Why is it that so many of the leading and most right-wing members of our present British government are former subjects, or the children of subjects, of the old British Empire? Not a majority of them, of course. And not all ex-colonial subjects are right-wing Conservatives – there are probably more of them sitting on the Labour benches; plus of course the current mayor of London. But it is surprising to find so many of them on the Tory side – prime minister Sunak (India), Patel (India, Uganda), Braverman (India, Kenya, Mauritius), Kwarteng (Ghana), Cleverly (mother from Sierra Leone), to name only the most prominent of them – if we bear in mind their family origins in what are conventionally supposed to have been countries oppressed and exploited by the British in the past, and especially by the forebears of the reactionaries they’re now siding with. One would have thought that Amritsar, or the Kenyan death camps, or – failing these – the reputation of most British colonial rulers as arrogant racists, would have put them off. But no.
Does this make them traitors to their kinds, or to their ‘races’, or ethnic groups; or make them into – as it used to be called – ‘Uncle Toms’? Surely this does them a disservice. Ideally one’s views and allegiances should not depend at all on one’s background, and certainly not on one’s ethnic, national or even class ‘origins’. My own grandparents, as it happens, were exploited and oppressed factory and domestic workers – two ‘races’ usually forgotten in the current concern for the colonial victims of capitalism – but I wouldn’t let that stop me from supporting their oppressors’ Tory or Liberal successors today; especially if I were convinced of the latters’ change of mind since. Among today’s Tories there are several who clearly hanker for the old imperial days, and a few who have floated ideas of reviving them in a more ‘internationalist’ guise – ‘global Britain’, as Boris Johnson would have it; but none – so far as I know – who have wanted to run formal colonies again: ‘heaven forfend’. (That’s Johnson once more.) They’ve got beyond this, perforce. So there’s nothing wrong, and indeed rather the reverse, about supporting causes and political parties solely with reference to the issues of the day, and without this kind of personal-historical baggage poisoning or in other ways affecting your views. Sunak and the rest are to be complimented on taking this road.
This doesn’t however mean that they are necessarily free from other influences in their backgrounds. Very few people are. The most obvious one is their riches, which are vast in several of their cases, especially Rishi Sunak’s if you lump his wife’s inherited millions in with his. That puts them in a category which far outranks in importance their ethnic or national origins; and gives them a tribal allegiance or ‘identity’ which sets them apart from others at least as much as their brown skins do. I’m not sure that the genuine and literal ‘racists’ in our present society think this way – what do they make of Sunak? – but most present-day Tories seem to. For them money (as I’ve said before) trumps everything. – A second ‘identifying’ factor for most of them (not all) is their Public School education, which seems intentionally designed to mould them into a separate and superior ‘caste’ from the rest of us. Now that our ex-colonial Tories have fully integrated into this section of British society – a tribute, perhaps, to British racial tolerance, although it’s not often credited – they can choose, or assume, their identities from among the indigenous ones. It may be worth noting in this connexion that all of them are second-generation immigrants from the old empire, not first. That eases the process of integration, and the shedding of their original skins. So we shouldn’t make too much of their brownness.
Otherwise, what relevance might these people’s remarkable rise to the top of the Conservative Party have for the historian (me) of the institution – the tail-end of the British Empire – they have risen from? One effect the Empire might have contributed in this regard was to protect or inoculate their parents, and consequently them, from the liberal and democratic traditions that infused British society – or much of it – in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but were scarcely allowed to touch the colonies until the era of formal decolonisation, by which time it was too late. This might have surprised many contemporary Brits, who were brought up regarding their empire – if they regarded it at all; see my The Absent-minded Imperialists – as an essentially liberal enterprise (don’t laugh), devoted to spreading British liberal values among the benighted ‘natives’, who would eventually be grateful to the Brits for bequeathing those values to them. It was called ‘liberal imperialism’, and it – the myth, or deception, if you like, although much of it was genuine – was a major reason why so many liberal-minded Britons went along with the Empire; that, rather than because of the ‘power’ it represented.
But it rarely reached down to Britain’s imperial subjects themselves. They after all had to be ruled, before being let free to exercise their new liberal ideals and skills; and being ruled doesn’t give one much insight into those ideals. (An exception was probably economic liberalism, which they all seem well-schooled in, and which the British Empire allowed.) That was probably the political environment in which Rishi Sunak’s parents and the rest were brought up, before colonial peoples discovered ‘freedom’ for themselves. And Rishi’s and Kwasi’s peculiar English schooling (Winchester, Eton), will not of course have helped. Public schools are hardly liberal or democratic institutions, either.
This might explain the authoritarian tendencies we can see very clearly in the policies of Britain’s two recent ex-colonial Home Secretaries, which seem far distant from dominant British liberal traditions, but much closer to the Empire’s divergent ways (including British Ireland’s) in its final days. Could this be one of the major ‘legacies’ of empire, currently?