Oxford Professor on Brexit's Colonial Roots 'The Empire Was Celebrated as A Great Thing'

In the view of Oxford Professor Danny Dorling, a British elite drunk on nationalism is responsible for the Brexit disaster. Raised in the traditions of the British Empire, they continue to glorify the crimes committed during colonialism.
A pro-Brexit protestor in London

A pro-Brexit protestor in London

Foto: Toby Melville/ REUTERS

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Dorling, Boris Johnson appears to be just a few steps away from Downing Street. Are the prospects good for Britain?

Dorling: I recently met a 75-year-old lady on a train coming into Oxford who told me that many of her friends, as well as her, have recently joined the Conservative Party solely for the purpose of stopping Boris, as they then possibly get a vote. But unless they joined at least three months ago, then they may not be allowed to vote in any leadership election.

DER SPIEGEL: But isn't he exactly the type of leader the country is longing for?

Dorling: He may be the kind of leader who can absorb all of the sadness and anger at what has happened. Only a very small minority of people in Britain tell pollsters they would like to see him as prime minister. Boris is dangerous and lacks principles or a moral compass. This is all very well known. Luckily enough members of parliament, including those in his own party, know this. He could become prime minister because a small number of members of parliament like his thuggish approach.

DER SPIEGEL: In your book "Rule Britannia," you argue that the main reason for Brexit was that "a small number of people had a dangerous and imperialist misconception of Britain's standing in the world." Is Boris one of them?

Dorling: Yes, Boris and (member of parliament) Jacob Rees-Mogg are the more obvious ones. But there are many others. They're almost all white men with similar backgrounds. Almost none of them were average or poor. They were in the top kind of five percent or one percent in society. Take the billionaire James Goldsmith for instance, who started a party purely to demand a referendum on our membership in the European Union. Many have forgotten that because it was 25 years ago. It's a wider group of people, many of them educated in Eton and a lot of other private schools where old-fashioned history was taught longer then in public schools. Sometimes they even teach it nowadays.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean by old-fashioned history?

Dorling: Well, using textbooks from decades earlier. And talking about national pride all the time, having a school chapel like an Oxford College Chapel in which the names of all the old boys who died in the wars are engraved. The central monument in Oxford in Bonn Square is a memorial for the English who died taking over an entire province of India. The people who pushed for Brexit and have been pushing for it since the 1990s were much more likely to come from that kind of a background, where the empire was celebrated as a great thing. We civilized most of the world. The empire is bigger than all the other European empires put together.

DER SPIEGEL: The empire is long gone though.

Dorling: But it still exists in the idea of Britain. Britain only came together to form an empire. The act of union was done at a point when we realized that the Spanish were going past us with ships full of gold. And we'd be better off not fighting each other and fighting them and taking over more of the world than Spain. And that sense of greatness persisted because we were never invaded.

DER SPIEGEL: Which is partly a myth.

Dorling: But a very powerful one. The act of invasion, even if you are on the winning side, tells you that things aren't necessarily permanent. You replace your elite who were in charge because they've failed to protect you. If you're on the losing side of a war, you have the most almighty social transformation. If we'd been invaded in the Second World War, which it came close to, that would've helped us get rid of the empire idea of greatness.

About Danny Dorling

Social geographer Danny Dorling, 51, has spent years studying the growing divide in British society. A professor at St. Peter's College at Oxford, he co-wrote the book "Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire" together with his colleague Sally Tomlinson.

DER SPIEGEL: It would've been better for Britain if it had lost the War? Seriously?

Dorling: I am not saying that. But you've got to remember how unimportant we were. The Battle of Britain made us great again. We were on the winning side. We reconstructed history, we made endless army films. My childhood was comics all featuring the great British soldiers. You cannot escape that myth. Look at the room where I just gave my lecture ...

DER SPIEGEL: ... The Palmerston Room in St. John's College.

Dorling: They named it after one of the most brutal British prime ministers of all. He started the Opium War with China. His successor William Gladstone called it the most immoral war in the history of humankind. Can you imagine a room in Germany named after a Second World War general? Is there a Rommel Room anywhere?

DER SPIEGEL: Not in Germany at least.

Dorling: And that's what I mean. You go into Westminster Abbey, it's worth doing. Westminster Abbey looks a bit like Narnia. There are all these statues that are frozen, like in Narnia, where all the animals are frozen in stone. And all the statues are in effect of people who have slaughtered many people. And this is a country in which we still celebrate them.

DER SPIEGEL: Are the remnants of the Empire visible in normal places as well?

Dorling: You can see them everywhere. Go to the home counties, this ring of counties around London. Many people who live there are descendants of men who worked for as long as 30 years or more for the colonial offices in India. Then they came back and got a cottage with roses around the door, the one everybody is dreaming of. It was their kind of reward, a way to move up socially. So, our geography of the South of England is a geography based on the empire. And then, of course, there are the cities in the north of England that became rich because they were at the heart of the slave trade or various other trades which only existed and got so large because of unfair terms of trade with the colonies.

DER SPIEGEL: The British historian David Olusoga, whose father is Nigerian, writes in "Black and British: A Forgotten History" that the country is in a state of denial about certain aspects of its past. Why is that?

Dorling: Because it is too painful. We built up the most effective slave trade the world has ever known for 400 years. We depopulated almost the entire continent of Africa. You can see it on world maps. Then we go, oh, you do know that the Spanish and Portuguese started it first. And we teach children about the philanthropist William Wilberforce, who fought that system, as if we're the people who ended slavery in the world. It's remarkable.

DER SPIEGEL: But isn't it always the case that nations glorify their past?

Dorling: Not always. The effect on you if you're English on a visit to Berlin is stunning because it's so alien to be somewhere where violence isn't celebrated. You go into a war memorial, and there's just a woman holding a child crying, no soldiers. Whereas in my city -- I grew up in Oxford -- the highest statue on the public high street is still the statue of Cecil Rhodes. He was one of the most inhuman human beings in the history of mankind. He was probably also a pedophile. The irony is that more people are worried about whether he's a pedophile than the fact that he happily watched thousands of young black children die in his mines.

DER SPIEGEL: You argue in your book that Britain had to join the EU in the early 1970s because it had lost its colonies and was in economic decline as a result.

Dorling: Yeah, things were going badly wrong. We were tanking economically. We were crashing down because, every year, India was buying less woven cotton from Manchester mills because as a free nation it didn't need to anymore. And the assumption of joining was that, by joining the new market of the European community we would do well.

DER SPIEGEL: Which you did.

Dorling: But for many people it felt like a national humiliation.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you have evidence that the longing for the old empire was the biggest driver for Brexit?

Dorling: Not evidence, I think it is largely subconscious. But we do have evidence about the immigration worries. Why do the British hold such a disdain for immigrants and foreigners? Because our Empire textbooks told us we were superior to all these people.

DER SPIEGEL: But Britain has also been a largely successful multicultural nation because of the Empire.

Dorling: It is multicultural. It's a large family, but an extremely patriarchal family in which the domineering and violent and brutal father is white.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think Theresa May's immigration obsession has its roots in in the Empire myth?

Dorling: Well, yes. She grew up not far from the place where I grew up. From the age of six, I was living in the Oxford suburb Risinghurst. If I had lived 40 meters further east, I'd have gone to her school. In my school there were a lot of black and Asian pupils. Urdu was the second language. Whereas Theresa May's school was an all-white school.


Dorling: Don't forget that was in a time when black people were seen as dirty and beneath. Black men were not allowed to work in the car factory until the 1950s in Oxford. She grew up in a deeply racist time and deeply racist environment.

DER SPIEGEL: But does that make her a racist politician?

Dorling: Yes. She may not know she's racist, but she is. As home secretary, she instigated policies to take away or deny the right of people to live in Britain, especially people who were Afro-Caribbean. A lot of them were deported. You do not do that to so many people without having racism within you.

DER SPIEGEL: It must be a relief for you that she'll be gone soon.

Dorling: Yes, yes it is. Although she was beginning to serve a useful purpose toward the end in that she could get nothing at all done, so at least she was blocking her party from causing the social harm they normally do.

DER SPIEGEL: How does all this fit into the narrative that it was the left behind who actually shaped the Brexit outcome?

Dorling: Oh, well, it was the left behind Tories. If you look at the parts of the country devoted to Leave, which are mostly in the South of England, you will find that most of the Leave voters there were middle class. The typical UK Leave voter lived in a southern English county like Wiltshire or Dorset, the traditional Conservative heartland. A majority of people there always voted Tory, had a house, which might be worth 300,000 now. But their Children are struggling to get a mortgage, and their grandchildren have no chance. Done everything they've been told to do. Wasn't working. They're left behind in places that we don't think of as left behind.

DER SPIEGEL: But many of the southern parts of the UK are doing pretty well economically.

Dorling: It looks on the average like they're doing okay. You've got to remember the top 10 percent in this country take 40 percent of all income. So, in an average Southern county, like Hampshire, most people are struggling. Somerset, where Jacob Rees-Mogg is, has the highest proportion of people on the minimum wage. People just wanted to return to what they've had.

DER SPIEGEL: Let's assume there will be a hard Brexit. Is it possible that Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and the other nationalists are right, that Britain will succeed and maybe head toward an Empire 2.0?

Dorling: Oh, yes. The way you do it is you turn the whole of Britain into a Treasure Island. And we know how to do that because most of the world's Treasure Islands are under the Privy Council, like the Cayman Islands, Guernsey and Jersey and the Isle of Man. We know how to do shadowy Panama-style banking. It would be the death knell for all those islands, by the way, because if you can do it in London, why do it somewhere else?

DER SPIEGEL: You mean transforming Britain into a sort of XXL version of the Cayman Islands?

Dorling: We rapidly move towards that. It is exactly what the elite of the hard exit people want. The plan is that we offer really low tax rates for billionaires. And we can have the great London party season revised again and the May balls in Mayfair return again. The world's super rich would come to their London home for that part of the year. And they can have servants again. We'll have many more servants in the future if the Brexiteers get their way. We will boost our education sector. We will go to American-style fees, £60,000 to come to my university for the children of the very wealthy from China and India. And if you've worked hard enough and you're talented and you've got it in you, you can rise to the top and enjoy part of this and make the wheels of the world work better. We will be great again.

DER SPIEGEL: Brave old world.

Dorling: The only problem is if the EU puts a wall around us in the event of doing that. Then trying to be the offshore island, which has no connection to the continent, is probably impossible.

DER SPIEGEL: Professor Dorling, we thank you for this interview.

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