by Sally Tomlinson
8th July 2019

Sally Tomlinson

Sally Tomlinson

What stories will the British, or more particularly, the English, tell themselves about their country and identity, once Brexit has been enacted?

It is doubtful whether the 1922 creation of a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will endure. Ireland, colonised by the English in 1169, is an independent country remaining in the EU, and its border with Northern Ireland has proved a major blockage in negotiations to leave. Scotland may eventually vote to leave the Union.

Will a popularist view prevail, that there should be a British identity underpinned by unproblematic British values, and largely excluding minorities? Or will arguments based on equality, citizenship, human rights and economic needs prove more acceptable in challenging the idea of a white monocultural British identity, unencumbered by migrants and refugees? And what part will education play in the future, when for over a century and a half there has been a dismal failure at all educational levels to overcome ignorance, xenophobia and racism? (1)

Most white British people, including the supposedly well-educated, know little about the Empire their grandparents were born into, its rapid dissolution post WW2, and the creation of a Commonwealth of some 53 countries, 31 of these with fewer than 3 million people. Rich people who keep money in the 14 remaining small countries which are tax havens may know more. Those who heard the leave campaigners claim they would ‘take back control’ had forgotten that until the empire began to disappear after Indian independence in 1947, Britain was indeed in control of some seven hundred million people. They knew little of the often brutal and inhumane processes of decolonisation and the loss of control of land, labour and wealth exhorted from colonies. They knew little about the reasons for the arrival of immigrants from the Caribbean and South Asia, encouraged as subjects of the British Empire, to come and build up the country post-war.

They also were probably not particularly aware of the long and nasty history of immigration control, from an Aliens Act to keep out East Europeans and Jewish people in 1905, to the sixteen immigration control acts passed since 1962, including one currently before a divided parliament. They would certainly have been influenced by the lies told over the years, that immigrants took jobs, houses and benefits that were supposedly ‘theirs’. Even those going on to higher education would be unable to make connections between the past and present, especially wars and conflicts. As the Director of the South Asian Studies centre commented in 2016:

Students arrive at university completely ignorant about the Empire, that vital part of history. When we talk of Syria they have no knowledge of Britain’s role in the Middle East over the last century. They have no clue about immigration, they don’t understand why people of other ethnicities came to Britain, they haven’t learned about it in school

Schools and textbooks for over a hundred years were places of myth-making and evasions of the truth. Until the 1960s, classroom walls had maps of the world with large sections coloured pink which ‘belonged to us’ and a curriculum supporting the merits of empire and silent on exploitation and cruelty. Race and empire shaped the idea of a national citizenship. By the high point of empire in the late nineteenth-century beliefs that ‘black and brown subjects were natural inferiors’ (2) were common among all social classes. Victorian beliefs in racial superiority underpinned by pseudo-scientific rationalisations for political, military and economic take-overs and exploitation of other countries, created English assumptions of nationalistic superiority that survive to the present day. The elite ‘public’ schools of the time encouraged nationalistic racial arrogance and overt militarism, with invented traditions and values which filtered down from these schools into the grammar schools for the middle classes and the elementary schools catering for the working classes. The rapper and scholar Akala, describing his own schooling from the 1980s, (3) wrote that Britons had been subject to generations of imperialistic propaganda, in education, juvenile literature, cinema, theatre, music halls, and great exhibitions, which still resonates among politicians and the public.

In the public mind ethnic minorities (a majority now settled citizens), European economic migrants, refugees, asylum seeks and ‘foreigners’ were legitimate targets for racism and hostility, especially as the long drawn out negotiations to leave the EU progressed. While many schools, especially in urban areas with diverse populations, had become more settled as multicultural, multiracial places, others in ‘white’ areas, and many older people schooled in an imperial curriculum, continued to resent those who, as Afua Hirsch put it, are not quite Brit(ish) (4) And as education has become more hierarchical and status-based with a ‘traditional’ curriculum and competitive jockeying for position, there is little sign that those in charge of education at all levels are able or willing to think through what education for a globally oriented socially just education system would look like.

As the school curriculum in the twentieth century has become even narrower and examination obsessed, especially after the reforms introduced by Michael Gove during his time as Secretary of State for Education, there is little evidence in schools or in higher education that the content of learning has come to terms with Britain’s changed role in the world. Despite attempts to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum, Government interventions rather suggest an adherence to an imperial version of the past with no plans to challenge political or public ignorance and misinformation that was evident during the Brexit vote and beyond.

As long as ignorance of the past and the presentation of a mythological future is perpetuated in a fragmented unchanged education system Britain without an empire is unlikely to be ‘Great’ anymore. Hope rests with a younger generation, many of whom can see through the lies and myths, are happy to live in a multiracial multicultural society and are willing to work to reduce inequalities and unfairness.


(1) Tomlinson, S. (2019) Education and Race from Empire to Brexit. Bristol. Policy Press.

(2) Lloyd, Y.O.(1984)  The British Empire 1558-1983  Oxford. Oxford university Press

(3) Akala (2019) Natives: Race and Calss in the Ruins of Empire  London. Two Roads/Hatchette

(4) Hirsch, A.(2018) Brit(ish):On Race, identity and belonging London. Jonathan Cape


Education and Race from Empire to Brexit, by Sally Tomlinson is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £18.39.

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