‘The sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea’: centering race-critical studies in Brexit Britain

By Ali Meghji, University of Cambridge 

Academics, politicians, journalists, and even many leave-voters themselves shared in a collective surprise when the 52% voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. Now three years on from this moment, while the government are still wondering how a nation actually ‘leaves’ the EU, it certainly is not a time to be patronising.

However, while seeking to avoid any sense of intellectual superiority, this is a very frustrating time to be a race-critical sociologist. In fact, race-critical sociologists were among the few groups of people who were not surprised by the EU referendum result, and they were the few people providing prescient critiques of our predicament in the aftermath of the result (three years on, and it is still worth reminding people that ‘it wasn’t a White working class revolt, folks!). The reason for this lack of surprise is that race-critical sociologists have our whole intellectual lineage that stretches back over a century, and this intellectual lineage has got us accustomed to these realities of White identity politics shaping our entire social structural landscapes. The problem is that race-critical thought is pushed to the margins of sociology, and kept as far away from school curricula as possible. As obvious as it may seem, if race-critical scholarship were given a central space in public education and discourse, we would be in a completely different situation.

However, the reality of the situation is that British political and public discourse is shaped by what Kapoor terms a ‘racial amnesia’, what Joseph-Salisbury refers to as ‘White amnesia’, or what Stuart Hall simply calls a ‘profound historical forgetfulness’. There seems to be almost no mainstream recognition of the fact that, not very long ago, Britain was at the core of global racialised capitalism, and consequently placed a crucial role in spreading global terror. As British schools and universities are slowly becoming receptive to the idea of Black history month, Black history is recast as being about slavery in the US, followed by the US civil rights movement, with the happy-ending of Obama’s election and the end of racism. What these mainstream narratives of enslavement and colonialism, Britain seems to have disappeared into thin air. Yet, as Du Bois pointed out over a century ago in Black Reconstruction, so much that was produced through the labour of the enslaved – particularly in the cotton industry – was then exported to Britain. So in that respect, the labour of the enslaved was foundationally linked to British capital accumulation. In another respect, as Patnaik shows in Revisiting the ‘Drain’, Britain also accumulated so much capital through Empire and colonialism; for instance, £9,184.41 billion’s worth of capital was stolen from India and channelled into the British economy between 1765 and 1938. Simply put, Britain became rich, Britain became ‘overdeveloped’ because it deliberately underdeveloped its colonies through Empire and enslavement; this is a premise that has been key to Black radical thought from Claudia Jones through to Kehinde Andrews.

When Brexit supporters were thus calling for a return to Britain’s good old days, the days of Britain being a super power, a whole history of global terror was ignored. Leave discourse presented Britain as the saviours, the guardians of good, the Churchill-led super power who saved the world from Nazi domination. There was no recognition of the fact that, for instance, the Nazi’s means of implementing the holocaust were learned from Britain’s own practices of concentration camps in the Anglo-Boer war. Neither is there any recognition of how, simultaneously to being the guardians of the good, anti-Nazi warriors, a Churchill-led Britain actively starved four million people to death in Bengal, 1943. Whether Brexit supporters admit it or not, Britain’s former role as a global superpower was only achieved via its globalisation of terror and violence – all in the name of capital accumulation.

The fact of the matter is that a dominant frame underlying the case for Brexit – that Britain has managed fine on its own, and can do it all on its own now – is fundamentally flawed. As sociologists like Gurminder Bhambra and Satnam Virdee have presciently shown us, through their role in enslavement, Empire, and colonialism, there became a fundamental link between what it means to be British with the existence of the constructed subaltern. Stuart Hall summarises this in a quote which any of my students, if they are reading this, are probably now tired of hearing:

I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea. I am the sweet tooth, the sugar plantations that rotted generations of English children’s teeth. There are thousands of others beside me that are, you know, the cup of tea itself […] Because they don’t grow it in Lancashire, you know […] Not a single tea plantation exists within the United Kingdom. This is the symbolization of English identity – I mean, what does anybody in the world know about an English person except that they can’t get through the day without a cup of tea? Where does it come from? Ceylon – Sri Lanka, India. That is the outside history that is inside the history of the English. There is no English history without that other history.

Narratives underlying the Brexit vote are thus fundamentally illogical, they rely on creating an English history ‘without that other history’, even though the latter is essential to the former.

It is on this theme of history that I wish to conclude this piece. Perhaps if we were to ground race-critical scholarship in education and public discourse, we would cease to talk about enslavement, Empire, and colonialism all as part of British ‘history’. Labelling them as part of history can occlude the ways they fundamentally shape the present. Thus, it was only in 2015 that – through our taxes – we paid of the loan for reparations for British owners of the enslaved (and even after abolition, as Bhambra shows, much of the English bourgeoisie still invested in Brazil’s slave trade); indeed, it was only last year that ‘Empire 2.0’ was put forward as a Brexit plan, and it was only two days ago that several high profile Tory members referred to themselves as the ‘Grand Wizards’ of Brexit. It seems apt to quote Stuart Hall again when he comments that ‘Empires come and go. But the imagery of the British Empire seems destined to go on forever. The imperial flag has been hauled down in a hundred different corners of the globe. But it is still flying in the collective unconscious’.

Citizens of Britain’s former colonies, who have gradually been converted into immigrants and/or deported (as Luke de Noronha’s work is showing) came here to work in the textile industry so White Brits could be clothed, we came here to drive White folks around in buses, to wash White people’s dishes in restaurants, to make their hotel beds, to take care of their sick relatives receiving free health care; importantly, we are here, as Sivanandan puts it, because you were there. Yet, the Brexit logic of leaving the EU relies on narratives of taking back control of our borders, keeping Britain White and pure, and protecting an indigenous culture from foreign invasion. While the irony is unbearable, it is simply another case of what Charles Mills calls the ‘epistemology of ignorance’ that shapes the entire British landscape. Racism alone cannot be overcome with ‘better education’, we are as educated as we have ever been and yet remain a deeply racist society. However, were we to center race-critical scholarship, and connected histories and presents, in our political, public, and educational discourse and programmes, that would at least be a start in the right direction.