Right about now the divisions of Brexit, a sort of soft civil war in which Britain’s relationship with the European Union served as a symbolic proxy for both class conflict and concerns over immigration, were supposed to be healing. Instead we seem to be diving straight into another culture war, this time over the monuments to Britain’s imperial legacy.
Unlike Brexit this one is expressly centred on racial and ethnic difference, and that is not good news for political stability.
The American political scientist Donald L. Horowitz, drawing on studies of post-colonial conflicts in Africa and Southern Asia, characterises the outcome of these disputes as one where:
This seems like a reasonably accurate depiction of the politics of the United States, where the symbolic sector has become the central battleground of political disharmony. The New York Times’ Pulitzer-winning 1619 Project, for example, aims to re-centre American history around the institution of slavery, replacing one national myth with another in an act of symbolic politics rather than of journalism as conventionally understood.
Within the UK, the most potentially momentous political divisions were already those of ethnic politics, though not hitherto those of race. The very existence of the United Kingdom is placed under threat by nationalist independence movements in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and to a lesser degree in Wales. The survival of the British state should not be taken for granted.
The irony here is that the monuments to British imperialism threatened with removal, by either mobs or by clipboard-wielding functionaries, are also symbols of the shaky British state itself. The United Kingdom was created by the empire as much as the other way around, imperial expansion being the shared project that tied English and Scottish elites into a unified whole.
Irrespective of the morality of their actions, statues of Clive of India or of early modern slave traders are symbols of the historical process by which black or Asian Britons exist as communities in this country. Churchill, arch-imperialist though he was, has really become a symbol of the post-imperial state, with Britain’s resistance to Nazi Germany becoming the central plank of postwar British identity, equivalent to national liberation movements in other countries.
Britain’s BAME communities share with Ulster Protestants the rare distinction of identifying themselves as British first and foremost, yet mostly reside within a nation, England, that primarily identifies itself as English rather than British. The eclipse of Britishness by Englishness as a political identity is a relatively recent and vastly under-discussed process, and its endpoint is unknown.
If there is to be a national debate on Britishness, race and identity, then, it should take into account the broader political faultlines of the United Kingdom. Britishness is already seen by many as a more inclusive identity than Englishness: the long-term effects of expunging the symbols of the British state in such a heated and emotive manner may be unpredictable, and not necessarily positive.