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London Falling

The dying empire state of mind

It is a truth universally accepted that any columnist who travels to a foreign country to write will be, eventually, in search of a cab. If the entire Middle East has been made intelligible to New York Times readers by the inveterate interviewer of taxi drivers Thomas Friedman, then so too with the fate of Near-Brexit Britain. It follows that when I got to London on Election Day (December 12) I immediately got into the taxi line at Heathrow airport. Soon, I figured, an insightful and expert cab driver who I would dub Niles or Julian in my ensuing column, would deliver me the gems that make for good punditry.

It was, predictably, a rainy and blustery day in London, and I scurried to the cab to which I had been pointed as fast as I could. The driver, however, was not so inclined; not, in fact, inclined at all. A white man, he sat in his black cab and looked straight ahead. I kept banging at the door until finally the attendant sidled over and said “Take the next one.” I did and as I did, I saw from the corner of my eye a white woman who had stood behind me in line get into the cab that had been unavailable to me. The cab driver so immoveable to my entreaties readily got out and loaded her suitcases for her.

I did get into the next cab, whose driver, thankfully, was an elderly Jamaican-British man. Then it sunk in: I was a brown person in London on a day when there was a reckoning, in some significant part, on the acceptability of brown and black others.

My new cab-driver expert affirmed this. “It’s all about the immigrants,” he said as the cab sped past surly London suburbs, rain soaked and wan. “All the jobs here are done by the immigrants but the British don’t want us,” he expounded. “Get rid of the immigrants they say,” he went on as we slipped under a graffiti-sprayed bridge; in the whorls and words I could read an angrily scrawled “Out.” When we got to my budget hotel my cab driver sent me off with “Boris Johnson is going to win.”

Boris Johnson did win and the results were as anti-climactic as election results can be. A few minutes after 10 o’clock (on election day, British radio and TV outlets are mostly forbidden from discussing the election until polls close), the BBC, Sky News, and ITV News announced that the Tories were on track to win a resounding victory, according to their exit poll. It wasn’t close, it wasn’t even a middling kind that would portend the need for coalition crafting—of the elevation of marginal parties like the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National Party into inadvertent power players. The Conservatives ultimately won with a whopping simple majority 365 seats of the 650 in the House of Commons, leaving them to do what they had promised to do: get Britain out of the European Union.

I was a brown person in London on a day when there was a reckoning on the acceptability of brown and black others.

If Londoners were shocked the next day, they didn’t give it away. My day was spent at a conference workshop ambitiously titled “Humanitarianism and the Post-Liberal Order.” The new order just selected would have fit well into the conversation but this was not how it went down. During the coffee breaks, the only other American participant and I wondered why no one—not a single other person—had brought up the election. When we had “our day” (that is to say, the day after Donald Trump won the election) we conspiratorially noted, we were all weeping openly together on subways and in meetings. When we finally put the question to a British participant we got a glassy-eyed response: “We’re stunned,” he said. “Oh, we don’t know what to say.”

The British do have things to say, I discovered the next day. In the afternoon, I set off for an out-of-the-way but lavish little museum called “The Wallace Collection.” The Collection was hosting an exhibition that was billed as showing the previously little-known work of “Company artists.” Company artists, as the British (lately so especially proud of their history of world subjugation) know, is what you call artists commissioned by the East India Company to paint the people and animals and plants that made up their empire. Here, in hushed galleries that offered up artifact and emblem of their once-expansive empire, the British were almost chatty. The detail on a tamarind leaf was worthy of exclamation; “Do you see that detail?” one gray-haired matron in burgundy sweater muttered to another. “The composition is just bewildering, it just lurches out at you,” exclaimed the leader of a group of young people. They were collectively apprehending a picture of a group of Afghans, erstwhile visitors to Delhi in the eighteenth century when a company painter was commissioned to render them. Similar utterances were whispered and heard around the rest of the paintings, some of dancing girls, others of native (to the colonial natives) plants and birds, and even bats. In more then one, brown men, stuffed into uniforms of the British army, looked out blankly at the beholder.

There were no white people in any of the paintings at all; in one where a young white girl was being led around on a horse, all of her face was obscured. I wondered at this odd enactment of some unspoken rule that white people could only be painted by other white people. It made sense given the larger project of the British in India; the aim of the paintings, after all, was to use brown painters to create brown subjects, render them as something apart, something to be gazed at and ordered.

This was apparent just as much in the commissioned categorization of Indian plants and fruits in the almanac form. All that was native to India was thus apprehended and recast in the way the British wished for it to be seen. They were bringing order to India, they had told everybody, as they packed up the riches of the Nawabs and the Maharajas and sent them back to home to London where they remain. And so they clutched that moment in time, when brown and black people were safely subjects, doing the bidding of their British masters.

That is the moment in their history where the British wish to stay. Brown (and black) visitors can be refused a cab at the airport—saying yes could require a white person to go where a brown person may tell them to, which is an unpalatable inversion of the way things should be. These tricks of time, the fervid clutching of the imperial past, are altogether harder to do when “bureaucrats in Brussels” pick and prod at one’s delusions. The choice the British have made this December is to recover the freedom to revel in their imperial delusions, sit among the looted treasures of what once was. With a fair-haired aristocratic son of Britain back in charge, they have chosen like the visitors in the Wallace Collection, to linger and languish amid the booty of old. Surrounded thus, they can believe if only for an instant, and only if they look askance, that they are (still) the lords of the world they once ruled.