James Bartholomeusz discusses the impact of the BLM movement and Brexit on British politics.
We might have expected June 2020 to act as a point of reflection on Britain’s departure from the EU, four years on from that fateful referendum. In fact, against the backdrop of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it was defined by an international upsurge for racial justice triggered by the murder of yet another unarmed African American. Several months after the last major anti-Brexit protest filled Parliament Square, demonstrators were spraying anti-racist graffiti on the statue of Winston Churchill.
On the surface, it seems that little connects the pro-European and Black Lives Matter movements. In fact, they are closely bound together. Both are expressions of the increased competition over British history and identity, and what these mean for our place in the world as we enter the 2020s.
Black Lives Matter was initially a response to the brutal racism of much US policing, where at times it seems little has changed since the pre-Civil Rights era. It has since snowballed into a comprehensive critique of racism across Western society, from the hard material facts of gaps in life expectancy and wealth between different racial groups, to the discriminatory stereotypes and assumptions which pervade social interaction and the arts. Here in Britain we like to comfort ourselves that, no matter how bad things get, we are still better than our American cousins. Black Lives Matter has forced a sudden reckoning with our own legacy of slavery and colonialism.
One of the starkest things about this process is how it has exposed a major educational gap along generational lines. Those who went to school and university in the decades following the Second World War (including the children of immigrants from the British Empire and Commonwealth) learned a version of history in which the British were a benevolent, civilising force in the world. There may have been a few bad apples and some poor policy decisions along the way, but on the whole Britain had contributed far more than it had damaged.
Generations Y and Z have developed a very different version of our national story. Partly driven by a substantial increase in university places, many younger people have been exposed to postcolonial studies and a much more international range of perspectives. With the gaps filled in, Britain is not just the country which abolished the slave trade in the early 19th Century, but one which profited handsomely from it for hundreds of years beforehand. We may have exported railways and modern manufacturing to the global south, but we also violently seized land and natural resources, dispossessed indigenous people and erected a global racial hierarchy with white Europeans on top. A large proportion of textbook British heroes, from Horatio Nelson to William Gladstone, were fully complicit in this process.
If this generational divide sounds familiar, it is because it broadly correlates with the split between Leave and Remain supporters in the EU referendum. Brexit has never really been about the policy detail of EU membership. Rather, it is about two fundamentally different views of our history, which lead to two alternative ideas of the approach we should take to the world in the 21st Century.
For older Leavers, it is not just that Britain is capable of making its own way in the world beyond the bounds of Europe. It is that we have nothing to be ashamed of in our history of global engagement. If you believe that the British Empire was generally a positive thing then you are likely either baffled or frustrated by being asked to apologise for it today. The wider world – especially Commonwealth countries – will be lucky to have us back, pursuing an independent trade policy and using development aid as we wish.
For younger Remainers, meanwhile, Brexit feels like an attempt to wind back the clock to some of our worst historical tendencies. The discourse around ‘Global Britain’ reeks of a time when we went to war with China to safeguard our opium exports and conspired with the French to carve up the Middle East between two imperial powers. Conversely, if European integration means anything it is peaceful cooperation between former enemies, a sort of salvation for past crimes. Institutionally, the EU puts a great deal of emphasis on cultural diversity and learning from some of the worst atrocities in history. Next to that, Brexit Britain looks wilfully ignorant.
Anyone who thought that formally leaving the EU would heal the social divide opened up in 2016 is clearly mistaken. The debates triggered by Black Lives Matter are just another site on which the dominant interpretation of British history will be decided. Above all, these are very important conversations to be having – and they will be with us for some time to come.
James Bartholomeusz is a Young Fabian. He works for a trade union and writes a range of fiction and non-fiction in his spare time.