What the Chagos Dispute reveals about Brexit Britain

If Britain isn’t able to comfortably assimilate into modern day international politics and alter its projection within the world arena, as it has been unable to do during the Chagos dispute, then the so-called new Britain will face a very long road ahead

In 2017 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered a formal apology to a group of indigenous people in the Newfoundland and Labrador provinces. They had been subject to compulsory schooling which tore them away from their homes and landed them in boarding institutions rife with abuse. Earlier this year, across the Atlantic, Emmanuel Macron announced that he would be undertaking an initiative to drive the repatriation of African cultural heritage held in French museums. Met with resistance from many angles, Macron argued that African cultural heritage was not meant for European private collections and galleries. These actions from the Canadian and French governments represent a significant shift in diplomatic and civilian relations between former colonial powers and their past subjects. It is true that they do not directly strike at the many core economic inequalities connected to colonialism, which have yet to be tackled. France for instance still enjoys quasi-monopolistic dominance of key industries in Francophone Africa, whilst Canada still has much to do in addressing the deprivation that haunts its indigenous communities. Yet in both cases, historical injustice has been acknowledged in the public eye and in the process new relationships are being sought – it is the ever growing influence of soft power politics that we can see unfolding here, the fostering of political and economic collaboration through modern-day diplomacy. One wouldn’t be out of line then to expect that in the wake of Brexit, the UK would hasten to follow suit, perhaps making a start by addressing the many ills of the old British Empire, with a view to form fresh and dynamic international partnerships. Yet the British government, despite its courageous calls for a new, post-Brexit, ‘global Britain’, does not seem particularly interested in wooing the nations of the world. Instead, Britain’s elite establishment appears to be stuck in a state of diplomatic inertia, preferring to do the opposite by submerging itself in the supposed past glory of the British Empire than to face the current of the day. The Chagos Islands debacle is a clear manifestation of this inertia. Separating the Chagos Archipelago from Mauritius in 1965, prior to Mauritian independence, was ultimately an indisputable exertion of colonial power. Yet in the face of this glaring reality, Britain remains adamant that the International Court of Justice is misplaced in regarding Chagos as an issue concerning state sovereignty and self-determination. The very inability of the British administration to comprehend Mauritius’ claims of mistreatment and injustice marks the lag that Britain suffers in keeping in touch with contemporary international relations. Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who recently resigned in July of this year, functioned as the physical manifestation of this disconcerting lag, bumbling through his tenure like some colonial governor who’d been time-warped out of the 19th century. During his short time in post, Johnson was caught on camera reciting Kipling’s The Road to Mandalay in a Burmese Pagoda, before being abruptly halted by a very embarrassed ambassador. He also referred to Africa as a country at a Conservative party conference and single-handedly worsened the situation of a British mother detained in Iran.

“The very inability of the British administration to comprehend Mauritius’ claims of mistreatment and injustice marks the lag that Britain suffers in keeping in touch with contemporary international relations. Former UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson, who recently resigned in July of this year, functioned as the physical manifestation of this disconcerting lag, bumbling through his tenure like some colonial governor who’d been time-warped out of the 19th century…”


These are but a few of the foreign blunders Johnson found himself embroiled in over the past two years, the sort of blunders that an aspiring ‘global Britain’ could very much do without at this point. We are not residing in centuries past – the colonial era is over, we’re in 2018 and world affairs are made of a different fabric. True, Britain wields heavy economic influence – but socio-political awareness and maturity that meets the world’s contemporary landscape must go with this if Britain hopes to keep up with the rest of the world and truly succeed beyond the US-EU sphere. The Chagos dispute is precisely the sort of diplomatic conflict that a Brexit-laden Britain should be handling with such awareness and maturity. Never mind Diego Garcia’s geopolitical importance as a US military base. It is a given that the US would rather have a close and powerful ally such as Britain govern Diego Garcia, but the truth is that no matter what stately control the Chagos Archipelago finds itself under, the US will find a way to sustain its military activity if it wishes to. At its core the Chagos problem is simply Britain’s backward international character and diplomatic inertia forcing its will on the global stage. Such behaviour does not, of course, go unnoticed. In a crushing defeat Britain stood with the support of only three nations, whilst Mauritius saw its plea to the ICJ supported by seventeen other countries and the African Union. Amongst the seventeen that have supported Mauritius are a number of key targets for post-Brexit trade such as India, Brazil and South Africa. India, pre-eminent in this regard, went as far as to issue a formal statement that their position on the Chagos issue was formed by their longstanding commitment to decolonisation. Whilst Brexit has made the need for a ‘global Britain’ more pressing than ever, Chagos shines a light on Britain’s incapacity to overcome those non-economic barriers that prevent international cooperation. Whilst Western contemporaries bound forward in this stead, Britain continues on its path of isolation, steeped in an insidious pride that won’t loosen its grip. Whatever the ICJ decides regarding the Chagos Islands, the British government should take a sharp look at its conduct throughout these proceedings and reflect on its inward-looking diplomatic tendencies. After exiting the EU, Britain will need as many friends as possible. But if it isn’t able to comfortably assimilate into modern day international politics and alter its projection within the world arena, as it has been unable to do during the Chagos dispute, then the so-called new Britain will face a very long road ahead.


* Published in print edition on 28 September 2018

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