How did “national liberation” become a rallying cry in what was once the world’s largest empire?
The ongoing irresolution over Brexit has made what was once an impossibility, the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a formal arrangement, an increasing likelihood. With the clock running down while all parties remain trapped in a stalemate over a withdrawal deal, Brexiteers are trying to convince the public that a no-deal Brexit is not a crisis but actually an opportunity for national liberation.
It wasn’t so long ago that the notion of “national liberation” inspired fear and suspicion in Britain. In the second half of the twentieth century, national liberation was the common descriptor for the struggles of colonial peoples trying to gain their independence from European powers, including the British Empire. As Jomo Kenyatta and the Mau Mau Rebels fought to free Kenya from British rule or Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi’s National Liberation Front drove the British from the beaches of Yemen, the British ruling class cursed “national liberation” as a disease, a contagion causing trouble everywhere from Cairo to County Derry. Yet today, self-appointed British freedom fighters borrow the language of “national liberation,” using the notion to help drive the success of the 2016 vote to leave the European Union against all odds. Nigel Farage has promised that the day Britain leaves the EU will be “a day of national liberation.” Jacob Rees-Mogg echoes Farage, describing Brexit as a “liberation for the British people.” International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who has long-styled himself as a “liberation conservative,” took the idea of Brexit as national liberation into the heart of government, alongside former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who also has not hesitated to exploit the language of national liberation. As a result, Britain’s independent decision to exit a wealthy trading bloc that it voluntarily choose to enter into in 1973 is being reframed as an existential struggle between oppressor and oppressed.
How did “national liberation” become a rallying call in the home of the largest empire the world has known? As a culture, Britain has taken pride in regarding overt nationalism as beneath it, a crude immaturity clung to by less civilized peoples. The imperial origins of Great Britain led to a British identity that grounded itself more in the sea than the soil; it is one of only two nation-states not to have an official national day. It saw itself as an outward facing country, its greatness guaranteed by actions taking place far beyond its borders. The attitude of the patriotic English gentlemen was captured by bard of the empire Rudyard Kipling’s lament “what should they know of England who only England know.” Yet as the United Kingdom (and in terms of Brexit, England in particular) prepares to drive its economy over the white cliffs of Dover, the language of national liberation is being deployed to justify Brexit but with little understanding of the significance of this rhetoric or the lessons its history can teach us.
As the world wars in the first half of the last century changed the globe from an order of empires to an order of nations, “national liberation” became the vehicle through which colonial people across Asia, Africa, and Latin America sought to win freedom. It was the ideological companion to the military strategy of guerrilla warfare, tying the dream of freedom to the inevitability of sacrifice. As borne out in conflicts from Algeria to Rhodesia, national liberation was the glue that held the people together while they endured a fight against a more powerful occupying force. Wars of national liberation required unfathomable amounts of daily sacrifice and depended on ordinary civilians providing crucial support to the freedom fighters, hiding weaponry or feeding the enemy false intelligence. National liberation movements romanticized the concept of sacrifice. The most cherished heroes of these movements were those who made the ultimate sacrifice, martyrs like Guevara, Lumumba, or Biko. Their biographies embodied the sacrifice to which the nation should aspire. Sacrifice was such an important concept in this context because the aim of the national liberation movement was not actually to win the war against the colonial oppressor but to make the cost of maintaining the status quo so painful for the enemy that it would eventually submit and grant the struggling nation its demands. If this required a period where the people had to suffer even more than their oppressors, then so be it. True patriots welcomed the suffering, for they knew that their ability to endure this suffering would, in the end, be their salvation.
Understanding the sacrifice underpinning national liberation provides a glimpse into the mindset of Brexiteers currently exploiting this rhetoric. As the UK prepares for post-Brexit hardship, experts trying to warn of the economic disruption that would follow a no-deal crash must understand that their warnings are not only being dismissed as “project fear” but also being reframed by Brexiteers as a “a blessing in disguise,” with a no-deal crash being presented as an opportunity for the “suffering which would unite & bring us together.” The Brexit argument once promised that Britain would immediately be showered in wealth if it left the EU, but now the Times is publishing articles arguing that “Brexit offers a prized return to the Blitz spirit.” Those confused by such statements need to recognize that a period of post-Brexit suffering in order to get to a glorious future is actually desired by some Brexiteers, an almost libidinal longing for the chance for Britain to prove it’s resilience by exhausting the EU’s capacity for pain. Farage recently wrote how “a WTO deal with tariffs on both sides would, on the face of it, be a very bad deal for Brussels” and if Britain could withstand the turmoil that might follow, external pressures on the EU, such as the upcoming European elections, would force the Europeans to eventually capitulate and allow Britain to exit the EU on its own terms.
Brexiteers are able to synthesize the ideals of national liberation with more familiar British tropes such as the “Blitz spirit” due to Britain, the former hegemonic European empire, actually having more of an anti-imperial self-image. Conveniently forgetting that Britain has invaded more countries on the globe than anyone else, Britain today can borrow the rhetoric of former anti-colonial struggles because as an “island nation” it has been haunted by an ever-present fear of invasion, which has solidified the image of Britain “standing alone” against the imperial ambitions of others. While Britain’s great colonial military victories, such as the victory over the Qing dynasty of China in the First Opium War or victory over the Russian Empire in the Crimean War, are often ignored chapters in the national story, school history curriculums make sure to focus on the halting of the Spanish Armada, the defiance of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, or stalling the Nazi war machine in the Battle of Britain. Every British child is familiar with the times when plucky, underdog Britain held its ground in the face of aggressive foreign empires. As George Orwell noted, British popular military history is not one of conquest or triumph but of resistance, “fighting a desperate rear-guard action before escaping overseas (just like Dunkirk!) has more appeal than a brilliant victory.“ The proponents of Brexit understood this narrative well and subtly combined it with the language of national liberation, the legacy of the old anti-colonial movements, to entrench resistance to an “imperial” EU.
However, a further reason why the rhetoric of national liberation might be attractive to Brexiteers is that while anti-colonial national liberation movements often overlapped with communist revolutionary campaigns, they were not necessarily synonymous with each other. On its own, the idea of “national liberation” left unresolved the question of which class would claim the nation once liberated. Moreover, national liberation often overlooked the question who exactly would be doing the sacrificing. In his classic text National Liberation and Culture, iconic anti-colonial revolutionary Amílcar Cabral advocated suspicion toward the bourgeoisie that call for national liberation:
preserving deep down the cultural prejudices of their class, individuals in this category generally see in the liberation movement the only valid means, using the sacrifices of the masses, to eliminate colonial oppression of their own class and to re-establish in this way their complete political and cultural domination of the people.
This critique can also be found in the writings of perhaps the most insightful theorist of national liberation, Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, who warned of the “Pitfalls of National Consciousness” seeing within the movement a group of leaders who “mobilize the people with slogans of independence, and for the rest leave it to future events.” For Fanon, the bourgeois leaders were often committed only to a “mission [that] has nothing to do with transforming the nation; it consists, prosaically, of being the transmission line between the nation and a capitalism.” As the twentieth century came to a close, too often the people of the national liberation struggles came to find out that all their suffering had achieved was to allow the local bourgeoisie to enrich themselves by opening up the nation to international finance.
The history of “national liberation” in the former colonial world should act as a cautionary lesson for those Brits who might be tempted to answer the Brexiteers’ call to suffer for their freedom. However, as our understandings of history continues to rest on a fixed geographic bias keeping Britain blind to the non-European world, I imagine this lesson will be missed. History is still assumed to operate along a specific teleology that Dipesh Chakrabarty defined as “first Europe, then elsewhere,” and the idea that experiences in the “developing world” could help explain what is happening in a “developed” country like Britain is dismissed as illogical. Politicians and intellectuals in Britain simply do not read black and brown political theorists from the Global South; what relevance could their insights have when they are just following the path of history that Britain created for them? As those hard-Brexiteers calling for a moment national sacrifice begin to move their wealth outside of the country, a future in which the masses suffer through an economic downtown while the leaders feather their own nests might change some of these presumptions and help us in Britain see that we are also subjects and not just producers of history.
Kojo Koram teaches at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London and has written for The Guardian, The Nation, Huffington Post, Media Diversified and Novara Media, amongst others. He was born in Accra, Ghana and moved to the UK in early childhood, raised mainly on Merseyside. He gained his PhD in 2017 and was awarded the prestigious Julien Mezey Award by the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities. He is the editor of the book, The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, to be published with Pluto Press in March 2019.