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To coincide with the publication of his new book The Empire at Home, James Trafford discusses the re-making of neo-colonial Britain as a fantasy ethno-state through its network of immigration detention centres and modern methods of policing of Black and Asian citizens.


The spread of COVID-19 has again clarified that death in Britain is discriminatory. Since distributions of serious illness and mortality are far from unknown or arbitrary, official policies of ‘herd immunity’ have encapsulated eugenic calculations. Britain prepared for lockdown amidst a discourse of militarised nationalism, nostalgic exceptionalism, and calls for hugely expanded police powers. This desire for increased policing was backed-up with police hotlines and ‘snooper’ forms overwhelmed by over 200,000 reports in the first few weeks they were open. The Coronavirus Bill quickly led to increasing roadblocks, fines, checkpoints, random stops, and a seemingly arbitrary use of powers and disruption of movement that ramped-up and made-explicit the differential policing of Black and Asian people in Britain. It is indisputable that policing shaped the lockdown as crisis – fining the already poor; spurious arrests that forced people into contact; restricting access to parks, exercise, necessary services; enforcing incarceration in already overcrowded and virus-ridden prisons.

Immigrant detention centres saw staff and prisoners contracting COVID-19 whilst detainees with no access to testing were left with a skeleton health-care staff in already overfull and unsanitary conditions without access to masks or soap. Eventually many detainees were temporarily released under bail conditions, countless without even the barest support for housing and subsistence they would usually receive. At the same time, the Home Office distributed a video showing cartoon aircraft flying from Britain in a homage to the comedy series Dad’s Army. The planes represented deportation flights that were being rushed through against legal due process. People seeking asylum in Britain crossing the channel were met with vigilantes and news reporters, whilst the government mused on possibilities of using floating walls and nets to stop boats in the Dover Strait, water cannons to create waves pushing boats back towards France, and otherwise locking up migrants on oil rigs or islands in the South Atlantic.

Artist's impression of the Harmondsworth Detention Center

In the visitor’s room at Harmondsworth – the largest detention centre in Europe – there is a mural of a shark. From the vantage point of stained board-backed chairs and tables adorned with a sharpie-scrawled numbering system, the shark– with bared teeth – stares panopticon-like overhead of the guard who checks you into the room and assigns tables. Somewhat indecorously, a large clock sits within this mural. The clock haunts this space that is so fraught by time, a space of detainment without sentence or conviction. This cold, dank-smelling, exhausted space of visitation is at once secured, apprehensive, anxious, but also brimming with love, desire, and ache. Enfolding in the tenderness of emotion and presence, lovers, mothers, fathers, children, friends – sucking-in air in the vicinity of one another, capturing fragrances of scalp, neck, spirit.

Just beyond a grey business hotel, sitting across a dual carriageway from a drive-through McDonald’s, are the Heathrow Immigration Removal centres. Like many others, the running of Harmondsworth is outsourced to Mitie, a company now infamous for its subsumption business practices and the paucity of conditions of its immigration centres. Ostensibly a holding ground for asylum hearings, Harmondsworth is a prison that witnesses sickness, mental health crises and suicide. The people detained there are often refused access to medical care and sent away with paracetamol, regardless of their ailments. Harmondsworth lies in the elongated shadows of flight paths, positioned for proximity to planes that extend its carceral reach. Rebuilt and expanded in 2001 under New Labour, it was the first purpose-built detention centre in the UK. This had been made possible by the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which had removed the right of entry for British Commonwealth citizens and made precarious the rights of many already residing in the country.

As formal empire was transformed into commonwealth and a neo-colonial project, Britain attempted to establish itself as a post-colonial nation. The re-making of Britain as a fantasy ethno-state and neo-imperialist infrastructure required a spatiotemporal ‘cut’ from empire, which both disavowed and relied upon the violence of the world that it had terraformed. This cut was perhaps most clearly symbolized by the later 1981 Nationality Act. The act defined British nationality as whiteness, with citizenship and whiteness indelibly forged as a regime of property and belonging over the spoils of empire. It categorised those who belong in Britain whilst making immigration law into a form of domestic control. Aliens were produced within the nation’s borders by removing citizenship entitlements from British nationals in the former colonies from 1983 onwards. At the time of its passing, Enoch Powell marked the act as instituting the ‘end of our brief imperial episode […] and the laying of that ghost, the Commonwealth’.

Enoch Powell

Enoch Powell confronted by the Black People's Alliance

But the post-colonial cut rested on a fundamental tension – between the myth of a pristine island nation and the ‘necessary evil’ of bringing colonial subjects back into the motherland alongside continuing socioeconomic intervention abroad. This tension was the condition of postcolonial Britain: the presence of those made ‘unhomely’ was not antithetical to Powell’s nation-building project – it was its pre-requisite. Through this post-colonial cut, the exceptionalism of a pristine island nation would be rebuilt through the redeployment of structures that had facilitated and legitimised slavery, exploitation and extermination across empire. Shifts from colonial metropole to neo-colonial nation brought about new relations of geographical enclosure through differential citizenship and plastic strategies of exclusion. Underfunded and overpoliced, this made entire communities subject to supposedly colour-blind technologies of finance and debt, surveillance and pre-emptive policing.

These tensions came to the fore in discourses surrounding the vote to leave the European Union, but eulogising empire whilst erasing its historical and contemporary realities has been a persistent condition of its perpetuation since its supposed collapse. Harmondsworth represents this attempt to re-found the authority and integrity of Britain in a supposedly post-colonial world that would ultimately resurrect colonialism inside, and neo-imperialism without. The corporate facia of detention centres is intertwined with strategies of containment and punitive bordering that extend far beyond national territories – outwards across Europe and Africa, and inwards across health services, education and housing. The British nation is not only guarded by borders of exclusion, it is a fabrication reliant on the proliferation of borders beyond national territories and across all of society – borders carried also by the bodies of people who are at once metropolitan citizens and the colonial other. Framed on these terms, the Brexit vote might be seen to sediment the desire for a renewed sovereignty against an ‘other’ whose claims upon Britain are seen as inherently rapacious and uncivil – with migrant people figuring as inherently criminal, security threats, and antagonistic to so-called British values.

Britain has always been a colonial project – stretched far beyond its island shores – and the coherence of a national ‘inside’ was produced through empire itself. So thinking about Britain’s internal colonialism is to describe a set of practices and logics that attempt to wholly manage and fix but that could not possibly do so. This is to clarify that which might make power shudder: that at the kernel of empire lies its own impossibility – ‘a splinter to the heart of the world’ as Fanon wrote – because the totalising structures of colonialism are both necessary and impossible. Tracing these patterns might lead us away from the domain of political possibility, and towards an openness to the quiet insurgencies in which the end of Britain as colonialism is already being practiced.

James Trafford is Reader in Philosophy and Design in the school of Communication Design at the University for the Creative Arts. He is author of Meaning in Dialogue (Springer, 2017), and co-editor of Alien Vectors (Routledge, 2019), and Speculative Aesthetics (MIT Press, 2016).

His new book, The Empire at Home: Internal Colonies and the End of Britain is out this month from Pluto Press, and available to pre-order now.