Brexit and the British Empire

A spectre is haunting Europe. No, not that one. An uglier, messier one by far; the spectre of Empire. And if Europe is the haunted house in this metaphor, the UK is the creaking stairway where the spectre appears, Northern Ireland where you fancy you can hear it whisper in your ear.

Brexit has shone a light on a lot of long hidden corners of the British psyche, none so alarming as the anti-Irish sentiment that has appeared since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed a concern that perhaps Brexiteers hadn’t thought the border issue all the way through (1). British broadsheet commentators say similar things about the government’s comically uncoordinated exit strategy all the time. But this was somehow different. While red-tops called for him to shut his mouth (2), serious political journalists dismissed him as an inexperienced pawn of Europe being played like a cheap fiddle, Unionists suggested he was being played by Sinn Féin, and almost nobody took him at his word. Apparently, the whole problem was invented, even though the Irish government had been pushing for this issue to be addressed from the moment of the referendum result. The general public was even worse; there were quips about potatoes and famine, casual suggestions that Ireland leave the EU too in order to solve the problem, claims that Ireland should just deal with the outcome because “they lost” (3), and some enlightened souls bragging that the UK should just invade Ireland.

Now, there is a whole lot to criticise about Varadkar’s party, Fine Gael, and their record in government. But is it really so hard to understand that, and why, an Irish government may be genuinely concerned about the return of a border with Northern Ireland? Must the aim be malevolent? Is it so long since peace and a fluid border normalised relations on our island that everyone has forgotten how hard fought and fragile that peace was?

Apparently the issue is not time, though, it is knowledge. Specifically, a lack of it. Somehow, Iain Duncan Smith – a man who could have been Prime Minister – opined twice that a presidential election, almost a year away and anyway having almost nothing to do with party politics in Ireland, has a bearing on the actions of Varadkar’s government, a claim that went unchallenged (4). He also claimed that Fine Gael were worried about losing seats to Sinn Féin, another tone deaf comment, and this nonsense was repeated unchallenged by Jacob Rees Mogg to the notoriously tough interviewer Andrew Marr. This was reinterpreted in the tabloid press as a preposterous claim that the Irish government is somehow controlled by the IRA and secretly inventing a faux concern to steal back the North (5). Broadsheet political correspondents claimed with a straight face that the Common Travel Area arrangement predated the EU, and there had never been a border, so the EU was not necessary to maintain a soft border – an argument simultaneously ignorant of EU and WTO rules and also rewriting the existence of the border during the Troubles. An unelected Lord, paid with public money, suggested that since Ireland created the border by leaving the UK, they should deal with the fallout (6).

Why this ignorance? Why the cluelessness about history, the absolute certainty with which Irish concerns are dismissed, the brash bravado with which much of Britain is responding to this mess? (7) There’s an old saying that those who will not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The rhetoric of Brexit, the vague exhortations to “take back control” and similar sentiments seems to contain within them a hope for Empire 2.0. Opponents or those who simply raise practical concerns are often told off for “talking Britain down”, reminded that Britain once ruled much of the world and can certainly make a success of their new freedom to negotiate trade deals with anyone in the world. This is the Britain of the British East India Company, after all! Who needs experts?

Missing from that interpretation, of course, are two very important details. To start with, the world is a very different place now. Britain aren’t the power they once were, and they cannot be again. But more importantly, there is a lack of information and understanding about the history of the British Empire, of colonialism generally. British students can drop all study of history quite early, and those who take history to A level can get all the way there with little or no mention of the ugly side of their country’s history. No Bengal Famine, no Boer concentration camps, no Amritsar Massacre, nothing about the Empire’s role in the slave trade or the atrocities carried out during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya. And those were all quite far from home; there is arguably an even greater mental block about the British Empire in Ireland, about partition, about plantations, about collusion with loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, about the torture of political prisoners, about An Gorta Mór. No wonder Boris Johnson’s endless stream of gaffes seem like amusing faux pas and not grossly offensive colonial arrogance (8). No wonder 44% of British people are proud of the history of empire (9). No wonder empire seems like an aspiration, when all you hear are the positives.

No-one needs to don a hairshirt and whip out the cat-o-ninetails. The past cannot be undone. But self-awareness is vital in order to leave that past where it belongs and to handle Brexit in a responsible way. Ireland – and Northern Ireland – may feel distant and alien to many in Britain, but the reality is that the border issue cannot be ignored until it disappears, and Irish concerns must be treated with respect. Lives depend upon it.


Elaine Crory is a part-time Politics lecturer, director of Hollaback Belfast, and an activist with Belfast Feminist Network and Alliance for Choice. You can find her on twitter @ElaineCrory