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Not so great Britain: Last night of the Poms


Drew Forrest has been working as a journalist for 40 years, with stints at Business Day, Mail & Guardian, Times of Swaziland and the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism. He has been a deputy editor, political editor, business editor and labour editor, among other positions. Author of a book on cricket, “The Pacemen” (Pan Macmillan 2013), he has also edited a number of non-fiction books. He is currently the managing partner (editorial) of IJ Hub, a regional training offshoot of amaBhungane.

‘Postcolonial melancholia’ can be seen as fuelling every major modern debacle and political weirdness in Britain, from the Falklands War and Brexit to Tumbledown Truss and the Queen’s Queue. It’s a strange pathology.

It was an eerie spectacle. My parents were English and my sons live in England; I went to school there, worked there as a teacher and have British citizenship. But my reaction was the utter bafflement of an outsider.

A line of people winding 10 miles through the heart of London; two days of waiting to glimpse a fancy wooden box housing a dead woman.

Nothing was visible but the closed coffin. Most of the 250,000 mourners who queued would never have seen Queen Elizabeth in the flesh; nor, as a totem pole without executive power, could she have had much practical effect on their lives.

Yet former prime minister Liz Truss could praise her as “the rock of the nation over seven decades” and MP Rachel Maclean as “a living example of British values”. 

Something powerfully archetypal was clearly at work. In a post-war Britain of unprecedented psychic turmoil, the queen seems to have been felt as a symbol of home and constancy and a vanished Eden.

A useful way of understanding “the Queue”, as the media dubbed it, is University College London sociologist Paul Gilroy’s idea of “postcolonial melancholia” – the neurotic quest for lost prestige following the dismantling of the British Empire. 

In this context, it can be understood as an outpouring of nostalgia for a simpler, purer, and culturally and racially uniform Britain that still ruled the waves.

Gilroy argues that World War 2, the Blitz and the Battle of Britain remain central to the nation’s mythical sense of itself as an “island fortress”, which stood alone against the Nazi menace and had not yet been overrun by Asian and Caribbean settlers. 

Despite the fact that 80% of German casualties were on the Eastern Front, many English people still entertain the fantasy that the British Army defeated the Wehrmacht. “I saw a film today,” mockingly sang John Lennon 20 years after VE Day, “the English army had just won the war.” 

Hence, also, the cult of Winston Churchill. With its full set of his war memoirs, recordings of his speeches and a hand-bell bearing his image cast from Spitfire aluminium, my childhood home was a shrine to the wartime leader.

In his 2004 analysis Gilroy talks of “Churchillism”, the deluded notion that Britain could maintain its geopolitical influence as the hub of three power blocs: the North Atlantic alliance, Europe and the Empire/Commonwealth.

In reality, Britain – largely because of its loss of Empire and rejection of Europe – has become the stooge of an increasingly deranged US.

Xenophobia has a long history in insular Albion. In 1919, Josiah Wedgewood told Parliament that “aliens are always hated by the people of this country”, citing the historical mob persecution of the Flemings, Lombards and French Protestants. 

What was different about the post-war wave of immigration was its scale and racial composition which, Gilroy argues, was widely experienced as akin to invasion or war, an assault on the country’s essential character.

Seventy years later, there are still Powellist calls for black Britons to “go home and rebuild their own countries”.

Post-colonial melancholia, with its febrile inflation of Britain’s global importance and prospects, is still with us, shaping every major event from the Suez crisis to Brexit and “Trussomania”.

Rule Britannia

One of its symptoms is the stubborn belief in the essentially benign character of Empire as a bringer of light and civilisation, and the emergence of an industry of revisionist historians bent on defending the imperial enterprise.

The Victorian idea of empire-building as a charitable but unavoidably dirty and violent undertaking was spelt out by imperialist statesman Joseph Chamberlain at the Royal Colonial Institute in 1897: “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs, or [without violence] destroy the practices of barbarism, of slavery to superstition, which for centuries have desolated the interior of Africa.” 

On the subject of “desolation” how many Britons know that an estimated two million slaves died on the dreaded “Middle Passage” to the New World, one of the largest forced relocations in history and the foundation of British industrial power?

How many know of the battles of Ulundi and Omdurman, when thousands of lightly armed Africans were machine-gunned and the wounded finished off where they lay? Of the massacres that followed Jamaica’s Morant Bay uprising and the Indian mutiny, when sepoys were blown from cannon? 

National “greatness” is still measured by the ability to lord it over other nations. Hence the enormous popularity of the Falklands War, which gave Margaret Thatcher, facing electoral defeat, a 144-seat majority in 1983 and a further seven years at the helm. 

Palestine, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya, Korea, Suez, Cyprus, Kenya, Oman and Muscat, Brunei and Borneo, Aden, Dhofar, the Falklands, the Balkans, Iraq … incessant post-war military entanglements, culminating in Tony Blair’s gunboat diplomacy, have served to cushion the effects of global decline.

Brexit can be seen as a kind of post-colonial psychotic episode, in which Europeans have partly replaced Britain’s former colonial subjects as the feared invaders. (“Leavers” paradoxically voted to bar Romanian and Polish guest workers while touting the benefits of stronger ties with the Commonwealth.)

Complaints from melancholic Britain about the loss of sovereignty in Europe masks a deep aversion to partnership with the traditional enemies and Rudyard Kipling’s “lesser breeds” across the Channel, particularly the economically powerful Germans.

Typifying the bellicose Europhobia of hardline Brexiteers was the ignorant post of rightwing businessman Arron Banks, alongside a photograph of German leader Angela Merkel, that “we didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut”.

Liz Truss’s comment during the Tory leadership campaign that she did not know whether France was a friend or hostile power was similar “red meat” for the Brexit coalition of working-class isolationists, especially in the distressed north, and the true-blue stalwarts of the Home Counties.

Also reflective of Britain’s postcolonial melancholia and delusions of continued grandeur was the 45-day fiasco of Truss’s premiership. “For a good decade now, Britain has been behaving like an economic superpower without quite having the receipts to show for it,” wrote Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff. “A painful readjustment looms not just of the public finances, but of Britain’s idea of itself.”

The Guardian’s Jonathan Friedland echoed the point: “The Brexit bubble has burst. The country has seen that the Tory hallucination of an island able to command the tides was no more than a fever dream.” 

It is no accident that World War 2 aircraft were taken out of the box for fly-pasts at the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002 and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee months before her death. The two Elizabeths were widely seen as a lifeline to the nation’s “finest hour” and pristine soul.

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The dusk of Radical Britannia

The sadness is that the country was, once, “a noble and puissant nation, rousing herself like a strong man after sleep and shaking her invincible locks”, as the radical writer and reformer John Milton proclaimed during the revolutionary upheavals of the 17th century.

It was this country that birthed two of the world’s first insurrectionary lower-class movements, the Levellers and the Diggers, toppled a totalitarian church, cut off the head of an absolute monarch and pioneered the system of parliamentary democracy.

Driven underground, the spirit of Cromwell’s England resurfaced in the Romantic Age, with its sense of unlimited human possibilities. “Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive,” wrote Wordsworth of the French Revolution (which terrified England’s rulers). Shelley was an atheist, socialist and feminist; Byron died fighting to free Greece from the Ottoman Empire.

Instead of empire-builders, generals and kings, radical Britannia’s great men and women included the “Oxford Martyrs” Latimer and Ridley, burnt as anti-Catholic heretics; the Tolpuddle Martyrs, early trade unionists exiled to Australia; William Davidson, a black Jamaican hanged as an anti-government conspirator; and the Pankhursts, militant suffragettes.

I have a T-shirt emblazoned with the surnames Strode, Haselrig, Hampden, Pym and Holles, parliamentarians and proto-democrats who gave King Charles I the slip when he tried to arrest them for high treason in the House of Commons.

They were brave and forward-looking men – the penalty for treason in the England of their day was public execution by partial hanging, disembowelment and “quartering”, or dismemberment.

A default conservatism and puffed-up sense of self now rule the roost in melancholic Albion.

Henry VIII, Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington are household names. But how many 21st-century Britons know of the five intrepid MPs listed on my T-shirt – or why they matter? DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andrew Johnson says:

    Obviously, a diatribe from a bitter and twisted Pom. One who quotes the grauniad can only be a subject of the woke kingdom.
    Thanks for reminding us that there are still left wing liberals around.

  • betsy Kee says:

    A thought provoking article and a sobering look at the fall of a nation through hubris.

  • Danial Ronald Meyer says:

    RATHER myopic and one-sided view from a disgruntled individual, isn’t it.

  • Gavin Brown says:

    Nice one Drew, but history shines through different prisms. Nothing wrong with meloncholia – it led to the Renaissance, the Belle Epoque, countless restorations of monarachy in Europe and most of the wars up to, and including, Russia’s current meloncholic episode in Ukraine.
    Perhaps the guys on your T shirt should be excoriated for re-birthing democratic ideals that collapse and die when the vote gets to 50/50. And they weren’t fighting for the rights of the working class either !
    Cheer up – this too will pass and in the meantime at least you don’t have load shedding ! (Yet ?)

  • Smudger Smiff says:

    Oh dear…
    ‘Post-colonial melancholia, with its febrile inflation of Britain’s global importance and prospects, is still with us, shaping every major event from the Suez crisis to Brexit and “Trussomania”. It’s a strange pathology’
    Sadly, Drew Forrest seems to be so badly affected by it that I doubt he will ever recover.

  • Richard Thompson says:

    My impression is that the average Brit in 2022 knows little and cares less about the empire. India, the most important part of the empire, has been independent for 75 years. It seems to me that all the postcolonial talk comes from academics and seekers after reparations. How often do you think the empire is mentioned on, say, a Saturday afternoon in Barnsley after the soccer?

  • Richard Thompson says:

    Great headline, though — Last night of the Poms 🙂

  • Johann Olivier says:

    Post-Brexit, Great Britain becomes Little England.

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