What the British Colonial Outlook Tells Us About Brexit


“A territory was deemed to be ready for self-government, not when it satisfied certain objective criteria of economic and political viability, of educational attainment and of social maturity, but simply when a sufficiently intense demand arose among its own inhabitants that they should control their own affairs”.

These are the words used by a British historian to describe the state of affairs which came to prevail at the twilight of the British Empire, when the entity that could once boast that it stretched over a quarter of the earth’s surface was swiftly dismantled and replaced by the Commonwealth, with the UK eventually going on to half-heartedly join the regional group that would become the European Union decades later. A look at how this quick unravelling of the Empire was possible could provide some insight into the current Brexit debate.

The United Kingdom’s perennially lukewarm participation in the European Union can be likened to a story with its plot following the steps of Freytag’s pyramid: decolonisation while steering clear of the nascent European Coal and Steel community was the exposition; joining the European Economic Community in 1973 and taking part in the Lomé trade negotiations with what was to become the ACP Group as part of the European bloc was the rising action stage; the 1993 Treaty of Maastricht was the climax; EU enlargement around the mid-2000s followed by the Eurozone crisis half a decade later and the current migrant crisis marked a rather protracted falling action phase, and now in some quarters a Brexit is thought to be the only viable denouement to close the book on what they see as several decades of a frustrating or even disastrous read. Close the book and leave it on the bookshelf for those avid readers on the continent to peruse to their hearts’ content. Attempting to fix the binding or to run a spell check are useless endeavours at this point, they would say. It’s as simple as that.

In a comparison of two seafaring Germanic language-speaking colonial nations as regards the end of the long era of European colonial expansion, one historian has expressed the view that “the retreat of the British (was) easier than that of the more moralistic and formalistic Dutch.” Similarly, there is perhaps some degree of likelihood that the end of EU membership is more cut and dry an issue for Her Majesty’s subjects than it would be for many other European countries. After all, the UK did not get in exactly on the ground floor like France, Belgium, Germany and the like, so that could make jumping off the bandwagon less symbolically charged and less of an agonising decision. That said, it is worth noting that there have been rumblings about wanting to abandon the EU in other member states, most notably in Greece, as well as to a lesser extent in Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden. Even so, in the case of Greece at least, the same sort of superiority complex-inspired Euroscepticism is not necessarily at the root of any calls to abandon the bloc.

Early to mid-20th century British Minister for Dominions and Colonies Malcolm MacDonald said the following in the late 1940s: “the great purpose of the British Empire is the gradual spread of freedom among all His Majesty’s subjects in whatever part of the world they live. That spread of freedom is a slow, evolutionary process. In some countries it is more rapid than in others… It may take generations, or even centuries, for the peoples in some parts of the Colonial Empire to achieve self-government. But it is a major part of our policy, even among the most backward peoples […], to teach them and to encourage them always to be able to stand a little more on their own feet. That love of ours for freedom, not only for ourselves but for others, inspires policy right through the Colonial Empire”.

These words were uttered at a time when a war battered Britain was finding its bearings and place in the newly emerging bi-polar world configuration in which it was no longer one of the undisputed giants. As one historian put it “Britain had exhausted itself in the epic struggle with Germany and could not much longer even sustain the outer trappings of a great power”. In MacDonald’s view, the Empire had been serving its purpose and its winding down would only be a matter of time. Similar words could be attributed to Vote Leave campaigners, now wrapping their heads around Britain’s place in the world and coming away from their soul searching with the conviction that participating in European integration may have been the most suitable course of action to pursue at one point, but that over time the post-War UK had found its footing again – thanks perhaps to some measure to the EU – and was now in danger of being hamstrung by its membership of the same group that may have provided it with the advantages that accrue to countries through the strength of association over the past few decades. The British “love for freedom” dictates that it free itself from the fetters of a grouping that now does it more harm than good.

MacDonald’s Conservative successor Oliver Stanley said of independence for the colonies: “we are pledged to guide Colonial people along the road to self-government within the framework of the British Empire. We are pledged to build up their social and economic institutions, and we are pledged to develop their natural resources. It is no part of our policy to confer political advances which are unjustified by circumstances, or to grant self-government to those who are not yet trained in its use, but if we really mean as soon as practicable to develop self-government in these territories, it is up to us to see that circumstances as soon as possible justify political advances and to ensure that as quickly as possible people are trained and equipped for eventual self-government.Therefore, to my mind, the real test of the sincerity and success of our Colonial policy is two-fold. It is not only the actual political advances that we make, but it is also, and I think more important, the steps that we are taking, economic and social as well as political, to prepare the people for further and future responsibilities”.

Holding our noses for fear of inhaling the paternalistic fumes of both men’s quotes, here again with Stanley we see the British conception at the time of the Empire and the purpose it was meant to serve; backward, less advanced peoples were to avail themselves of benevolent British guidance in getting their houses in order and ultimately being allowed to branch out on their own. Britain was the centre of this vast network and saw itself as the beacon on a hill for this sizeable chunk of the world – the empire on which the sun was said to never set, though it of course did, crashing suddenly from view in the West sky that was post-War ruin.

In the EU Britain has never been the sole big player, settling rather for being one of several key players. Many would argue that Britain’s role in the EU not always necessarily being a central one is a reality of their own doing and design since the UK self-ostracises from a great many EU initiatives, preferring instead to pursue an à la carte form of European cooperation, much to the chagrin of many in Brussels including former European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, who made headlines in 2013 by calling Britain out for picking and choosing what aspects of European integration it wanted to get on board with.

Maybe Britain is a country too used to being the one calling shots in a vast conglomeration of nations due to its imperial past to be lost in the shuffle, as it perceives it is, of another group now.

Further, the Empire was made relevant, as seen in Staley’s statement, by the need in the colonies for economic and political development, and the more that was done to achieve these 2 categories of goals, the closer and closer the colonies would inch to no longer needing to be in the Empire, and eventually once all countries had been developed the Empire would organically cease to be in the absence of its very raison d’être. Now, Britain, even in its weakened post-War US aid-dependent state was not akin to “the most backward peoples” referred to by McDonald so it could not be argued that they needed to have their economic framework built from scratch.

Similarly, even if Conservative MP Lord Hailsham famously branded the UK political system an “elective dictatorship” in 1976, citing flaws in the constitution which gave rise to overly powerful executive branches of government, the UK was not particularly in need of guidance along the road to political maturity, as it perceived its colonies to be (whether they were is a subject of debate). In the wake of the Second World War there were no dictatorial regimes in Britain like in Spain and Portugal, for example. Hailsham himself issued a caveat to his criticism of the British constitution, saying: “it has served us well. For century after century, it has seen us safely through one change after another, from mediæval monarchy to modern democracy”.

These quotes give food for thought concerning the thinking that is likely to be behind the pro-Brexit campaign.


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