Can Britain Escape Its Colonial Past? – OpEd


The passing of Queen Elizabeth II generated a new opening in global outlook and debate on Britain’s colonial past, creating a pretext for nations under its past rules to jettison their affiliations and connotations to the British legacies. Regional and global waves of woke and cancel culture, amalgamated with a new generational awakening that yearn for independence in orientation and escapism from the past, stimulate a greater push for inward looking and self-directional dictation in pursuing interests.

The global inflation crisis, convoluted with the aftermath of the pandemic and the return of traditional conflicts triggered by the war in Ukraine, created further pressure points for nations to stem the tide of global exposures and impact. Increased internal revolts and erosion of trust in systems and models of governance with political dysfunctions from Europe to Asia, exacerbated by heightened nationalism and right-wing awakening, provided the political drive and necessity for the revision of past baggage and in detaching from affiliations of past colonial powers.

The Queen has provided an engulfed sense of stability and inspirations to millions across the world, with many yet ready to provide the same level of admiration and respect for King Charles. The post Queen era is heralded as the most challenging and turbulent for Britain, with Brexit and internal economic and political turmoil with a perceived steady decline of influence and capacity in standing up to growing challenges to the order it created in the past, all presenting a gloomy outlook.

Its colonial past looms large with growing calls by increasing segments driven by these renewed sentiments in seeking justice and retributions to those at the receiving end of Britain’s actions in the past, amplifying the drive to end the monarchic system and to force Britain to own up to its past. In battling the corrosion of its social impact and soft power reach, Britain, for all the systemic challenges it confronts, still possesses the ultimate chips and cards at its disposal in reorienting and rejuvenating its global stature. It transcends the impact of these polarisation and the challenges to its relevance and the broader global order, by the single biggest virtue of its role in shaping the narratives and norms of the current international structure based on the rule of law and adherence to norms. In providing the best antidote and lasting closure to its perceived mixed impact of its past, Britain’s past, current and future strength lies in its own value and moral based conviction of its purpose and obligations.

It might have lost the hard assets, capacity and capital it had in the past to rule the world and influence others through these means, but the prevailing staying power is its resilient soft power and sanctity of its values and principles in setting the agenda, winning influence and uniting nations for common causes.

The more than 500 dignitaries of global leaders and affiliations in the congregation of the Queen’s funeral, the biggest gathering of world leaders for decades, symbolises the ultimate depth and bankable systemic influence Britain holds, even during post colonial times. It signifies its foothold and its symbol of pride in giving the needed assurance and trust to other regional and global players, especially in facing rising old and new threats. The late Queen is not just a Queen to Britain, she remained as a Queen to the world. Deriving from her past legacies and roles to the unprecedented outpouring of grief and resonance throughout the globe, her identity and sense of idealism and hope resonated to many and served as a bridge across different generations, creed and religions. Such is the extent of the soft power and disciplined display in her impact on other nations and communities, which elevated the similar standing of Britain as a nation.

This serves to amplify the positive roles and virtues of the nation in driving home the positive attributes and legacies of Britain’s past and current contributions to civilisations, dispelling rivalling narratives shaped by the growing sectors of anti-Britain and anti-monarchic forces. Britain’s legacies are two pronged in nature. First is the physical and observable impact that shapes the outcome and processes of global order of peace and freedom.This can be seen in the observable changes and outcomes in the spectrum of global trade, peace and systems.The second aspect involves intangible impact on the basis of the social and political values and principles it created, protected and disseminated, with the critical importance of its direct and indirect impact being felt in today’s normative structure and foundation.

During the great wars and the post war era, along with its post-colonial period, its roles in saving the world from forces of imperialism, Nazism and communism shaped the outcome of today’s rules-based architecture with open trade and solid institutional resilience that enabled global growth and peace. By defeating these forces of autocracies and anti-democracies, Britain by its virtues continued its historical record of creating new ventures and tools of economic self-multiplying effects and in advancing the social and economic mobility of civilisations. From the industrial revolutions to the new frontiers in science and social inventions, Britain has continued the journey of expanding its strength and progressive causes based on its ingrained drive of continuous self-creation and discovery, with the gains and returns derived being recultivated for the higher tier of progressive cycle. The gains from the Industrial Revolutions created the progressive impetus for continuous civilisational advancement based on new and more effective tools and capacities of self-renewal, inventions and productions, bringing prosperity and progressive socio-economic advancement.

By having the largest modern empire where the sun never sets, it provided a two pronged outcome. Firstly, the sheer vastness and greatness of the empire in its scope and depth, created a natural barrier and resistance to any real and capable challenger in both defeating its might and capably replacing the capacity to hold its influence at the same time.

This provides a natural preventive tool in ensuring that the opposing challenger, deemed to be a rival that is systematically different from Britain’s open and democratic orientation, is unable to expand its autocratic or imperialist intent that would bring different challenges to the world. Being unable to oppose and to inherit the same system, impact and model of global positioning and reach of Britain’s capitalist and open model, it provides a known stability and assurance in the expected norms and outcome.

Secondly, it created the opening for a continuation of this model for its future successor, which would be moulded in the same framework of the same principles of democracy, freedom, openness and capitalism in being able to both inherit and to build on the structure in place. A real, sustainable, resilient and capable power that shares the same values and model of governance is poised to effectively take over the mantle, and it has been successfully proven in the case of the US rising to the occasion with a relatively rare peaceful transition of global dominance and power parity. This further reinforces the democratic peace theory where Britain has laid out the first foundation which was the hardest, building a global network of vast nations in adhering to the principles of democracy and rule of law. In building on and taking over from the Brits, Washington expanded on the sanctity of the global institutional structure that is pillared on values, norms and rules. In the absence of this existence of the transition and the stabilising impact of the British empire, a world of perpetual conflicts and a dysfunctional global order would result in anarchy and be mired in the doldrum of autocratic and imperialist forces.

The progress and advancement of many of its former colonies today are attributed to the main facets of these values of open trade and cultivation of talents, with the right supportive basis of recognising the rights of the people to express their potential in a free and democratic spectrum based on the rule of law and norms.

Freedom and democratic openings would be replaced with chaos and power struggle where might is right, with no basis of constitutional and rules-based model and order. The often neglected positive outcome of Britain’s past would include this new enforced system and structure of democracy and rules-based governance spectrum in protecting the rights of the people and advancing civilisational progress based on the equal respect for norms and the rule of law. It forced and supported nations to adopt the new pillars of democracy and enshrined the rights of the people to elect their governments and for their causes to be fought for and protected. Based on trust and consistency in the tried and tested conventional model of guiding international law and order and internal stability of nations, it provided a solace of assurances, together with the legacy of the constitutional monarchy system. Rising above the expected polarisation and at times dysfunctional politics, this legacy of a unique constitutional monarchy now in practice in various former colonies, provides a unifying and superseding factor of hope and stability for the masses.

Some have been successful in continuing to pursue and protect the democratic model as one of the greatest legacies of Britain’s past, while others who failed to do so continued to harp on the consequences of the failures and implications of colonisation in their nations’ continuous stagnation and decline. The new realities, conjunctures and demands make it a necessary pursuit for the conventional harping of the past, never escaping the woke sentiments and in using this as the needed detachment from past history and affiliations in pursuing for a new dynamism of both nationalistic and supranational appeal and escape.

The results of this decades-old international model that have been shaping current global and regional norms and peace have been largely ignored, drowning in the waves of new generational and national perspectives where past mistakes and gaping inadequacies are dragged to the forefront in justifying critical and comprehensive overtures and changes.

The implications of these often quick and encompassing narratives and moves will be far-reaching, reverberating through the realms of the very foundation that supports the framework of peace and acknowledgment to a rules based global order. In weakening this core pillar, it will only make it weaker and vulnerable to the new wave of anti-West and autocratic push to shape the order to their own dictate and intent. For now, Britain and the West are scrambling to protect their centuries old hold on global dominance which should stand strong for both their soft and hard power projections and calculations, provided they are able to create strong enough unifying tools and natural pulling factors in galvanising most of the other global players to understand the stakes involved, pool resources and strength and revive historical precedence and successes in defeating the bigger and starker threats to the survival of civilisations and future global peace and freedom.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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