things to be aware of is that the history of the Empire is not really taught within the British education system. Indeed, about ten years ago the then education secretary Michael Gove sought to explicitly make the teaching of British History in schools to only to be about the island. Given the fact that Britain at its height ruled over one quarter of the World’s land territory, suggesting that its history could be taught only by looking at events that happened on this island is tantamount to an evasion of that past and how it continues to shape the present.

What role does a lack of understanding of Britain’s colonial past and the notion of a white Britain have in the current Windrush scandal, in which British citizens of largely Caribbean descent now find themselves targeted as illegal immigrants? 

The Windrush scandal is just extraordinary in how it shows that, still today, Britain seeks to understand immigration only in terms of race and not in terms of citizenship. Those affected are citizens of Britain who came to Britain as citizens and with the right to live and settle here. Within the current “hostile environment”, some citizens, without the paperwork that is now being required, are being asked to demonstrate that they are British. The government could easily determine the citizenship status of any given person on the basis of work and tax records, but makes the obligation that the individual proves his or her entitlement.  But over the last six months there has been a build-up in the media about the injustice of this situation, which for the first time seems to have cracked a public perception of the way in which we think about migration and citizenship. There have been increasing cases being highlighted in the media which suggests that the problems go far beyond those of the Windrush generation.

How would Britain have to think about migration if it wanted to hold true to the post-Brexit idea of reinvigorating a “Global Britain”?

Many of those affected by Windrush are in Britain from the Caribbean. In turn, they were only in the Caribbean because Britain had stolen their ancestors from Africa and taken them there as part of the European trade in human beings. So there is a broader story here that shows what “Global Britain” was. I am uncertain as to how a Global Britain could exist in the present, because Britain seems to want to be global in the same way it was under the Empire. It wants to have access to markets but under its own terms without any reciprocal arrangements. Its about free movement of capital and a deregulated labour market at home, but without any recognition of either its responsibility to its previous position as Global Britain or any understanding why those places that have been part of the Empire in the past may not wish to be part of a British Empire 2.0.

What chances are there for the immediate future, especially under the spectre of Brexit, that Britain could come to terms with its colonial past?

I think that Britain is currently at a very precarious moment in time. Brexit dominates the political climate in such a way that it makes it very difficult to push for solutions to pressing social and economic problems. But the instability allows different arguments to come forward and to change our thinking about who we are and who we could be. But for that to be positive, we have to reckon with our past as we move forward. 

Gurminder K. Bhambra is Professor of Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex. Her latest book is Connected Sociologies (2014). Her first monograph, Rethinking Modernity: Postcolonialism and the Sociological Imagination (2007), won the 2008 Philip Abrams Memorial Prize for best first book in Sociology.


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