This essay, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, is a masterpiece. He argues that Trump’s white supremacy is not a tumour on the body politic, one that can be simply excised, but something that feeds on the roots of the USA, a society build on stolen land by forced labour. Trump’s victory drew its strength from far beneath the soil, tapping into seams of ancestral resentment from whites conditioned to think they’d been usurped. It was nourished with the blood of generations of whipped and beaten slaves.
The essay set me thinking about how its thesis relates to the UK. Clearly, we could have seen Brexit coming – Sunderland shouldn’t have come as such a shock. It was similarly fuelled by buried resentments which exploded like fracked flames bursting out of suburban kitchen taps. Just as the civil rights movement in the US didn’t uproot racism, the appeal to deeply-buried imperial nostalgia was – as many have explored – central to the Brexit victory. It drew on melancholy and resentment from the loss of status that the end of empire occasioned. There is plentiful evidence of this, from the Tory MP tweeting how many Olympic medals the ‘Empire’ won, to Ukip’s rhetoric of ‘Bongobongoland’, to the woman on the Croydon tram bemoaning ‘my Britain’s fuck all now’, to those who suggest that the Commonwealth will be a more than adequate replacement for the EU, to the Whitehall officials who talk openly about “Empire 2.0”.
While it’s axiomatic that saudade for the symbols and status of empire played a role in Brexit, what about the slave trade which served as its centrepiece? Although there were slaves in Britain, relatively few white British people actually brandished whips. Unlike the US, the empire was not built on the direct use of stolen labour to develop land, but on the wealth which came from slave-trading. White people in Britain gained in status from the slave trade, much like slave labour enabled American whites to feel that they weren’t at the bottom of the pile. The roots of Britain’s economic development lie in the imposition of an ideology of white supremacy. Napoleon Bonaparte, when explaining his remark about the British being a nation of shopkeepers, allegedly commented:
I meant that you were a nation of merchants, and that all your great riches, and your grand resources arose from commerce…What else constitutes the riches of England. It is not extent of territory, or a numerous population. It is not mines of gold, silver, or diamonds.
That commerce was in black people and the labour they embodied: Britain led the world in buying and selling human beings. When pro-Brexit politicians such as Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell fantasise about Britain once again dominating the high seas of commerce far beyond European shores, the wind that boosts their sails blows from centuries of race-based atrocity. The ships that they pine for carried hundreds of thousands of black lives treated as nothing but expendable merchandise. It’s no accident that the Daily Mail’s peculiar agenda encompasses both deep distaste for foreigners and intense fury at any threat to the value of property. Perhaps, deep in the collective imagination of the British, our homes carry much the same value as holdfulls of slaves did in the past. When the effect of Brexit on house prices becomes clear, we know who such newspapers will blame: those foreigners who no longer submit to the imperial yoke.
Not being a historian, I’m certainly not the person to write such an account. Coates spent two years researching another of his celebrated essays; I’m trying to get this written and posted in time for lunch. It’s also possible that someone is already investigating this theme – or rather, given the vastness of the topic, that several PhD theses are being written at this very moment. (At least one satirist has reached the same conclusion.) A central character in any such a narrative is, of course, Boris Johnson, with his undisguised and unapologetic nostalgia for Empire. His list of things that post-EU Britain can sell to the world was missing the one item that we grew rich on, and it certainly wasn’t cupcakes.
The horizons of those who dream that Britain can blithely abandon Europe lie in the past. This does not mean that those who voted to leave the EU were consciously motivated by longing for the return of the slave trade, nor that the Foreign Secretary is keen to literally bring back slavery, but on reflection, the fact that successive generations, including my own, were brought up to boast in song that ‘Britons never shall be slaves’ is a clue to the ‘role’ that unashamed (and economically illiterate) imperialists foresee for the country’s future.