Global Britain and Reimagining our Relationship to our Past

It is no coincidence that the debates around structural racial inequalities in Britain have burst forth during the coronavirus pandemic. Nor should we be surprised that these conversations have catalysed in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, which called into sharp focus the question of our identity as a nation. In many ways, the Global Britain project that has spun out of the need to reconfigure our role in the world will become the battleground for these confronting conversations over the months and years to come.

Britain is a nation uniquely steeped in its own history. We continue to draw on narratives of the past to interpret our present, our hands fumbling around the history books to draw out comparisons that feel comforting and known. Depending on your political leanings, the Brexit campaign was all about the Dunkirk spirit, or foretold another Eden. Will Boris Johnson be able to emulate the Churchill of his imagination? Could the pandemic prove to be the ‘Great Leveller’, fostering the sense of community and sacrifices inspired by the Blitz?

Our enduring desire to turn to the past to make sense of current events in part reflects the fact that we have been unable to forge meaningful and inclusive modern narratives about British identity. The nation has become more diverse, dynamic, open and globally connected, and yet our internal confidence as a nation often remains embedded in a collective imagination that cannot readily adapt. Our politicians regularly evoke the struggles and advances of our history, stumbling when forced to sell the story of our future.

We therefore cannot be surprised that the Black Lives Matter movement in the United Kingdom quickly turned its attention to historic statues. While polling suggests the majority of the British people recoil at the violent manner in which some statues have been defaced or removed, for many young people in particular, their existence reflects a nation unwilling to fully accept and move on from the darker periods of its history.

In the Global Britain project, we have an opportunity to address these wounds head-on. This endeavour is not only about re-imagining our international footprint and our relationships with our allies and strategic rivals. It is also a deeply political and social project, about defining who we are and how we wish to be seen. It will necessarily involve us reaching into the past, to choose what we wish to carry with us into the future.

Many Britons have felt uncomfortable at the pace of social change over recent decades, and are concerned that the political class does not truly value the traditions that give them a sense of rootedness and community. When they see the energy of young people tearing down historical statues, they worry about the boundaries of their anger. While they may accept that Winston Churchill’s record is not unblemished, the fight he led against the Nazis – one of the most truly evil regimes of human history – is a source of enduring national pride.

Our leaders will need to build public consent around what is immovable about the British nation, the British character, and the British experience. Yet, we will also need to find the courage to confront the stains of our past, and to expand our imagination to recognise that we have, and will always be, evolving as a nation.

Statues of 18th Century slave traders, standing tall in all their bronze splendour, continue to legitimise their subjects’ destructive and inhumane behaviour. Installing educative plaques confronting the foundations of their power seems an obvious first step to demonstrating that we as a nation have broken free from the racist beliefs of some of our forebears. Let us also leverage the Global Britain project to embed a compulsory module on the British Empire in the schooling system, addressing its achievements and deep failings in a balanced and unflinching manner.

Social progress is rarely achieved without discomfort, and the process of defining and articulating our national identity in the 21st Century will not be without its disagreements. As a nation, we cannot hope to truly project power and influence, let alone moral authority, without a sense of unity and purpose at home. This is a generational task that should embolden, not panic, the government. The Global Britain project is an opportunity for us to educate ourselves, to forge a resilient and inclusive common identity, and to find a way to live alongside the full spectrum of our history.

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.