Saturday, 19 June, 2021

In 21st Century, Imperial Interests

P Kharel

Rumblings of disquiet kick start a debate that used to be idle talk in the one time “greatest empire” in the world. Not anymore. With the Nicola Sturgeon-led Scottish National Party having won the “historic and extraordinary” fourth consecutive victory in the parliamentary elections in May, demand for a fresh referendum on the country’s independence from the United Kingdom is set to intensify by the time normalcy replaces the COVID-19 pandemic. Scottish National Party’s campaign for a referendum was forcefully reiterated immediately after the poll results came out.
Persistent pressure for the referendum has been kept alight after the last referendum, held during David Cameron’s tenure at 10 Downing Street, went against independence call. Cameron, the Conservative prime minister who led his party to victory thrice in the general elections, was against Britain pulling out of the European Union, but conceded to demands for a referendum on the issue. In the case of SNP, too, Cameron agreed to testing the popular verdict, whereas he was vehemently against separation.
Once the world’s “greatest empire”, the United Kingdom faces highly uneasy questions—questions it would decree as democratic debate and popular will if they circulated and created rebellion in other countries. But pulling out of the EU proved to be a highly divisive issue within and outside Britain. The marginal victory for Brexiters highlighted the vertical division the exercise generated.
Brexit was a painstaking drive. Major EU members, especially France, wanted to convey a deterrent message to the rest of the grouping. The hard feelings might not evaporate easily. Britain, as the only member in the English speaking countries ruled by Anglo-Saxons, can depend upon the club, known as “The Five Eyes”, to close ranks and stand by it.

Voice for choice
Scottish First Minister Sturgeon asserted there was no democratic justification for anyone to attempt to block “the will of the people”. To which, Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the talk of “ripping our country apart” as “irresponsible and reckless”. On the other hand, opinion polls indicate voters to be evenly split 50-50 on the independence issue.
While congratulating Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford for their victories, Prime Minister Boris Johnson suggested a meeting for a common strategy to deal with the country’s current crisis and the challenges ahead. George Monbiot, writing for The Guardian, warned of “a creaking sound” that might presage “the UK starting to break apart”.
The author stressed: “Westminster politics has always been the preserve of a remote enclave, on average massively richer and more privileged than those they claim to represent, especially in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. ... In Westminster, a hereditary elite treated the pandemic (COVID-19) less as a crisis than as an opportunity to enrich its friends. By granting unadvertised, untendered contracts to favoured companies for essential goods and services, many of which were either substandard or never arrived, it actively encouraged profiteering during a national emergency.”
A constitutional crisis might be staring at the former empire. Writing for The Sunday Times earlier this year, Tim Shipman and Jason Allardyce warned that the British union faced a crisis as polls showed some 40 to 51 per cent voters to want a referendum on the territorial constituents. A four-country survey, based on separate polls in Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales, found that the sense of British identity that once bound the country together was disintegrating.
And matters might have only aggravated, as the people have come realise that Brexit producing a Singapore-on-Themes seems to be nowhere in sight—at least in the foreseeable future.
If a majority of Northern Islanders expect reunification well within this century, nearly two-thirds of the Welsh people want to quit the union. The opinion in Wales is particularly conspicuous considering that barely 10 per cent of its people preferred independence in the 2010s. Interestingly, as many 43 per cent of the British perceive the colonial empire as something good and a source of their pride. Opinions differ. Scribes find British system veering away from meaningful democracy, whose “preposterous, antiquated system will become ever harder to justify”. However, Britain’s imperial past will not repeat; it cannot; and it should not be allowed a comeback.
In The Print, Priya Satia writes: “Today there is neither agreement that the empire produced hell nor agreement that protestations of good intentions are an inadequate excuse. Countless anticolonial thinkers and historians have proven the British Empire’s morally bankrupt foundation in racism, violence, extraction, expropriation, and exploitation.” However, a 2020 study indicated Britons more likely than people in France, Germany, Japan, and other former colonial powers to desire that their country to have an empire. 
Colonisation was an inhuman outcome of a desire to dominate, and seek to call all the shots without the accountability and transparency submitted to citizens of the “mother country”. It was to amass power and exploit local people and local resources, without the democratic restraints observed at the “home” front.

Convenient cause
In a height of blatant audacity, democracy did not apply to the inhabitants of the colonies. The very ones who defined it were extending democratic practices to the colonies they mercilessly exploited, guided as they were by claim of class superiority.
As presidential candidate for the French presidency and on a visit to Algeria in 2017, Emmanuel Macron described colonisation as a “crime against humanity”. But he, too, did not understand the core issue. Now president, he conveniently advised the new generations to forget what happened three generations ago. Instead, as BBC News reported last fortnight, the government in France proposed “a controversial bill to tackle what Macron described as ‘Islamist separatism’”.
Perhaps the British people, nostalgic over their imperial times, choose to forget its colonial communication approach that was basically a one-way traffic between the rulers and the ruled. Those wielding power ordered, and the subjects complied with it.
When definitions and interpretations are made more out of convenience than any principled conviction for honouring them in all honesty, troubles generate too fast to cope with. At the same time, convictions can turn into dogmatism if the general aspirations are not taken into account. Honest desire to uphold concepts and systems, backed by consistency in determination, should steer the course better for a smooth and widely acceptable drive.

(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)