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As Britain prepares to leave the EU, the debate over its imperial past grows ever sharper. In some ways that’s not surprising given that the European Common Market succeeded what was once the world’s largest free trade zone, namely the British Empire. As the lure of Europe recedes, it’s logical to ask if Britain’s former colonies might again make natural trading partners.

Contrary to the mantras of the anticolonial left, damning the Empire for looting and exploiting its subjects, serious economic historians like Professor Tirthankar Roy at the London School of Economics have documented the many ways in which its subject populations benefited from transfers of technology, skilled personnel and scarce capital from the mother country. Those subject nations in return have enriched Britain’s multi-cultural perspectives and its labour markets, both skilled and unskilled. It’s reasonable to expect that a decline in Britain’s European ties can be matched by a return to its symbiosis with successful, advanced economies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the even more dramatic opportunities offered in a rapidly developing India and Africa.

It’s unfortunate that the continuing relevance of our imperial past has made it the target of many who are committed to remaining in the EU. The Empire is wrongly blamed for the sins of extreme Brexiteer nationalism today. It’s true that the Empire did not set out to civilise the world, rather to profit from it. But the mercantilism of early trading companies and the early phases of buccaneering, conquest and plunder were soon replaced in the midnineteenth century by intelligent forms of capitalism, designed to create stable and prosperous markets and partnerships.

Take the Indian railways, so often claimed as both an achievement of Empire and an attempt to extend British control. In fact, it was both. That arch-imperialist, the reforming Viceroy, Lord Dalhousie, saw the railways as a means of transporting British troops, but also as a way of integrating India’s far-flung markets, especially in food grains, thereby enriching farmers and reducing famines. The Raj left India with the world’s largest rail network, built initially by a huge investment of British private capital, bought at far less than world market rates, and replaced from the twentieth century by nationalised state ownership.

The imperial railway success story might be a model for how British capital, skilled managers and engineers might again fan out across the world, enriching both Britain and the recipient countries. The Commonwealth, long just an amicable talking shop, might find a new future as an English-speaking, free trade bloc, which even Ireland might be tempted to join. And that in turn might make the Irish border no longer an issue.

The Brexit movement has been driven far more by nationalism than any residual imperialism. But one positive fallout might be the demise of the post-colonial guilt that dominates our media and universities. From news headlines, to academic seminars, to social media, there seems to be an assumption that the British Empire is a past to be apologised for and lamented. The few who have dared to challenge these anticolonial tropes are branded as racist neofascists or, in the case of people like me, imperialist toadies. Our academies have been in danger of a takeover by loony left campaigners demanding ‘decolonisation’, without any idea of what that might entail, other than no-platforming speakers they dislike and getting more black faces into the lecture-halls and the curriculum, not on merit, but simply for their race.

A post-Brexit Britain is likely to be far less tolerant of such ‘woke’ absurdities and rightly proud of how Empire opened up our vistas to the outside world. Britain’s imperial past seems to me a guarantor that ‘Little Englander’ attitudes have no future and that we’ll remain truly cosmopolitan, whether in or out of the EU. Memories of Empire might form the basis of a new global leadership role for Britain as a powerhouse of art, literature, ideas, technology and skills, freely traded across most of the known world.

Dr Zareer Masani is a historian and the author of Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Identity crisis?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.