Opinion

Billy Bragg: Boris and the ‘Brexiters’ Are Clinging To Imperial Dreams

11/03/2016_Boris Johnson
London Mayor Boris Johnson at a "Leave" campaign event in Dartford, Britain March 11, 2016. Johnson made controversial comments about U.S. President Barack Obama. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Boris Johnson’s attack on President Obama, launched in a Sun column last week, tells you everything you need to know about those behind the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union. Many have taken issue with Johnson’s reference to Obama as “part-Kenyan,” arguing it echoes the low politics of the U.S. “birther” movement, but they have misconstrued his point. Johnson has no problem with someone of mixed heritage rising to the highest office in the land. He sees his own ancestry—born in New York to parents with Turkish, Swiss, French and Russian blood—as no impediment to his ambition to be Prime Minister.

Johnson’s aim in bringing up the President’s Kenyan heritage was to remind his readers that Obama’s grandfather had been a staunch opponent of the British Empire. Onyango Obama was jailed for six months in 1949, convicted of being a member of the Kenyan independence movement. Three years later, the Mau Mau Uprising exploded, an armed insurrection against British rule in Kenya. The brutality of the insurgent’s attacks were widely reported in the British press, with lurid reports of people being hacked to death. Perhaps more shocking to the British public was the idea that Africans should resist colonial rule.

Unlike other European colonial powers of the 19th century, vast swathes of the British Empire were populated by English speaking peoples of European descent, most of whom consented to being ruled from London. This allowed the British people to view their empire as a benign force, a belief reinforced by the important role played by colonial troops in the defence of Great Britain during the Second World War.

The Mau Mau Uprising, the first post-war revolt against British rule in Africa, which took place between 1952 and 1960, spoiled that comfortable illusion and began a period of decolonisation that ultimately spread across the continent. For anyone old enough to recall the time, memory of the Mau Mau’s stark challenge to Britain’s world power status still has the ability to rankle. Never mind that President Obama’s grandfather was jailed by the British before the uprising began and came from a different ethnic group to the Kikuyu-dominated Mau Mau. Boris Johnson was determined to stir up the emotions of those who still long for the confidence and comfort that came with being an imperial power.

While the legacy of the British Empire continues to shape the UK, the folk memory of our past imperial status hampers Britain’s ability to deal with the world as it is now. From Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, all the way down Whitehall to the Churchill statue outside Parliament, our ruling class are daily confronted by reminders of former glories. When you work in a building where once British officials held dominion over the fate of hundreds of millions of colonial subjects, then the idea of having to sit down and come to some kind of workable accommodation with the fisheries minister from Estonia must seem a terrible chore. Working in the Foreign Office everyday, with a huge portrait of some Victorian viceroy staring down from the wall, is it any wonder that some of our politicians yearn for the old days, when we were responsible to no one but ourselves?

It’s why the British government instinctively cleaves to America rather than Europe: we see in the U.S. a reflection of our former might. The European Union, by contrast, appears little more than a very expensive talking shop where everyone has equal rights. In the UK, where we have no written constitutional guarantee of our right to equality, such accommodation chafes against the way our rulers have historically operated.

The Eurozone appears to be heading towards greater integration, with the expectation that, as a result, members of the EU will be obliged to be even more accommodating to each other’s needs. Yet were Britain to join this process, it would have the effect of making us feel less like the U.S., whose reluctance to be held accountable by global institutions is much admired by those who see only restrictions in the EU’s attempts to harmonize the rights of its citizens.

These two forces, European integration and American hegemony, have been pulling at the British psyche since the Suez Crisis, 60 years ago, when President Eisenhower told us to stop throwing our weight around and start acting our age. Since then, our European allies have encouraged Britain to see itself as it really is, no longer a Great Power, but still a powerful player on the world stage. Our failure to fully engage with the EU has diminished both our leverage and theirs.

In the globalized economy, it surely makes more sense for Britain not just to trade with the European Single Market, but also to play an active role in the decision making process that drives its prosperity. The trouble for Boris and his colleagues is that they can never quite shake off the awful thought that, when sitting around the table in Brussels, they are nothing more than a part of someone else’s empire.

Billy Bragg is is an English alternative rock musician and activist.

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