Some notes on the American election and imperialism

It’s impossible to escape the American presidential election. In most of the circles I move in, people worry about Hillary Clinton (especially her foreign policies, and in particular how they relate to the Middle East), but that worry is usually trumped (sorry!) by the far greater worry about Donald Trump’s candidacy.

That is hardly a surprise: when even a Republican like Caroline McCain (granddaughter of 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain), says she will vote for Clinton this year, and leading conservatives think the Republican party is dying, you know something really is awry in Republican politics.

But I’m particularly interested in non-Americans’ comments – and one I feel I hear quite regularly is “I wish WE could vote in the American elections – they affect us too!” As a writer on British imperialism, I find this a fascinating comment.

Of course, in some ways it’s not a surprise that people think this: I remember wondering why, if America was the leading country in the West against the Soviet-led bloc in the East, people throughout the West couldn’t vote in the 1980 Jimmy Carter/Ronald Reagan election. I was just 12 years old and even though I didn’t really have much of an idea of what ‘the West’ was, I did know that momentous global events were taking place and the Cold War seemed an epic battle of great ideologies, though as someone with family members (that I’d never met) in East Germany, I certainly wasn’t keen on the idea of nuclear weapons being used for defeating ‘the East’. To this 12 year old, Carter seemed less belligerent than Reagan, and my imaginary/real family were in danger – so of course we (well, the adults) should be able to vote for Carter and save the Americans from Reagan!

But I’m still sort of surprised when I hear this kind of thing from people in Britain now, and from people who should know better. It’s not really said with seriousness (I think people do understand the system!), but I do hear a certain wistfulness, as if the Clinton/Trump problem could be sorted if only we sensible Brits were allowed a proper say in the matter.

This kind of comment therefore tells us something interesting about Britain. We can all applaud Michelle Obama’s excellent DNC speech with her comment about the White House: ‘I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves and I watch my daughters – two beautiful, intelligent, black young women – playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.’

Many of us readily condemn the racist reactions she’s had. Of course we all know that America was built using black bodies: black women, black men and black children were bought, sold, transported wherever their white owners wanted them to work, and then exploited, whipped, and often murdered. When we think about ‘old money’ in America, it is generally money that has been passed down by white people that originated with black people’s labour. American slavery is often seen as black history, but it is just as much white history. Events such as Black History Month highlight some of these issues in Britain and many schools also appear to engage in some level of teaching of Atlantic slavery and Britain’s role in it (though the abolitionists often seem to feature more than the hundreds and thousands who profited from slavery – there is embarrassment about our key role in the slave trade).

But whilst we applaud Obama and condemn the racism directed at her, I can’t help thinking that the stereotypical British superiority over America communicated in the sentiment that we should have a say in American politics is in part a way of denying our own history, so closely related to America’s, not only in relation to slavery, but also wider imperial domination. “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” communicates at least two key things:

  1. a recognition that we are relatively insignificant in the current American imperial dynamic;
  2. a lack of agency that we know we once had: America now does significant things on the world stage that affect us and we have no say in the matter, whereas not that long ago, say, in the 19th century, it was Britain that did significant things on the world stage (that affected its colonies and they had no say in the matter).

Regarding the first point, of course Britain is relatively insignificant in relation to America, including American power abroad. The vote for Brexit on 23.6. diminished that further – England and Wales essentially voted to make Britain less important on the world stage, a pretty unprecedented move for any country.

The second point is just as interesting, however. The British Empire, at its height the largest empire the world had ever seen, was primarily about Britain doing things to others, though often indirectly. For example, look at the 1842 budget, which argued for moving ‘the country along the path to free trade‘ – this innocent-sounding phrase was actually a carefully constructed method of imperial control:

The apostles of the ‘free trade’ creed in the mid-nineteenth century favoured a more subtle kind of empire, a method by which (said a free trader in 1846) ‘foreign nations would become valuable Colonies to us, without imposing on us the responsibility of governing them’. The method was to dominate the world by means of a natural superiority in industry and commerce. (Bernard Porter, ‘The Lion’s Share’ (2nd ed. 1984): p3)

Porter’s 2004 book The Absent-Minded Imperialists argued that most British people in the 19th century were largely ignorant of and not necessarily very interested in the Empire. I don’t find his argument as convincing as Edward W. Said’s in Orientalism (1978), that empire was such an integral part of British (and European) society that it was often barely explicitly acknowledged but rather was woven into wider societal understandings (e.g. in literature and art) and that this normalised imperial control (Exeter’s Imperial and Global Forum has teaching podcasts discussing both of these scholars’ work).

Either way, absent-minded or wilful ignorance about the effects of their imperial adventures marked 19th century British thinking. Comments such as “I wish WE could vote in the American elections” suggest not very much has changed in our self-awareness – whilst Americans generally don’t acknowledge their present empire and its deleterious effects on the rest of the world, we still generally refuse to acknowledge our historical legacy of empire and the trauma Britain inflicted on others. Those affected have not forgotten, whether this be the 1970s Chagos islanders, the 1950s Mau Mau rebels, or the 1917 Balfour Declaration or… or… or… – our Empire has had long-lasting effects on many people.

As with America, much of Britain’s wealth derives from empire. In the same way ‘old American money’ is often based on slavery, many of our great city centres derive from empire and slavery. Whilst they may not have been built directly by slaves, they were built using wealth generated from slavery and other forms of imperial expansion. It’s great to see projects such as the Scotland Slavery Map offering new ways of engaging with the architecture of slavery in Edinburgh, for example.

So quite aside from thinking we British might be more sensible than the Americans in choosing their president (one word: Brexit!), let’s also not forget when condemning American racists attacking Obama that we are really just beginning to come to terms with, never mind rectify, the traumatic effects of our own imperial history around the world. Even starting to learn more about it would be a start, especially from the victims of our imperial ambitions, just as Shay Stewart-Bouley urges white Americans to hear black voices. We don’t have that much to be superior about, and should stop acting as if we do: no more wishing we could vote in American elections!