Decolonising Britain

Mike Phipps reviews The Empire at Home: Internal Colonies and the End of Britain, by James Trafford, published by Pluto

“Contemporary Britain is existentially, politically, and economically grounded in a geopolitics of exploitation, extraction, and dispossession,” writes James Trafford in the Preface of this challenging new book.

The vote for Brexit cannot be understood outside of this context. While concerns about immigration loomed large, so did “nostalgia for an empire whose history is grounded both in amnesia and fantasy.”

But equally, the seemingly more internationalist neoliberal agenda of many Remainers has also been shaped by the legacy of empire.  The main features of the exploitative neoliberal economy have been conditioned by our imperial history. This is visible in the hyper-exploitation, social control and racialized stratification of the workforce that characterises this phase of capitalism.

The COVID crisis has further highlighted Britain’s internal colonialism, with Black people nearly four times more likely as white people to die from the virus. But the process is much older, from segregated housing in many communities and lack of access to bank loans. Even New York Mayor John Lindsay understood the similarities between a ghetto and a semi-colonial country when he wrote: “The basic similarity between Harlem and an underdeveloped nation is that the local population does not control the area’s economy, and therefore most of the internally generated money is rapidly drained out. That money is not returned or applied to any local community improvement.”

Policing approaches, increasingly militarised, were also imported from the colonial experience.  A similar pathologising is applied to protest: participants in the uprising, framed as ‘riots’ by the elite, in 2011 were described as a “feral underclass” by one Tory Cabinet member.

Punishment too has increased in severity. UK prison populations have doubled over the last 20 years.  Black people in the UK are proportionally even more likely to be in prison than Black people in the US.  And as in the US, those incarcerated have become part of a vast prison workforce: over 300 companies make use of this ultra-cheap prison labour. Prison leavers are recycled into systems of poverty, homelessness and exploitation.

Counter-terrorism strategies also owe a great deal to colonial approaches, as do current measures targeting migrants, from the militarisation of borders to the ‘hostile environment’, which requires citizens – landlords, employers, medical personnel, etc.  – to co-police the legislation.

It’s a persuasive argument. The more I progressed through this book, however, the more I felt some nuances were missing. When discussing housing and other key social issues, class needs to be foregrounded more, likewise gender. There is, equally worryingly, an absence of agency. For example, it was not just market forces and gentrification that eroded housing segregation in the inner cities in the late 20th century, but radical activism that found a voice in the Labour Party and the new municipalism from the late 1970s on.

Likewise, while multiculturalism falls a long way short of the adoption of consciously anti-racist strategies to tackle structural racism, it cannot be dismissed as merely “supposedly inimical to Powellian nativism.” The fact is that recent governments, and for far longer conservative media outlets, have consciously waged war on multiculturalism in Britain, notwithstanding its limitations, precisely because they are keen to disseminate a more nativist idea of national identity.

Trafford sees radical socialism, including the Corbyn movement, as complicit in the exclusionary nationalist narrative, viewing immigration as something that exacerbates “our current crises by driving down wages or using dwindling resources.” It may be true that some trade union leaders are negative about the effect of immigration on workers’ conditions, but the more progressive parts of the left see the solution in terms of stronger union rights rather than tighter immigration controls.

Equally, a commitment to the state playing a greater role in providing services or acting as an agency for economic redistribution should not be conflated with a protectionist belief in economic nationalism. Many in the Corbyn movement not only supported an open borders approach but had a track record of fighting to unify workers’ struggles across racial lines.

Trafford frames the politics of Extinction Rebellion in the same nationalist colours, based on its commitment to “all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.” The pressure group stands accused of pressing for the state apparatus to take a securitised approach to the threat of climate emergency.

This seems to me to be a twofold mistake. The first is the assumption that a commitment to overcoming the climate emergency in the UK must be at the expense of elsewhere, a position that few environmentalists would subscribe to. The second is the belief that demanding the state do more is automatically a call for more repression, which will inevitably disproportionately impact Black and migrant communities. It’s the same fallacy that leads the author to see greater state regulation of private minicab platforms as primarily targeting the precarious jobs of migrant workers.

Britain needs to be decolonised, declares Trafford, but by whom and how it is not clear. The Empire at Home is certainly thought-provoking, but it is rather stronger on assertion than evidence and getting through the jargon-laden prose is also a bit of a slog.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

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