Citizens of global Britain, unite!

Great Britain must draw on the experiences and aftermath of the past to imagine a new Global Britain.

In earlier times, many politicians, officials and intellectuals conceived the British state in global terms [EPA]

Cambridge, United Kingdom – A Sikh cavalryman of the British Indian Army, serving in France in 1917, was thrilled to receive a New Year’s message from the King-Emperor, George V. It included a picture of the monarch himself. 

He sent the picture home to his wife in the Punjab with instructions to frame it and put it on the wall. “Worship it every morning”, he told her, and “pray to the Guru that He will give victory to the King”. 

This is but one of the many heartfelt expressions of loyalty and faith in the British sovereign by Indian soldiers serving in the colonial period. 

As a scholar, I tended to dismiss such expressions. It seemed more significant that the Indian Army paid well; that the British looked after the families and communities of their soldiers as part of a strategy of divide and rule; and that the vocation of soldiering has intrinsic merits for those attracted to it, even in the army of their imperial overlords.

But then I found myself in front of a picture of Queen Elizabeth II, swearing that I would be faithful and bear true allegiance to her and her heirs and successors. I was flanked on one side by the Crown’s representative, a kindly retired naval captain in uniform complete with sword, and on the other stood the Chairman of Cambridgeshire County Council. Around me was a room full of new British citizens and their families, almost all of them with brown skin.

Modern people tend to dismiss rituals, or see them as collections of symbols which must be decoded for their ‘real’ meaning. We forget that a ritual is an experience, one that we participate in with our bodies and voices, and which evokes powerful sentiments.

One of the reasons rituals are so effective at shaping people is that while we participate together in the rites, we experience them as individuals. We attach our own meanings to them. All jointly became British citizens in that room, but for each it meant something different.

I used to tease my British friends that they were mere subjects of a monarchy, while I was a citizen of a revolutionary republic which had thrown off the British yoke long ago. When I decided to get British citizenship, I explained it away with practical reasons. I could live and work anywhere in the EU! I could avoid the lines at Heathrow!

One reason the UK introduced the ceremonies was to force people to confront the political and moral dimensions of citizenship and to make them identify with the community they were joining.

The first time I became aware of ‘Britain’ was when my father took me to see RMS Queen Mary, a sleek Cunard liner turned into a tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. The Queen Mary had served as a troopship in World War II. Some of the cabins were decked out as they had been during the war. Known for her speed, she had carried Winston Churchill across the Atlantic for meetings with President Roosevelt.

That was the Britain I discovered as a boy, the Britain of the Blitz, the plucky island nation that beat Napoleon and stood up to Hitler. It was also the Britain that the UK authorities wanted me to learn about as I went through the citizenship process. I read of the Saints of England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland; various kings and queens; Viking raids; and so on. The empire was a passing episode, an appendage to an essentially English story.

Idea of British citizenship

In this way, the idea of British citizenship was connected to the limited imaginings of a particular kind of nationalism.

It was also connected to the West. The empire appears as a veiled figure in the “Life in the UK Test” I was required to pass. Many of the questions assumed those applying to be citizens did not realise that women had rights; that children should not be forced to work; that modern people did not do arranged marriages. “White Man’s Burden” lived on. The British were still trying to civilise the natives.

One wonders what the officers and soldiers of the old Indian Army… would have made of the idea that multiculturalism doesn’t work.

– Tarak Barkawi

Circuiting the oceans of the world, the Queen Mary stands also for another Britain, a global one. It is the one that includes the descendents of that Sikh cavalryman wherever they may be. The Queen Mary had carried my father on part of his journey to the United States from the West Bank of the Jordan River, where he was born a citizen of British Mandate Palestine.

Many peoples and places were interconnected by the British empire, in ways that-literally-made the world we live in. The histories and destines set in train continue to play out across the globe. They do so among new generations ready to let go the politics of blame that mark empire: everything is either the fault of the natives or of the white man, depending upon one’s perspective. But people remain aware of their entwined past, and have affinity for it.

In earlier times, many politicians, officials and intellectuals conceived the British state in global terms, strange as that may seem today. Britain’s greatest queen, Victoria, was made sovereign of India in 1858. Not long after, Britons began debating the formation of a global union between the UK and its settler colonies in North America, the South Pacific, and South Africa (see Duncan Bell’s The Idea of Greater Britain).

Yet, recently, David Cameron, the Prime Minister, has stood with the Chancellor of Germany to declare multiculturalism a failure. Cameron has gone on to call for a return to Christian values and basked in praise as a British bulldog for seeing off the EU and restricting immigration.

One wonders what the officers and soldiers of the old Indian Army – British, Indian, Nepali, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim, Christian – would have made of the idea that multiculturalism doesn’t work. They had helped defeat the armies of a previous Chancellor of Germany, as well as those of an Emperor of Japan.

They could be forgiven for thinking that was the very idea they were fighting against. After all, by the end of the war, the Allies were styling themselves the ‘United Nations’.

Global Britain includes all sides of the experience and aftermath of empire, in the UK and in the former colonies. A confident, outward looking British state would draw on the sentiments associated with it to build a world policy with which to flourish in the coming decades.

Equally, the past and present of Global Britain offers a resource for imagining a politics adequate to the world of the twenty-first century. It is a world with horrific divides in wealth and power, between neighbourhoods as well as hemispheres, ripe with the reality of oppression and the potential for conflict.

Only cosmopolitan visions which interconnect struggles for freedom and justice at home and abroad can begin to address our situation.

Tarak Barkawi is Senior Lecturer, Centre of International Studies, University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read