Empire not only made the colonies. It made the unequal Britain we see today
openDemocracy’s new film BOOMERANG, exploring the legacies of empire through Liverpool’s docks, is available online
Lenin’s famous quote that “there are weeks where decades happen” would be a suitable epitaph for the tombstone of the Liz Truss premiership.
As commentators focus on her obvious personal limitations as a politician to explain her spectacular failure, the truth is far broader than one person being out of her depth. Truss and her reckless experimental budget unleashed the full weight of decades of British post-imperial economic ideologies, which collapsed upon the hapless prime minister and washed her out of office in record time.
Britain’s stagnant growth and productivity, spiralling wealth inequality and disappearing industries are long-standing issues that not only predate Truss, but connect all the way back to the dramatic changes that Britain’s economy has undertaken over the past century.
We often talk about Britain as the birthplace of industrial capitalism as though industrialisation occurred via immaculate conception on this sacred island. In fact, the industrialisation of Britain is a story that spans the four corners of the global map, stretching from the manufacture of cotton in India to the extraction of gold in Guinea and the cultivation of sugar in Jamaica.
The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.
Similarly, we talk about Britain’s deindustrialisation as if it was solely a domestic story, a tale of Margaret Thatcher and Arthur Scargill, the National Union of Mineworkers and the Institute of Economic Affairs, the locking of doors of factories in the north whilst erecting new skyscrapers in Canary Wharf. But the deindustrialisation of Britain, like its industrialisation, is part of a global story, one that is intimately connected to the challenge that decolonisation posed to the global capitalist world during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
In recent years, decolonisation has come to mean statue wars, curriculum debates and tedious media storms about cancel culture and political correctness. Almost entirely erased is the extent to which the actual era of formal decolonisation was a profound disruption in the given structure of capitalist production and exchange.
Imperialism meant that when the colonial companies that ran the British empire traded from Kenya to Nigeria to Barbados to Burma, they were operating within one single jurisdiction.
However, decolonisation brought about the proliferation of sovereignty, meaning all of these territories suddenly had their own governments that could pass regulations that might interfere with the established processes of profiteering – labour laws, tax laws, and protectionist laws could all provide new boundaries against trade. A counter-revolution to decolonisation was required, one that would allow the transnational capitalism to neuter these governments through odious debt, conditional loan agreements and structural adjustment programmes.
This story is the often-ignored prelude to neoliberalism. And the economic disempowerment of the newly independent former colonies would have major ramifications for the industrial cities of Britain that had been built up by imperial trade.
Leaders in the former colonies of Britain that dared to confront the capitalist interests hungover from empire were immobilised – such as Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, Michael Manley in Jamaica and Mohammad Mosaddegh in Iran.
Deindustrialisation occurred in many parts of the world, but nowhere did it bite harder and faster than in Britain
Their countries were turned into playgrounds of capitalist production, no longer just sources of raw materials. Weak tax demands and labour regulations made it inviting for companies to relocate their factories from the industrial heartlands of Britain.
During the age of empire, Britain had been both the banker and the workshop of the world, but after decolonisation, it closed down the factories and put all its energy into the finance office.
Along with deindustrialisation came financialisation as consecutive governments protected and promoted Britain’s banking, insurance, accountancy and commercial legal industries above all else.
The questions of political economy thrown up by decolonisation and its counter-revolution has now created a post-imperial Britain where huge swathes of the population are surplus to the requirements of our hyper-financialised system of growth. As the value of work across the board has been erased, rentierism, asset speculation and inherited wealth have become the main paths towards economic security for millions of everyday British people.
And the impact on the great industrial cities was devastating.
A new documentary from openDemocracy, ‘BOOMERANG: How the legacies of empire are breaking Britain’s economy’, which is narrated by me and features legendary footballer John Barnes, journalist Dalia Gebrial and MP Clive Lewis, tells the tale of the rise and fall of empire and industrialisation through the docks of Liverpool.
But it could easily have told the same story through the steel factories of Sheffield, the shipyards of Glasgow or the automobile plants of Coventry.
Of course, deindustrialisation occurred in many parts of the world but nowhere did it bite harder and faster than in Britain. Entire industries that had given rise to burgeoning cities over the past couple centuries just vanished from the map. This wasn’t just Thatcher or the 1980s but a historical process, tied to the way decolonisation remade the dynamics of the global economy, especially for the country that had been the superpower of the imperial age.
Liz Truss and her ill-fated mini budget were a product of this history, a hubristic attempt to complete this economic arc and ‘unleash’ the financial potency of Britain’s elite at the expense of everything else. Her government knew its tax cuts would hurt the most vulnerable people in our society, but this was a price worth paying to realise the dream of a hyperdynamic, post-imperial British financial juggernaut.
But unfortunately for Truss, this dream incinerated upon impact with reality as ordinary people didn’t accept it and global investors didn’t believe in it. However, it is not enough for the ‘Britannia Unchained’ version of our future to have failed, we need to actively cultivate a positive, egalitarian vision for what Britain can look like after empire if we want to stop elements of the Truss vision re-emerging in zombie form.
My book ‘Uncommon Wealth’ and ‘BOOMERANG’ meets this challenge by examining how an honest reckoning with the legacies of empire can help us understand and address the roots of our current crises to finally create an economy that works for all.
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