The U.K. Must Confront its Colonial Past to Survive After Brexit

Preeti Pasricha

Since leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom is no longer part of the bloc’s free trade agreement, which accounts for 43 percent of the country’s exports. The move hasn’t just undermined the country’s economic power; in exposing its internal factions, Brexit has also weakened the country’s soft power on the global stage.

In order to survive, and indeed prosper, in a post-Brexit world, the U.K. will need to regain its power and rebuild new economic partnerships. To do so effectively, the country must reassess its transnational relationships, including those with former colonies.

This requires confronting its colonial past.

Internally fractured

The Brexit referendum not only revealed and created political divisions, but it also contributed to an increase in racial tensions within the U.K. To the international community, these tensions reveal the country’s potential weakness and instability. Teaching colonial history can help resolve these internal tensions and project an image of unity and strength to potential international partners.

For instance, confronting colonial history could help British policymakers understand and learn from the immigration policies of the 1900s. This is especially important post-Brexit when new immigration policies are being defined. This requires that leaders demonstrate empathy for migration-related challenges to avoid repeating such mistakes as the Windrush scandal, which resulted in many U.K. residents wrongly being deported or refused re-entry, despite coming to the country as citizens.

There is wider public support for teaching such history: a petition to teach Britain’s colonial past received more than 260,000 signatures during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in summer 2020, when the U.K.’s history curriculum regained attention for lacking the topic of empire. The tearing down of statues also reflects the public’s demand for a change from politicians, a reminder that learning from the country’s colonial past can address racial tensions, ultimately contributing to a stable home community.

Internal tensions make the U.K. look weak on the global stage. A more stable home community will help the U.K. project an image of confidence and stability to other nations, enhancing its soft power when forming diplomatic ties and making it a more viable economic partner. After exiting the EU and creating an insular reputation for itself, it has become even more imperative for the U.K. to strengthen its global image as a stable nation, ready and willing to do business with the world.

Relationships with old friends

Since it is no longer working closely with the EU, the U.K. actively wants to redirect its focus to growing economies, and rightly so. In 2017, the government developed a plan for Brexit, part of its “Global Britain” campaign, which outlines its ambitions for the post-Brexit future. In this plan, the U.K. declared that it would go into the post-Brexit world “to build relationships with old friends.” Given that these “old friends” are likely to be former British colonies, this language reflects a naïve romanticisation of the country’s extensive colonial history.

Indeed, the campaign was criticized for its rose-tinted view of history. It is reminiscent of the nostalgia for its colonial past which was part of the narrative behind Brexit in the first place. The rhetoric is notable in its contradiction here: the government claims that Britain is becoming global, reaching out to “old friends,” even as it retreats from the EU and limits migration.

There is a sound economic reason for the U.K.’s desire to turn to former colonies for trade opportunities. In November 2020, 15 Asian countries accounting for 30 percent of global GDP formed what has become the world’s largest trade agreement: the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). This will inevitably shift global power to the region. Notably, many of the countries which are part of the deal were former British colonies.

Since the U.K. actively wants to build strong relationships with “old friends,” it needs to understand its history with those nations accurately. For a start, the country must understand how these “old friends” perceive the U.K. They were occupied, not “befriended” during colonialism. It would be naïve to assume that former British colonies have forgotten brutal atrocities such as the Bengal Famine, the South African concentration camps, or the Partition of India when they sit down to negotiate future trade links with the U.K.

In order to increase its influence, the U.K. will need to work on the rhetoric it uses to earn trust and respect from the nations it previously harmed. It will need to learn from its past to ensure a prosperous, post-Brexit future. If not, “building relationships with old friends” may not be so easy, and the U.K could miss out on some big economic opportunities.

Preeti Pasricha graduated from the LSE in 2019 with a BSc in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. She is interested in inclusion, participation, migration, democracy, and data analysis. She works as a Technology Consultant and also co-Heads the Democracy & Governance research programme in Agora, the UK’s open forum for foreign policy.


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