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Until Britain reckons with its imperial past, this culture war will continue to burn | Daniel Trilling

“I thought that on a day when people all over the world were gathering to express their human rights and the right to freedom of speech,” said James Matthews, just before a judge sentenced him to 30 days in prison, “I would express a challenge to an icon of the British establishment.”

The former Royal Marine, who served in Bosnia, had climbed the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square during a riotous protest and sprayed paint to make the mouth look like it was dripping with blood. Others added a green mohican made out of turf ripped from the ground nearby. 

That took place 20 years ago, during the huge May Day protests of 2000. Like today, with the recent defacing of the Churchill statue in Parliament Square and other monuments during the Black Lives Matter protests, it elicited outrage. One tabloid newspaper set up a hotline for readers to call if they knew “the identities of any of the scum who terrorised the capital”. According to the magistrate who sentenced Matthews, his actions “caused great affront to many British people and people overseas” because the statue symbolised “the war effort and the struggle against the Nazis”.

National monuments are sites of conflict because nations are contradictory. It is entirely possible that Churchill was both a war leader who helped defeat fascism and the enthusiastic supporter of a racist imperial system, but the debates that ensue at moments like this rarely reflect that paradox. Instead, when protesters descend on Whitehall in this way – which happens at least once or twice a decade – they are treated as if they have defiled something sacred. 

The outrage today follows similar lines, but the political context has changed dramatically. In a polarised landscape, it has been swiftly co-opted into an ongoing culture war. The most extreme statements have predictably come from the far right – Nigel Farage predicted “full-on race riots”, while the former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson called on “patriots” to defend the Churchill statue during future protests – but the narrative was summarised most neatly by the Conservative MP Ben Bradley. “Country more divided even than during Brexit,” he wrote on 7 June. “London & metropolitan cities may as well be different countries; they have a different culture. One that’s entirely alien and contradictory to life in working class towns in England.”

Politicians like Bradley have an interest in talking up these divisions: he is the MP for Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, one of the towns that symbolises the collapse of Labour’s vote in its former industrial heartlands. The success of the Conservatives in seats like this rests on the claim that liberal, metropolitan Britain has become dangerously unmoored from the traditions and values of the nation – above all, of England – and needs to be reined in.

The strength of this feeling shouldn’t be underestimated or dismissed, since it’s clearly shared by large numbers of voters in seats like Bradley’s – but although it purports to be a defence of tradition, it instead relies on a denial of Britain’s own history. 

One reason, I would suggest, that the UK’s multi-ethnic cities seem “alien” to many conservatives is because they can’t accept the role that empire played in shaping the country we live in today. To them, the empire is largely something that happened to other people: it made Britain great, but the actual business of empire – whatever that might have involved – took place overseas, and largely vanished along with all that pink territory on the map. In this view, urban Britain can only seem like an unwelcome intrusion into an otherwise coherent and unchanging nation. 

Yet the empire transformed small-town and rural England just as it did the UK’s cities. It powered industries and drew migrants from one part of the country to another; it sent large numbers of British functionaries overseas and, as the critic Edward Said described in his study of Jane Austen, lay as the unacknowledged source of wealth behind English country houses and their neatly pruned gardens.

There is a long history of the right ignoring this. In his provocative study of British nationalism, The Break-Up of Britain, the historian Tom Nairn showed how Enoch Powell’s fearmongering about black and Asian immigrants from former colonies in the 1960s was supported by a sickly romanticism about England and its supposedly unchanging traditions. This denial has bequeathed our political culture with a kind of delirious national optimism – think of Boris Johnson, cheerily dangling the promise of a “world-beating” test-and-trace system in front of journalists rather than engaging with criticisms of his government’s response to coronavirus – that turns nasty when challenged. 

At moments of unrest, the people who protest or riot are castigated not only for their behaviour, but for their very presence in the country. In 2001, when the descendants of workers invited from Pakistan during the 1960s to prop up north-west England’s failing textile industry rioted, the media focused on their supposedly deficient culture rather than persistent racism and discrimination.

During the 2011 riots in London and other English cities, the historian David Starkey voiced a fear about urban Britain that by then usually remained unspoken: “the whites have become black”, he complained on Newsnight, as if pristine British culture was being polluted by a foreign influence. (Starkey was talking specifically about white “chavs”: fraternising among the lower orders has always disturbed British elites.)

By forcing the UK to confront racism at home, the Black Lives Matter protesters are placing the empire and its legacy centre stage, from the dethroning of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, to highlighting the systemic inequality that has left working-class black and ethnic minority communities bearing some of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Yet they are met with an infantile and increasingly toxic political discourse. Debate is frequently derailed into arguments over whether Churchill was personally “a racist”, rather than the ideas and structures that shaped the behaviour of the British ruling class. Over whether taking down the statue of Edward Colston is “rewriting history”, rather than why Bristol taxpayers were still paying compensation to the descendants of slaveowners as late as 2015. Over the unruly behaviour of some protesters, rather than why, when people ask politely for things like a broader school or university curriculum, they are ignored or met with pearl-clutching horror.

Likewise, the right tends to respond to demands that Britain acknowledge the truth about empire as if this were primarily about blaming people alive today, or about protecting the hurt feelings of minority groups. It doesn’t have to be. A better understanding of our history, including the crimes committed in Britain’s name, is essential for understanding the country we live in today, and the only way to defuse the claim that England is divided into two rival camps, utterly foreign to one another. Until Britain finds a way to reckon with its imperial past, this culture war will continue to burn. 

•Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe and Bloody Nasty People: the Rise of Britain’s Far Right

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