Things Fall Apart: From Empire to Brexit Britain

Posted in: Brexit, Political history, Racism and the far right, UK politics

Dr Nadine El-Enany is Senior Lecturer in Law in Birkbeck University of London's School of Law.

In her novel Beloved, through its examination of America’s violent and brutal history of chattel slavery, Toni Morrison warns against the forgetting of painful pasts.[1] If a society is to ‘come to terms with its own raced history’, painful memories must be ‘“re-membered”… [or] they will haunt the social imagination and disrupt the present’.[2] Catherine Hall, writing almost 20 years ago, warned European societies against discarding ‘uncomfortable memories of colonialism’, and emphasised the ‘need to do some “memory work” on the legacy of Empire’.[3] Britain’s drastic manoeuvre away from the EU is intricately connected to its imperial history, one that it has long refused to confront and acknowledge for the brutal legacy that it is. Britain’s unaddressed and unredressed colonial past haunted the recent EU referendum and prophesied its outcome.

Recent policy soundings suggest that the British government wishes to strengthen economic ties with Commonwealth countries in lieu of its fast-deteriorating relationship with its European neighbours.[4] This is an ironic turn of events considering the historical context of Britain’s entry into the EU in 1973. Its membership followed decades of post-war decline and ensuing indecisiveness about whether to jettison its economic dependence on ailing Commonwealth markets, and with it any prospect of a lasting imperial role for Britain, in favour of joining the European Economic Community (EEC). Britain’s imperial nostalgia has long fed its extreme discomfort at its place as, formally, an equal alongside other EU Member States, rather than first among equals, as was its pride of place in the Commonwealth.[5] The decision to join the EEC coincided with the closure of Britain’s borders to people from its former colonies. The explicit target of these controls was people racialised as non-white.6[6] Post-war immigration control was intricately connected to the ebb and flow of Britain's imperial ambitions and attachments. The British Nationality Act 1948 had rolled out British citizenship to encapsulate Britons together with all nationals of independent Commonwealth countries and those of British colonies – a status which included a right to enter and remain in Britain.[7] This granting of British citizenship to Commonwealth citizens was principally an attempt to hold together what remained of the British Empire. British politicians accepted migration of non-white people from the New Commonwealth countries into Britain as a trade-off, an unfortunate but necessary byproduct of maintaining the relationship between Britain and the Old (white) Dominions. Although the British Nationality Act prompted the establishment of some employment recruitment schemes targeted at New Commonwealth migrants, it is significant that post-war labour shortages were primarily addressed through the facilitation of (white) European labour.[8]

The principal beneficiaries of the British Empire’s system of citizenship were Britons, who could move and settle throughout the Commonwealth pursuant to sponsored emigration facilitated through agreements with Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada.[9] Despite the legislators’ lack of enthusiasm for non-white immigration from the colonies, the 1948 Act’s provisions had the effect of facilitating the arrival of around 500,000 people racialised as non-white in Britain. These arrivals and those who followed were not only exercising rights granted to them under the law, but were also escaping economic hardship and an absence of employment opportunities,[10] along with other dispossessive effects of slavery and colonialism.[11] Post-war arrivals from Jamaica, for example, were leaving a country profoundly marked by both the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism. By the time Britain colonised Jamaica in the seventeenth century, the country’s ‘indigenous peoples had already been wiped out by the Spanish, and [it] was populated mainly by enslaved Africans and white settlers’.[12]

It was not until 1962 that the Commonwealth Immigrants Act brought all Commonwealth citizens formally under immigration control. The exceptions were the (majority white) citizens who had been born in Britain or Ireland, or who held a British or Irish passport issued by either one of these governments.[13] The Act was designed to restrict the entry of non-white people. In the late 1960s, Britain saw an increasing number of East-African Asians enter the country, many of whom possessed a British passport issued by Kenyan authorities. This movement followed the introduction of policies discriminating against Asians in Kenya by President Kenyatta. The 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act further narrowed the exceptions to control. Rights of entry were limited to Commonwealth citizens born in Britain, or with at least one parent or grandparent born or naturalised in Britain. That the effect of the 1968 Act was to discriminate on racial grounds exposes the hypocrisy and conceit in the British government’s position. The Act ‘created “second-class citizens” who did not have immediate right of entry into Britain even though the only passports they had were British’.[14] The British not only bore much of the responsibility for the divisions in Kenyan society pursuant to their colonial exploits,[15] but also the presence of Asians in Kenya. Although Asians had lived in East Africa for centuries, the majority arrived as labourers and traders following the expansion of the British Empire over the area.[16] In general, the Act had wide cross-party support, despite its severe consequences for Asians whose lives and futures depended on escaping persecution in Kenya.[17]

As Britain closed its doors to non-white Commonwealth migrants, it turned towards Europe in search of opportunities for economic growth – first applying to join the EEC in 1961, and ultimately becoming a member on 1 January 1973. However, Britain maintained its distance from the EU political project, in particular as far as migration control was concerned. Its obsession with its island status and the perceived advantages this brings in relation to security and border control has long plagued its relationship with the EU. While Britain grudgingly accepted the principle of free movement of EU citizens, it insisted on maintaining control of its borders wherever it could. Britain never joined Schengen, and not only continues to exercise border controls in relation to EU nationals, but also has a flexible opt-out from EU law on immigration and asylum – which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude, and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards.[18] In view of this, Britain’s decision to depart from the EU primarily over the question of immigration and border control demands scrutiny. The Leave campaign argued that exiting the EU would allow Britain to ‘take back control of its borders’ and would ‘make Britain great again’. The referendum debate was eclipsed by the topic of migration, and not exclusively that of European citizens. The epitome of the Leave campaign’s scaremongering about migration was perhaps the moment Nigel Farage unveiled a poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan ‘Breaking Point’.[19]

The terms on which the EU referendum debate took place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire. Present in the discourse of some of those arguing for a Leave vote was a tendency to romanticise the days of the British Empire, a time when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by her racial and cultural superiority. Brexit is not only an expression of nostalgia for empire,[20] it is also the fruit of empire.[21] The legacies of British imperialism have never been addressed, including that of racism.[22] British colonial rule saw the exploitation of peoples, and their subjugation on the basis of race; it was a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of colonial authorities. Imperial nostalgia is sometimes combined with ‘a reluctance to see contemporary British racism as a product of imperial and colonial power’.[23] The prevalence of structural and institutional racism in Britain today made it fertile ground for the effectiveness of the Brexit campaign’s racist and dehumanising rhetoric of “taking back control” and reaching “breaking point”. The Brexit and Trump victories have resulted in the legitimisation of racism and white supremacy to an unprecedented degree. A week prior to the referendum, pro-immigration Labour MP Jo Cox was brutally murdered by a man who shouted ‘Britain first’ as he killed her, and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as ‘Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain’.[24] Since the referendum, racist hate crime has increased by 16% across Britain, and peaked at a 58% rise in the week following the vote.[25] Weeks after the referendum, Arkadiusz Jóźwik was beaten to death in Essex, having reportedly been attacked for speaking Polish in the street.[26]

Britain’s impending departure from the EU now sees it turning once again to the Commonwealth. It is no coincidence that Nigel Farage expressed a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth.[27] Theresa May, in her speech on the government’s plans for Brexit, referred to the Commonwealth as being indicative of Britain’s ‘unique and proud global relationships’, and declared it was ‘time for Britain to get out into the world and rediscover its role as a great, global, trading nation.’[28] It is telling that the Old Dominions [Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Canada] ‘were Britain abroad, what was called – in the jingoistic heyday of imperialism – “greater Britain”’.[29] Economic policy is being oriented towards a revival of Commonwealth ties, in a manner that patently ignores the brutal reality of the British Empire.[30] This ignorance was aptly captured in MP and Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox's statement last year in the run up to the referendum that ‘The United Kingdom is one of the few countries in the European Union that does not need to bury its 20th century history’.[31]  Paul Gilroy has observed that the tendency to romanticise colonial times – ‘this embarrassing sentiment’ – manifests itself today in ‘an unhealthy and destructive post-imperial hungering for renewed greatness’.[32] The hankering after the halcyon days of empire was expressed in a tabloid headline following the referendum: ‘Now Let’s Make Britain Great Again’.[33] This slogan, taken from Trump’s presidential election campaign, has since become popular among those who backed Brexit.[34]

The rhetoric of ‘making Britain great again’ is entirely divorced from an understanding of British colonial history – including the country’s recent imperial exploits, which have destabilised and exploited various regions and set in motion the migration of today. In the absence of an acknowledgement of the racism, violence and brutality of British colonialism, and its ongoing dispossessing effects, imperial nostalgia can fester and work in harmful ways. Paul Gilroy notes that ‘[t]he appeal of being great again was central to Mrs Thatcher’s premiership, particularly after her South Atlantic triumph, but it did not vanish with her. It has endured and mutated and emerged again as one significant element that propelled a largely reluctant country to war against Iraq in 2003’.[35] The ‘desire’ for ‘renewed greatness’ thus ‘feeds Britain’s vicarious investments in US preeminence’,[36] the calamitous result of which was the violent and premature deaths of nearly half a million Iraqis.[37] Britain’s commitment to its close relationship with the US has gained new vigour in the wake of the vote to leave the EU. British Prime Minister Theresa May, wary of the notion that Britain might have set itself adrift through its vote to leave the EU, isolating itself from centres of global power, is working to ensure that post-Brexit Britain is firmly aligned with the new Trump administration.[38] Britain’s rose-tinted view of its imperial history, and its refusal to recall and confront the reality of the British Empire and its legacy of racism, haunted the EU referendum, foretelling its outcome and casting Britain into an uncertain and dangerous future.[39]

This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.



[1] Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987 [original date], Vintage, London, 2007).
[2] Catherine Hall, ‘Histories, Empires and the Post-Colonial Moment’ in I. Chambers and L. Curti (eds.), The Postcolonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (Routledge, London-New York, 2002), 66.
[3] Catherine Hall, ibid.
[4] Ben Chapman, ‘Liam Fox’s 'Empire 2.0' meeting is backed by corporate interests and will ‘fleece’ Africa, say campaigners’ (The Independent, Thursday 9 March 2017). Available at (Last visited 16 March 2017).
[5] Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: the Migrant, the Refugee and the State (Hart Publishing, forthcoming 2018).
[6] See Randall Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000); Kathleen Paul, Whitewashing Britain: Race and Citizenship in the Postwar Era (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1997).
[7] Lord Goldsmith QC, Citizenship Review, ‘Citizenship: Our Common Bond’ (2008), 15.
[8] See R. Miles and D. Kay, Refugees or Migrant Workers? European Volunteer Workers in Britain 1946-1951 (London: 1992).
[9] Randall Hansen, ‘The Politics of Citizenship in 1940s Britain: The British Nationality Act’ Twentieth Century British History Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 1999), 76.
[10] Caryl Phillips, ‘The Pioneers: Fifty Years of Caribbean Migration to Britain’, in A New World Order (New York: Vintage, 2001), 264.
[11] A. Payne, ‘The Rodney Riots in Jamaica: The Background and Significance of the Events of October 1968’ The Journal of Commonwealth & Comparative Politics Vol 21(2) 1983; T.A. Simone Patrice Wint, ‘“Once you Go You Know”: Tourism, Colonial Nostalgia and National Lies in Jamaica’ (Report to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Texas at Austin, 2012), 6. Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[12] Catherine Hall, note 2 above, 67-68.
[13] Lord Goldsmith QC, note 7 above, 15.
[14] Yumiko Hamai, ‘“Imperial Burden” or “Jews of Africa”?: An Analysis of Political and Media Discourse in the Ugandan Asian Crisis (1972)’ Twentieth Century British History Vol. 22, No. 3, (2011), 418
[15] Okwudiba Nnoli, Ethnic politics in Nigeria (Enugu, Nigeria, 1978), ch. 1.
[16] Randall Hansen, ‘The Kenyan Asians, British Politics, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968’ The Historical Journal 42, 3 (1999), 814.
[17] Randall Hansen, ‘The Kenyan Asians, British Politics, and the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, 1968’, ibid., 810.
[18] See N. El-Enany, ‘EU migration and asylum law under the Area of Freedom, Security and Justice’ in A. Arnull and D. Chalmers, The Oxford Handbook of European Union Law (OUP, 2015); N. El-Enany, 'The Perils of Differentiated Integration in the Field of Asylum' in A. Ott and B. De Witte (eds.) Between Flexibility and Disintegration: The Trajectory of Differentiation in EU Law (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2017)
[19] Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster reported to police’ (Guardian, 16 June 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[20] Nadine El-Enany, ‘Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire’ (Critical Legal Thinking, 19 June 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[21] Nadine El-Enany, ‘The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial Blowback’ (Truthout, 6 July 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[22] Catherine Hall, ‘The racist ideas of slave owners are still with us today’ (Guardian, 26 September 2016) (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[23] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (Routledge, London and New York, 2004), 103.
[24] Robert Booth, Vikram Dodd, Kevin Rawlinson and Nicola Slawson, ‘Jo Cox murder suspect tells court his name is “death to traitors, freedom for Britain”’ (Guardian, 18 June 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[25] Alan Travis, ‘Lasting rise in hate crime after EU referendum, figures show’ (Guardian, 7 September 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[26] Louie Smith, ‘He was killed for speaking Polish: Brother’s claim as man murdered in UK street in suspected race-hate attack’ (Mirror, 30 August 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[27] Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage: Indian and Australian immigrants better than eastern Europeans’ (Guardian, 22 April 2015) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[28] The RT Hon Theresa May MP, ‘The government's negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech’ (17 January 2017 Lancester House, London) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[29] Randall Hansen, Citizenship and Immigration in Postwar Britain, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000), 17-18.
[30] See Adam Ramsey, ‘For Britain to solve its economic problems, it needs to stop lying to itself about its past’ (Open Democracy, 9 March 2017) Available at (Last visited 17 March 2017).
[31] Liam Fox, (Twitter, 4 March 2016) Available at (Last visited 17 March 2017).
[32] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture (Routledge, London and New York, 2004), 331.
[33] Jeff Farrell, ‘Now let’s make Britain great again’ (Daily Star, 25 June 2016) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[34] Georgia Diebelius, ‘UKIP’s youth wing sold “Make Britain Great Again Hats” for price of £9.11’ (Metro, 10 November 2016) Available at (Last visited 10 November 2017).
[35] Paul Gilroy, note 32 above, 103-104.
[36] Paul Gilroy, ibid., 103.
[37] Amy Hagopian, Abraham D Flaxman, Tim K. Takaro, Sahar A. Esa Al Shatari, Julie Rajaratnam, Stan Becker, Alison Levin-Rector, Lindsay Galway, Berq J. Hadi Al-Yasseri, William M. Weiss, Christoper J. Murray, Gilbert Burnham, ‘Mortality in Iraq Associated with the 2003-2011 War and Occupation: Findings from a National Cluster Sample Survey by the University Collaborative Iraq Mortality Study’ PLOS Medicine 15 October 2013 Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[38] Heather Stewart and David Smith, ‘Theresa May and Donald Trump bond over love for Thatcher and Reagan’ (Guardian, 29 January 2017) Available at (Last visited 13 February 2017).
[39] Nadine El-Enany, (B)ordering Britain: the Migrant, the Refugee and the State, see note 5 above.

Posted in: Brexit, Political history, Racism and the far right, UK politics

Leave a Reply to George Lunt

  • (we won't publish this)

Write a response

  • On this basis the French ought to have got there first. But never mind the evidence, just keep doing yourselves down. That'll help shape the future.

  • I wonder whether the authors of these articles ever stop to consider that in many respects their views are every bit as biased, unbalanced and intolerant as those they seek to denigrate?