How Boris Johnson benefited from British colonialism

Britain's divide-and-rule tactic may sound like an old relic but its long lasting impact continues to shape the opinions of a politically sensitive generation of former British subjects.

Johnson became the Prime Minister on a simple, often repeated campaign slogan of just three words “Get Brexit Done” after three tortuous years of Brexit deadlock, gaining him and the Conservative party, the biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher.

However, this victory is also a triumph for nationalism sweeping democracies across the globe. Boris Johnson is riding the same bandwagon as the likes of USA’s Trump and India’s Modi.

This wave of nationalism has also been captured how the diaspora of the former colonies of the British empire, the so-called Commonwealth voted in the last election. We can read the 2019 general elections as a continuity of the legacy of the British colonial rule, especially as it applies to the spread of votes between Labour and the Conservatives from previously colonised diaspora. The case in point here is African and South Asian diaspora voting intentions.

That vote spread reflects the British divide and rule tactic, creating a class of privileged and outcasts. As a result of this policy, the Asian colonies were hailed superior while African colonies were only given consideration insofar as they contributed to the empire’s coffers through resource extraction.

Indian presence in Africa and other parts of the world is due to British Empire. The British use of divide and rule approach meant that Africans and Indians were subjected to controlled antagonisms managed by the creation of racial hierarchies. Indians were placed above Africans in political and economic spheres. Indians whether in Uganda or South Africa were afforded a special relationship with the British.

This racial hierarchy between British colonial subjects translated into the ‘privileged’ voting Conservatives, and the ‘oppressed’ voting Labour.

This is in itself, considering British politics, Conservatives are considered the party of the rich, traditional and the privileged, while Labour is the party of the ‘many’, the liberal left and the (dispossessed). The Conservative managed to re-brand themselves and are now getting the vote of the white working classes. However, the approach toward the African diaspora has not changed. Old racial hierarchies have remained intact and have been very evident during Johnson’s campaign.

When it comes to courting the diaspora, the Prime Minister made no effort to reach out to the African migrant vote. However, for Indian diaspora, he rode on the rise of nationalism in India. "I know Prime Minister Modi is building a new India. And, we in the UK government will support him fully in his endeavour," said the Prime Minister during a visit to a Hindu temple in London. The Prime Minister had already alienated Muslims who form a very big part of the Asian community in the UK.

For many Africans in the diaspora, they only observed with sadness but also got reminded of the trauma of colonial oppression on which Brexit nostalgic arguments are based.

It is not surprising that many in chose an early night as the exit polls indicated a horrifying defeat in 2019 UK election. The nightmare continued upon awakening. Tories had indeed won with a big majority.

In 2016, many African migrants in diaspora voted for Brexit, due to the belief that Eastern Europeans were unfairly accessing state benefits and got better jobs. But also, the Brexiter trio of Boris, Gove and Farage, in a stroke of genius, pandered to the Commonwealth sentimentality, promising better trade terms as if Britain’s extractive relationship with the former colonies is something Africans should be proud of. Michael Gove then claimed that EU policy on migration was “racist” because it discriminates against people from countries outside of the EU.

One must not forget that, within hours of the referendum result being announced, racist posts such as ‘Go Home, #WeVotedLeave, time to make Britain great again, by getting rid of you blacks, Asians and immigrants' started appearing on social media and hate crimes soared.

The Prime Minister is indeed a divisive figure who has been dogged by questions about offensive comments about Muslim Women, Black people and other minorities through his career.

To the dismay of many minorities, many white British voters pushed aside Boris’s potentially racist past and voted for Johnson to “get Brexit done”. He now has an overwhelming majority and Brexit is to be “delivered” on the 31 January 2020. We are yet to see how this will impact on diversity and minorities’ trust in the white British electorate or feel that they are welcome in Boris’ Britain?

However, beyond this divide, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s focus is now on domestic issues signalling a move away from former PM Theresa May’s ‘Global Britain’ rhetoric, which saw her dancing around the African continent. With Boris in power, African engagement has fallen off the agenda.

It is understandable that many on the Commonwealth bloc see Boris’ post-Brexit Britain as an opportunity to negotiate favourable terms with an ‘independent Britain’. However, African countries celebrating Brexit should do so cautiously. Commonwealth diaspora should be reminded Boris’s focus is more on the ‘special relationship’ with the US and the ‘Anglosphere’ – chiefly Australia, New Zealand and Canada, outside the Anglosphere, it is India that is prioritised, then the Commonwealth African nations .


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