Current Affairs Without History

Current affairs cannot be understood without an appreciation of history. It goes without saying that history is an ongoing process, and that the status quo of politics and international relations in which we operate is the culmination of centuries of events. It is therefore insufficient to merely watch the news, absorb its narrative, and regurgitate its zeitgeist without a greater consideration of the wider historical context.

Just as the origins of the Second World War cannot be understood without an appreciation of the First World War, equally, the origins of the civil war in Syria lay far deeper in history than the events of the Arab Spring, and police brutality against the black community in the United States is but a more recent incarnation of historic institutional racism.

Take the issue of Brexit, for example. The decision to leave the European Union will likely be the most important political decision made in Britain for a generation. Admittedly, BBC Question Time is no longer – if ever it were – the epitome of informed and accessible debate on politics and current affairs. Nevertheless, what the participation of its audience betrays is the astonishing prevalence of historical illiteracy in this country, even among those who are comparatively engaged with current affairs. The rose-tinted jingoism of Question Time‘s Brexiteer audience members, who are sufficiently interested in the subject matter as to seek participation, represents a galling ignorance of crucial history and a disregard more generally of the importance of examining historical context.

Every Thursday night, David Dimbleby unwittingly invites the obligatory pompous Brexiteer in the audience to ignorantly eulogise about the glorious centuries of long since lost British grandeur. Last night was no different. One audience member, demanding that Labour’s Owen Smith stop “whinging” about Brexit, and denouncing the European Union as an obstacle to true democracy in Britain, declared that:

“For thousands of years, Britain has ruled in a wonderful way. We’ve been a light unto the world!”

It is difficult to know where to begin with that assessment. Some leapt to her defence, citing her right to an opinion. Frankly, however, the validity of amateur opinion on the subject of imperial rule pales against its demonstrable realities. Moreover, it is this propagation of ill-informed jingoism that betrays the shameful prevalence of historical illiteracy and imperial hubris in this country. Most disconcertingly, this is the expressed conviction of someone who, by participating in Question Time, is demonstrating an engagement with current affairs far greater than that of much of the public. If even those who claim an interest in current affairs fail to appreciate the importance of historical context, the likely ignorance of wider society to such themes ought to be alarming.

I will, however, leave aside my previously expressed thoughts on Brexit and focus on addressing the myriad absurdities spectacularly crammed into that seven-second statement.

Firstly, the simple claim of “thousands of years” of British rule. I must be somewhat ignorant of the dominance of the British in the Neolithic era of three thousand plus years ago, during which time Britons began renouncing their hunter-gatherer lifestyles, instead adopting the newfangled practices of agriculture. Two thousand years ago, it was the Romans ruling Britannica. After them came the Vikings, the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans, and – ignoring the fact that they were not at all British – they were still far from ruling the world. Even one thousand years ago, the Normans had not yet arrived, and it was China that ruled with the British irrelevant on the world stage. Indeed, during the thirteenth century, the Mongols decided against invading deeper into Europe because the potential spoils of war were far greater in China and the Middle East.

Secondly, the claim that Britain “ruled in a wonderful way”. I’ll go into a little more detail here, just in the hope of smashing a few astonishingly prevalent myths surrounding British history. Instead of “thousands of years” of British rule, then, this audience member was presumably referring to the period of several hundred years during which Britain arguably exercised global dominance. Herein lies the problem. There is little accounting for the motivations, methods and justification through which such dominance was achieved. The answer, of course, is that it was achieved through, and guaranteed by, empire. That empire was not given, earned or acquired fairly, but stolen through invasion, subjugation and murder, and maintained through devastation, exploitation and genocide. What seems disconcertingly to be required, is a sobering recognition of the brutalities of British imperialism, pursued solely for the rapid accumulation of wealth and power, with “scientific racism” embraced as a means by which to legitimise the depredation of the inferior Other.

1) Transatlantic Trafficking of Enslaved Africans

Before the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 1807, Britain had been the foremost slave trading nation in Europe. In 245 years, British ships made 11,000 voyages to the New World, trafficking 3.4 million enslaved Africans and condemning them to a lifetime of brutal oppression on the plantations of the Caribbean and the Americas.

The abolition of the slave trade, however, was not the product of a moral awakening as to its inhumanity. On the contrary, it was a pragmatic response to shifting economic conditions and the threat of slave revolt, as witnessed in Saint-Domingue between 1791 and 1804. The institution of slavery continued in British colonies until 1833, and in territories delegated to the East India Company until as late as 1847. When slavery was finally outlawed, it was the expropriated former slaveowners – not the former slaves – that received financial compensation from the government.

2) British Concentration Camps in the Boer War

During the Second Boer War, the British army established concentration camps in which it imprisoned around 115,000 civilians, mostly women and children, to prevent their support of enemy fighters. Black people were also forced into camps as labourers for the re-opened gold mines.

With insufficient food supplies, unsanitary conditions and inadequate medical arrangements, around 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in these concentration camps.

Boer families in a British concentration camp at Eshowe, Zululand, 1900.

3) The Partition of India

In 1947, Cyril Radcliffe was tasked with doing something for which the British were already notorious – drawing ill-considered, often arbitrary, straight lines on a map to create volatile new states. The border between India and Pakistan was decided over the course of one single lunch.

The border was drawn along religious lines, dividing colonial India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Ten million Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the line were uprooted, and around 1 million people died in the ensuing violence.

Muslim refugees having fled India after the partitioning of the country in 1947 at a shantytown in Karachi, Pakistan.

4) The Suppression of the Mau Mau Uprising

In 1952, Mau Mau fighters from Kenya’s major ethnic group, the Kikuyu, rebelled against the colonial rule responsible for their economic marginalisation and the expropriation of their lands by white settlers.

The British declared a state of emergency and moved in army reinforcements. The Kenya Human Rights Commission claims 90,000 Kenyans were executed in the ensuing violence, with thousands more tortured and abused during the suppression of the uprising.

British policemen hold men from Kariobangi at gunpoint while their huts are searched for evidence of their participation in the Mau Mau Rebellion of 1952.

5) Famines in India

Under British rule between 1765 and 1947, there were 15 major famines in colonial India, leading to the deaths of between 12 and 29 million people.

In 1943, Winston Churchill diverted food supplies from India to British troops fighting in the Second World War. As many as 4 million Bengalis starved to death as a result.

Starving Indian men in 1900.

Contrary to the assertion of that audience member, then, British rule was far from “a light unto the world”. Although such a brazen claim resonates as chillingly jingoistic to any reader of history, the reality is that she is far from alone in clinging to this absurd conviction. A recent poll found that 59% of Brits believe that the British Empire is something to be proud of, and almost half of survey respondents felt that the former colonies “were better off” as a result of their colonisation. Particularly prevalent since the Brexiteers promise to “take our country back”, this imperial pomp has been diagnosed by academic Paul Gilroy as a symptom of “postcolonial melancholia”. Integral to this nostalgic yearning for a time when Britain “ruled the waves” as a great power are the silencing of the brutality of empire, the neglect of the hundreds of millions of people who died at the hands of its vicious regime, and an ignorance of the fact that it was eventually the rebellions of the oppressed that forced its rightful collapse.

Herein lies the crux of my argument. The persistence of such troubling public opinion is an indictment of the failure of our school system to provide even a cursory history of empire. Given the shameful atrocities detailed above, it is perhaps scarcely surprising that school children might skip from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that vital period in between in which Britain ruled over the greatest empire ever known. Yet, it is in this void of inadequate education that foments a misplaced nostalgia for former glories, a subscription to the comforting myth of benign British rule, and a susceptibility to what Winston Churchill described as “its glories and all the services it rendered to mankind”. Simply, if the history of empire is not taught at school, it is too rarely learned later. In popular culture, the narrative of empire is artfully navigated. Allusions to such history concede merely superficial detail so as to avoid the disturbing reckoning with the brutality of colonialism that its accurate depiction would provoke. Thus, an unapologetic adulation of empire cajoles the uninformed into believing in a falsified version of benevolent imperialism in order to avoid confessing to the shameful realities of “scientific racism” and the systematic exploitation of a fifth of the world’s population.

It is therefore excruciating to hear this lauding of the value of the Commonwealth and the express wish to exploit its plentiful bounty, precisely because such a mentality ignores this relevant history. Brexiteers revel in citing the ambiguous “shared values” of the Commonwealth and in espousing fanciful dreams of favourable trade deals with Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Yet, their appeal to the Commonwealth is itself the result of this resurgent imperial nostalgia, and it belies a conceited albeit abstract longing for the reinstatement of the glorious British dominance of that relationship. Brexiteers decry the injustices of immigration laws that elevate the status of EU citizens above that of those from the Commonwealth. Yet, studies into the motivations of Leave voters suggest that they would object to the influx of immigrants from Jamaica, Nigeria and Pakistan likely incurred as a result of the revival of trading relations with the Commonwealth.

The absurdity of the term “Commonwealth” is itself normalised. The very notion of “Great” Britain, and the wealth in which it basks to this day, is intimately tied to the subjugation and exploitation of these countries through empire, colonialism and slavery. The stolen profits of this tyrannical hegemony fuelled the ascension of Britain to global power status, while fomenting the devastating poverty, instability and conflict that continue to wreak havoc on many parts of the Commonwealth. In truth, nothing could be further from the truth than this myth of the creation of, and sharing in, a “common wealth”.

Perhaps we reminisce about the days of empire, and pine for Britain to be great again, because to do so avoids any uncomfortable reckoning with its terrible colonial legacy. Perhaps an education of the horrific brutality at the dark heart of empire would provide a necessary antidote to these destructive currents of post-colonial melancholia which, sadly, remain prevalent in our societies to this day. Perhaps it is only through the study of history that we may ever hope to arrest the slide of mankind towards further atrocities.


TTIP Defeated; CETA Next

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is seemingly dead in the water, according to the German Minister for Economic Affairs Sigmar Gabriel who admitted this week that “negotiations with the United States have de facto failed”. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls has also called for a “clear halt” to negotiations, and it now appears that the infamously insidious and anti-democratic treaty has been defeated.

Gabriel divulged that in 14 rounds of talks on the pact, the two sides have not agreed on a single item of the 27 chapters discussed, and he joins France’s Foreign Trade Minister Matthias Fekl in stating that the delay is the result of the United States’ unwillingness to make concessions as the EU has. Speaking to French radio, Fekl said that the agreement is “a bad deal”, and that “Europe is offering a lot and we are getting very little in return”.

It would be disingenuous, however, to claim that TTIP’s demise is the result of anything but unparalleled opposition. Indeed, almost 3.5 million Europeans signed a petition to oppose it, while a protest in Berlin last year drew 250,000 people. I too take some pride in this victory given that my video, which has a humble 45,000 views to date, may perhaps have played a minor role in the success of this campaign. Yet, while people power wins for now, another menacingly anti-democratic treaty is pending.

The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, or CETA, is ostensibly a deal between the EU and Canada awaiting only final approval, which could yet arrive before Britain leaves the EU. Its purpose is to ease trade by reducing regulation on business through “regulatory cooperation”, or the removal of legislation that protects us from corporate exploitation. In practice, it would weaken our standards of food safety, workers’ rights and environmental regulation on the basis that they are “obstacles to trade”.

Like TTIP, CETA would allow any corporation operation in the EU or Canada, wherever its headquarters might be, to sue governments before an international tribunal whenever they fear that their “future anticipated profits” might be affected by new laws, preventing parliaments on both sides of the Atlantic from legislating to further protect their people.

In addition, the “ratchet clause” would “lock in” current levels of privatisation so that, for example, a government wanting to bring the railways or certain NHS services back into public ownership would be breaking the terms of the agreement, and exposed to a tribunal before a court of corporate lawyers. CETA, which claims to be a trade treaty, is in fact an attempt to circumscribe democracy on behalf of corporate power.

This is not a new phenomenon. Working in secret, and without a democratic mandate, corporate lobbyists and their captive governments have been seeking to impose such treaties for over 20 years. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment, like TTIP, was also destroyed by massive public protests in 1998. If parliaments reject CETA, they will return once more with the Trade in Services Agreement, which the EU is negotiating with the US and 21 other nations. It has already been endorsed by a Department for International Trade stating that: “The UK remains committed to an ambitious Trade in Services Agreement.”

Reaction to Brexit

I woke up this morning dejected, feeling betrayed by, and ashamed of, what I believed to be an outward-looking, open-minded and tolerant country.

Some had at least reasoned motivations for voting Leave, such as abstract concerns about sovereignty, but the majority have seemingly been swept up by blind nationalism and vacuous rhetoric, by a fear and hatred of immigrants. This is despite the fact that immigrants are net contributors to the UK economy. The average immigrant is younger, better educated and healthier than the average British citizen. In other words, for every immigrant we let in, the country is richer, more able to pay for its health, education and welfare needs, and less dependent on benefits. They are exactly the demographic the UK needs, particularly given the UK’s birth rate, which is so low that even a decade of migration at the record high level of 330,000 would see an overall drop in the population.

But we don’t do facts and experts, not anymore. No, we prefer Nigel Farage, a man who within hours of victory had, like Ian Duncan Smith later, already conceded that at least one major propaganda claim was a lie. It turns out, not only do we do not send £350m per week to the EU, but we will also not be spending this “recovered” sum on the NHS as promised26809-7azh90. Our contribution was, in fact, £190m, and it bought us access to the free market. A free market to which Leavers such as Daniel Hannan have already said they would like to retain access. The trade off for such access? Cash payments to the EU and the acceptance of free movement of people. It sounds like the least bad outcome to me, although such a stitch-up over immigration would be a betrayal of those Leave voters who believed themselves to be “taking back control” of the borders in a campaign who primary focus was immigration. If you voted to reduce immigration, you’ll soon find yourself feeling as disillusioned as I do.

Vote Leave also criticised the EU’s subsidising of its poorer members, wholly missing the point that this was intentional. In living memory, many such countries were communist dictatorships shut off from the world behind the Iron Curtain. Today, in part thanks to the EU, these countries have parliamentary democracies and, enticed into our sphere of influence, they spend that money on our goods and services. Win-win, right? It was.

The truth is that we were the envy of Europe. schengen_3246041a-large_transtsnc2hkl-ggla3qrglwaqs9afkpjv-itlnhsbkwwizyWe had a best-of-both-worlds deal that other European Union member states resented. Far from burdened by bureaucracy, we sat at the top table and were instrumental in making the rules. We reaped the full benefits of the free market – without being in the Eurozone, and without being subject to the borderless travel of the Schengen Agreement. But that’s gone now – we’ve blown it. We will continue to pay for access to the single market, and we will continue to accept the free movement of people. Only now, we’ve surrendered our voice in the making of the rules.

Yet, today, I’ve heard people celebrating the British people sticking it to Brussels, or to the French or the Germans. Seriously, are we not over that yet? They are – they moved on a long time ago. In fact, the EU’s predecessor was established in 1951 with the expressed aim of making war “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible”. eu-signing_1999367cAfter the deaths of around 100 million military personnel and civilians in the First and Second World Wars alone, a lasting peace in Europe has been achieved. The signatories of its establishing treaty would consider 65 years of peace alone to be proof of the success of European co-operation after centuries of war. And, even with this success to its name, the EU is a baby in historical terms at just 65 years old. But we’re going to walk away from it all, and for good, why? Because it’s not perfect. At least not right now. Not in our own all-important life times. That is short-sighted, naïve and selfish.

Meanwhile, Putin is rubbing his hands together in glee as Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen congratulate us! I guess that’s the kind of company we wish to keep now.

Moving forward, we’ve got four years of an unelected right-wing Tory government and a level of initial economic damage that could affect us for at least the next ten years. fta-mapThe UK will survive in that time, but it won’t thrive. Not only are we forfeiting our trade deal with the European Union, we’re also heading back to square one in surrendering the trade deals that the EU already has with over 50 non-EU countries. You know, the ones we’re apparently not trading with! And why, “to regain our sovereignty”? For leading Brexiteers, sovereignty seems to mean reducing this country to a franchise of corporate capital, governed from overseas. It is not that leaving the EU is in itself an inevitable catastrophe, but to hand carte blanche to this government to negotiate that departure is to invite some disturbing possibilities.

For example, leaving Europe and renegotiating our trade agreements should enable us to leave behind treaties such as TTIP and CETA, which, under the pretence of facilitating trade, would release multinational corporations from democratic control, force the privatisation of public services, and make a mockery of parliamentary sovereignty. Yet, there are already calls for Britain to join NAFTA, which, using similar international tribunals, has allowed corporations to sue governments, to reduce to the lowest common denominator the laws protecting against predatory finance, labour rights, food adulteration and environmental protections, as well as blocking the passing of more progressive laws, and greatly restricting legislative sovereignty. Joining NAFTA, or connecting to it through another such agreement, would gravely threaten our sovereignty.

Before that, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will have to be invoked. Make no mistake, it is a punitive piece of law intended to discourage member states from leaving. We cannot renegotiate it. The reason Cameron wouldn’t invoke it, and now Johnson and Hannan are asking for time is because it is terrible for the economy. Gove, Farage and Johnson were lying when they repeatedly told you that we would get a better deal out of the EU. We will have no choice but to accept whatever deal they offer us.

In all likelihood, these difficult economic times to come will be labelled a transition period, and will result in further crushing austerity, privatisation of the NHS, and slashing of workers’ In Scotland, where every single counting area voted to remain in the EU, a second independence referendum is “highly likely”, sadly dividing our once ‘Great’ Britain further. And if that’s not enough, Sinn Fein is calling for a poll in both the north and south on a unified Ireland, a debate which may spark further potentially terrifying unrest. The implications of this decision, then, are huge, far-reaching and frightening.

Overall, I am struggling today to come to terms with the decision of many millions of English people, and I am ashamed of the picture it paints to the world, of a nation retreating from greatness to bury its head in the sand, pretending that the problems of the world have been left behind with it.

I won’t turn my back on Europe and its myriad opportunities, and I won’t blame somebody else for the shortcomings of my government simply because they were born on another piece of land, or because they have since chosen to cross an imaginary line onto a different piece of land. I’ve done it myself. I’ve lived abroad as an immigrant in the EU, and I was welcomed. It was the greatest experience of my life, and it is one that many people with similar aspirations will unfortunately now struggle to share.

On a brighter note, I am today headed to the European Championships. And when I get there, I’ll mix in the streets of Paris with my fellow Europeans and have a bloody great time with those people with whom we have far more in common than that which divides us. Winning a referendum is one thing; being on the right side of history is another. Europe, we truly were better together…