Originally published: 15.08.15
“For in the last resort, the only important question is, Do you want the British Empire to hold together or do you want it to disintegrate? And at the bottom of his heart no Englishman does want it to disintegrate. For, apart from any other consideration, the high standard of life we enjoy in England depends upon our keeping a tight hold on the Empire, particularly the tropical portions of it such as India and Africa. Under the capitalist system, in order that England may live in comparative comfort, a hundred million Indians must live on the verge of starvation – an evil state of affairs, but you acquiesce in it every time you step into a taxi or eat a plate of strawberries and cream. The alternative is to throw the Empire overboard and reduce England to a cold and unimportant little island where we should all have to work very hard and live mainly on herrings and potatoes.”
–George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (1937, p 159)
Today I am officially launching a new campaign – British Empire State of Mind – to challenge Britain’s continuing colonial mentality, which I believe is the cause of increasing international inequality and xenophobia and racism in the UK. I hope you will join me in getting involved, taking part, or simply supporting the campaign.
Many argue that the British Empire ended in 1997 when the union flag came down in Hong Kong. However, the legacy of this empire lives on and with it a ‘British Empire State of Mind’.
Britain, a tiny island with a population of around 65 million, still holds a very privileged position of power and influence internationally, it has a very self-centric view of the world that continues to elevate it and its people as ‘civilisers’, ‘heroes’ and ‘saviours’, and traditional ‘British’ values, culture and norms as an ideal global standard.
Throughout history this ‘British Empire State of Mind’ and resulting actions has led to the suffering of people the world over, the pilfering of resources and the destruction of our planet. The result today is this: globally we are witnessing increasing political and economic inequality and borders that are closed to people but open to money, and at home in the UK there is a pervasive and growing fear of immigration and xenophobia and racism.
I believe that (largely white) Brits are often (and sometimes unconsciously) ignorant of the inconvenient truth of the impact that Britain has had, and continues to have, on the world, and how this subsequently relates to the experiences of people of colour in the UK. I want to challenge this.
Throughout the media and in daily conversations between people in Britain it’s not uncommon to hear or read the following sentiments in discussions about society, politics and economics:
- “Immigrants are coming to the UK and stealing our jobs”
- “Immigrants and foreigners arrive here and dilute our culture with their own languages/food/religion/values”
- “Immigrants are coming to the UK to live but they should sort out the problems in their own countries – there’s not enough room”
- “People are poor in developing countries because of their corrupt leaders/lack of resources/lazy populations/fighting with one another”
- “There’s nothing we can do about poverty in developing countries – it’s not our responsibility”
- “We’re already doing enough sending them millions of pounds in aid money and sending in our army to help sort them out. It’s nothing to do with us. Charity begins at home.”
Putting to one side for a moment whether or not these statements are a) factually correct or b) patronising/unfair/selfish/racist etc, their foundations are often rooted in ignorance. There is a lack of understanding of the conditions that create global poverty and migration. And there is a lack of understanding of how the actions of the British Empire, with the complicity of British citizens, can be found at the root of a number of man-made global crises as the cause. By putting the problems we see in the world today into the context of our history, realising that these issues are interconnected and looking at them from a variety of different perspectives, we can (hopefully) start to develop a true understanding and empathy for others and realise actually how much influence Britain has had, and continues to have, in shaping these issues.
I’m very aware that information fed to us in the UK by the media/government/education etc often views people of colour and ‘developing countries’ and their inhabitants through a white/western-centric lens, marginalising and disempowering, silencing their voices, manipulating the truth and breeding ignorance.
I believe that achieving global equality will not only require the self-determined ‘development’ of developing countries, but also, in many ways, the underdevelopment and humbling of ‘developed’ nations, Britain included. This will start with examining our actions, our beliefs, what we’ve been told, our experiences and our thoughts.
Britain isn’t alone in this ‘state of mind’, or the influence it wields, it’s one shared by other western European countries, the US, and increasingly other developing global powers, but I’m British and this is my audience.
As part of British Empire State of Mind I am hoping to help coordinate an event that’s not only educational, but transformational. One that fosters empathy and understanding and an ability for the audience to really put themselves in others’ shoes and call for change, rather than simply walking away feeling guilty, angry and helpless – not an easy task…
After an evening of sharing stories and some real listening I’d really like people to come away understanding:
History – The true history of Britain and the British Empire and how the country has benefitted from it (from colonialism and slavery etc).
Today – What’s going on in the world today in terms of global inequality and poverty and how Britain helped create the conditions that caused and continues to perpetuate it now (neocolonialism, war, weapons sales, unfair economics, stereotyping, racism, anti immigration).
How this plays out:
- In the UK: Fear of immigration, racism and belief that individualism can be pursued without detriment to the global poor, lack of awareness about interconnectedness of countries
- Around the world: Widening gap between rich and poor, increasing environmental instability, inhumanity, pursuing profit over people
- To us as individuals: How are individuals are directly affected – including racism, forced migration, impact of climate change etc.
What’s possible? – What’s possible is a world where everyone is recognised as being of equal value and are treated as such, with equal access to opportunity. I believe true equality would, amongst other things, create balance, eradicate poverty, reduce conflict, end environmental destruction and build communities for a world that works for all.
What do we do to make it happen? – Listen, understand, learn, empathise, amplify, question, demand change, share stories.
The way I have been thinking that this will work is through the power of stories. Ideally, it would be wonderful to host a series of events with active campaigners (challenging the idea of passive ‘victims’ in developing countries) from around the world who are negatively impacted by the actions of Western governments and are able and willing to talk about it…
These are just my initial thoughts. I have lots more information and ideas, but I wanted to share the rough outline with you. I want this to be a collaboration and I am well aware that these aren’t my stories to tell – I just want to amplify them for a white, British audience. So far I have come up with concept, carried out research and started to look for, get in contact with and interview people who might have stories to tell (including half of Accra!). I really want to invite anyone who wants to jump on board, contribute, lead, influence and edit the course of the campaign – all feedback, suggestions criticism and input are more than welcome – I’d love to hear what you think. I’m not precious, I just believe that the ultimate end is important.
If this is something you’re passionate about and you want to get involved in in any way (or you know someone who might), or if you think I’m on the wrong track and should be doing something different (or nothing at all!) please do get in touch – you can do so on my Contact page.