Saturday, 12 March 2016

Britain, the End of Empire and the EU

I enjoyed a free day in London today. It's my home city but it's only when you move away that you really appreciate all it has to offer. And so much has changed since I left London in 1968 to go to university, never to live there again.

Inevitably my mind is full of the EU referendum at the moment. So I welcomed the prospect of a few hours away from the cyber-campaign I'm involved in through "Christians for the EU". But it's fascinating how you make connections all the time. I hadn't planned them - honest! "They just growed."  I began the day at Tate Britain to see an exhibition that's on at the moment called Artist and Empire. After that, I took a boat down the Thames from Millbank to Greenwich to visit the Royal Naval Hospital. Finally I went to the National Maritime Museum. 

First, the exhibition. If you're British, it's bound to be uncomfortable and challenging to revisit your history like this. I have a son in law who lectures in post-colonial history and he has helped me to look at Britain's past as a former world power in new ways. As I gazed at maps and works of art celebrating the big events of empire, I remembered an occasion years ago when I found I was being questioned in the same way. That was when I walked the Freedom Trail in Boston (which by the way every UK citizen who visits New England should do if they can). The discomfort was increased by the presence of "stolen art" in the exhibition: indigenous artefacts that were chosen precisely to underline the point that the erstwhile trophies of empire once so cherished are nowadays subject to huge debate about who they truly belong to and where they should be held. 

Most of this was a world away from Europe. Europeans featured in the exhibition mainly as fellow-colonialists, all part of this huge, now discredited project, of exerting power across the globe and exporting "western" values to every continent on earth. But Europeans also featured strongly as enemies of the British, especially the French and Spanish. In three different places along the Thames today, I've seen pictures of the death of General James Wolfe who seized Québec from the French in 1759. The exhibition showed how European wars have been acted out all over the world from Tudor times to the 20th century, a vast displacement activity in which millions of people were dragged to their deaths in conflicts that were never their own. 

The demanding but necessary process of bringing an end to empire inevitably puts questions to the United Kingdom of today. What kind of nation are we now, and what are our values as a people? That's the point of an exhibition that has been carefully curated to explore what imperial history means in a post-colonial environment. And all the time I was finding myself framing my own questions about this history, not only as a British citizen but as a European as well. So from an EU point of view, what might we say about the UK's contemporary geopolitical setting and its global role in the 21st century? 

My first and obvious thought was: how hard it is for a world player like imperial Britain to lose an empire and to accept that it has dropped down to being just a middle-ranking power among many others. It calls for real national humility to do this with dignity. It requires an act of grace not to harbour nostalgic longings for an age when so much of the world map was coloured pink, and when Britannia ruled the waves. As I disembarked at Greenwich, I could see up the Blackwall Reach to the original site of the East India Docks. At the exhibition, and again at the Maritime Museum I saw and learned much about the East India Company that became an immensely powerful colonial institution. The grandeur of Wren's Royal Naval Hospital is an eloquent symbol of a navy the like of which the world had never seen and would never see again. The converted warehouses that line the Pool of London, now smart apartments and expensive shops and eating houses, are the visible footprints of a trading power that reached to the ends of the earth. 

The bustling Thames, London's great artery of military and economic power, is a good place to reflect on a proud past. What's left of it all now? you ask yourself. Yet even if the UK is no longer a global power, it still has great global influence. The English language is one example of its reach all over the world. Our financial institutions are another. In the arts, culture, sports and in the academy the UK is a world class player. We can be justly proud of the achievements of the British people down the centuries and today. 

But let's remember that even in global politics we continue to count as heavyweights. Not on our own. That is never going to be possible again, nor should we harbour such ambitions for ourselves. Through our pooled sovereignty in the EU, we are still a force to be reckoned with alongside our continental partners. What's more, other EU nations look to us to take a lead in safeguarding the hard-won peace of Europe. This is one of the reasons why they do not want us to leave. In a world as febrile as ours is now, we can't afford to sit loose to our security. Alliances like the European Union, bound together by treaty, matter more and more today. It may be scaremongering to speculate that the only world leader who would welcome Brexit is Vladimir Putin who could - it's conjectured - take advantage of an EU weakened by the UK's departure. Who can say? I'm not an expert so I'm simply echoing strategists who have written about the new threats Brexit could pose at a time when the Cold War may no longer just be a matter for the history books. 

So here's what I have come away from today thinking. Our imperial past ought to have given us the capacity to think geopolitically about our future. When you've been a world power, you've seen the planet in a different way. Yes, you've exerted power in it, practised domination over it, subdued it, exploited it, stolen from it, all the evils we rightly condemn in the colonial project. The galleries that focus on the Atlantic slave trade at the National Maritime Museum are a sobering reminder of an ineradicable and shameful era. And even where Britain brought culture, language, a legal system, industrialisation and religion, these were far from being unambiguous benefits as historians always point out. History should drive us to our knees - not in gratitude but repentance. 

However, the legacy of empire ought to be that we don't lose sight of the big picture. The Thames is lined with the evidence of Britain's ability to think and imagine beyond its own shoreline. And that is sorely needed now, more than ever. For me, the European Union is one instance of how, today, a modern nation state like ours finds its proper place in a family of peoples who are committed to seeking one another's welfare, what theologians call the common good. To leave the EU would not only expose Europe and ourselves to threats we can't altogether foresee, whether in world trade or security.  It would represent a collapse in our vision of Britain, a narrowing of our horizons, a betrayal of everything that once enabled our islands to play such a disproportionately large role in world affairs. It's a cliché to say that it would probably lead to the cul-de-sac we call Little England. But I fear it would. 

Christianity says that greatness happens as we put others before ourselves and become not masters but servants, becoming one of "the least". That calls for humility, the virtue I drew attention to earlier. I think a good story can be told in this way: that at the end of empire, UK has had to learn how make the transition from domination to something like humility and service. I believe that despite its difficulties, we've done it with grace and integrity, and without loss in of what makes us British. The EU gives us a place to belong where we can not only flourish and be at ease with ourselves, but learn as a nation what it means not to be served but to serve. In that way we can yet make a lasting contribution to humanity. 

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2 comments:

  1. Your writing reminds me of Stephen Cherry's writing about humility and the various aspects of it. Perhaps the Christian response to BREXIT is a robust humility, that sees the greater good as a partnership with others, without the hangups of the past getting in the way of building, lasting relationships of community, wider than our own borders.

    Coming to this, I watched the Commonwealth service today from Westminster Abbey, which was commemorating Commonwealth Day, and the Queen's Birthday alongside it - is this an example of an enduring common good, arising out of former colonialism that can provide a basis for a future, british way forward, if we actually do BREXIT. If we can put aside generations of wars in Europe to build a future together, we could also utilise historic links with the commonwealth to bring both organisations closer together - what a result that would be.

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  2. I'd agree with most of what you say. But India got democracy, cricket, and a common language they didn't have, so it's not all bad. And these days, we can punch above our weight in creativity, invention, entertainment, and with a bit of support from government, scientific research. But slavery, and the huge changes to culture we wrought in Africa, not good. On the other hand, we put an end to suttee for example.

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