We’re Here Because You Were There – How the British Empire Metamorphosed Power

Amartya Sen recently outlined the structural impacts Britain had on India throughout its longstanding rule, hoping to unpack the illusions of the empire’s legacy through a historical dive into India’s past. As Sen opens with, power is widely agreed to have been established by British forces in 1757 at the Battle of Plassey by defeating Nawab Siraj-ud-Doula’s army and beginning a 200-year rule that ended with Nehru’s famous words in 1947 – ‘At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to light and freedom’. This monumental moment in global history is thought to be the start of a process of decolonisation stretching into the 1980s.

image via Verso Books

Ian Sanjay Patel’s new work with Verso We’re Here Because You Were There effectively explores this history through archival research into the post-war lives of the British colonial citizen and a continuously changing landscape of legal immigration. The titular aphorism deriving from anti-racist activist Ambalavaner Sivananda effectively links the post-war migrants to Britain with former imperial colonies. Patel expands the meaning of here and there by revealing a broad history of migration, one that involves numerous groups and places – an immigration that he refers to as ‘intra-imperial’. These ongoing and complex narratives of post-war migration make us question the very notion that empire had an intended end, rather imagining a metamorphosis of imperial power into newly imagined forms.

Although legal sovereign power was granted to newly independent nations during the period of decolonisation, Patel argues how Britain’s global power was consciously reimagined by being morphed into new iterations such as the Commonwealth of Nations. Its function as an organisation is often blurry, but its creation did clearly halt any true end to empire. Rather than being a post-empire project, it should be understood as its most advanced stage: a free association group including newly sovereign nations of Australia, Canada, and India as well as continuing crown colonies. The project remained imperialistic at its core through a key piece of legislation – the 1948 British Nationality Act.

As Nehru’s words were uttered, empire in a formal sense was beginning to end; however, the act maintained nationality and citizenship as imperial in nature until the British Nationality Act of 1981. The 1948 act formed a non-national citizenship for crown colonies and British territories giving rights of entry and residence to millions of previous British subjects. Through channels of both formal and informal education, this act is often narrated as one of reparation and goodwill. However, the British elite, as Patel argues, truly did not anticipate the immigration influx following the act – one that was created to ensure a post-imperial hold on world power. In 1945 the non-white population of Britain stood at 30,000; by 1973, this had risen to over a million and was approaching 5 million by 2001. A shift in power was desired by British elites through the creation of the Commonwealth; yet the shift from a mono-cultural and mono-ethnic world to a diverse one was not planned, and thereby quickly became the default scapegoat for failures of political management.

The Windrush scandal perfectly depicts the continuation of imperial power in new forms as issues of migration and citizenship remain pertinent. A restriction of legal rights based on race is discussed throughout the book by Patel, from the Caribbean immigration of the Windrush generation to the South Asian immigration via East Africa, creating an ‘intra-imperial’ world. The independent review into the scandal recommended that Home Office staff must ‘learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history’. A sanitised version of history is taught in the British education system, praising tired and reductive narratives of railways and eliminating bloody realties such as famine and extraction. This sanitisation impacts on politics, as our leaders remain in delusion about the real history of the country they are governing.

Today, a true irony is at work in the current British political sphere as the children of immigration sit on the front benches of the government, holding power in the most significant offices of the state. Home Secretary Priti Patel’s family immigrated from East Africa (a journey researched by Patel in the book), her parents being directly affected by immigration laws of 1968 and 1971. Her idolisation of Margaret Thatcher, who famously described migrants as ‘swarming’, and adoption of the hostile environment policy as an almost ideology of her politics is thereby an absurdity, one also seen in Rishi Sunak and newly appointed health secretary Sajid Javid. Her hostile policies of deportation and division create a continued metamorphosis of power seen throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, affirming the notion that in the British elite interest, imperial power had no intended end.

Trisha Mendiratta