Hoof beats clatter on ancient cobblestone streets. The rider, someone named Paul who has a heavy Eurozone accent, shouts into the night: “The British are leaving! The British are leaving!” To coin a palindrome, we’ve been de-Revered. And hard-core Brexiteers are showing the same understanding of Brexit’s consequences to Ireland, Scotland and Europe as King George III showed toward the American Colonies.
In a NYT Opinion piece, The Malign Incompetence of the British Ruling Class, Pankaj Mishra says that with Brexit, the Brits are getting a taste of their own medicine. After all, the current crisis– the separation of the UK from the European Union scheduled to take place in just two months– is not the first, or even the second or third, example of a precipitous Brexit.
The British Ruling Class, composed largely of self-involved, elite former schoolmates, seem to have a very hard time withdrawing from situations where they have no reason to be, in the first place. At the height of the Empire, they subjugated and enslaved native populations from Asia to Africa; exploited local resources; and applied military and political force to crush efforts at democracy– and then, when the Empire was no longer tenable, withdrew in sometimes haphazard fashion. Most notably, the re-drawing of national boundaries was often done without knowledge or sensitivity to ethnic/religious/historical dynamics, resulting in many decades of needless regional suffering.
Palestine comes first to my mind, but Mishra points to the partition of India, Pakistan and the disputed territory of Kashmir when the British exited in 1947:
“Dividing agricultural hinterlands from port cities, and abruptly reducing Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs on either side of the new border to a religious minority, Radcliffe delivered a plan for partition that effectively sentenced millions to death or desolation while bringing him the highest-ranked knighthood. Up to one million people died, countless women were abducted and raped, and the world’s largest refugee population was created during the population transfers across Radcliffe’s border…”
The terrible price of Empire and colonialism is a central theme in the Fourth World trilogy– second only to the ethics of genetic engineering at the turn of the 23rd century. Here’s an excerpt from Child of the Fourth World, in which the PWE assassin Najib Singh struggles with his family’s past:
Najib’s grasp of history was more localized and had nothing to do with datadisc textbooks. It arose from Singh family lore stretching back more than four centuries, carried forward from one generation to the next by the original social medium: word of mouth.
Seemingly since the beginning of time, wars had played a primary role in his family history. First, there were endless inter-tribal skirmishes and invasions for territory and grazing rights. Then had come large-scale wars, brought by British imperial forces in the early days of exploitation, slavery and genocide; generations of Singhs had participated in uprisings against their colonial masters; India had been complicit in the Opium Wars with China (two of his great-great-grand-uncles had grown poppy to produce sticky black opium, to be bartered like currency for Chinese tea); and, at long last, as the sun was setting on the British Empire, the separation of Pakistan from India had set off a Hindu-Muslim war. Remarkable: that vast empire, launched from a small island tucked away in a cold and foggy corner of Europe, was responsible for over two centuries of Singh family misery. Even after the transition of empire into the “family of nations” known as the British Commonwealth, Singhs who had naively migrated to the United Kingdom as Commonwealth Citizens had, decades later, been subject to deportation. That was during the reign of Queen Lizzie III; one of the great ironies of the previous century, thought Najib: deeply-rooted racism and xenophobia lying at the head— and, more importantly, at the heart— of a multiracial, fifty-nation “family.”
Had he forgotten anything? Oh yes: it wasn’t all the fault of the British! A branch of the family living at the Suez Canal had first been decimated by French colonials, then completely wiped out by the Israelis; the family coffers had been depleted by cyber-warfare between India and China in the late 21st century; countless family members had been killed by North Korean nuclear attacks in the Asia/Pacific War, and that was before the War of Unification finished off the rest. The Singh dynasty of Hyderabad, once wealthy and powerful in government and the fashion and textile industries, had been destroyed by colonialism and war, then as a result of the great Indian diaspora (2104-2110), the few remaining survivors had been scattered like ashes to the four winds. Najib sighed deeply and whispered to himself: now that was real history.