The Legacy of Empire and Systematic Racism in the UK, is the UK in Denial that Racism Exists?

by Kim Holmes

Credit photo from James Eades on Unsplash

Racism is rife where politics, poverty, and miseducation reside. The United Kingdom formed of England, Scotland and Wales is notorious for claims of progression related to being a “successful multi-ethnic and multicultural[i]” country, faces challenges towards these claims in several areas of UK life. This chapter will tackle the premise that the UK is in denial that racism exists due to Constructivist ideology and components of Realism. The argument will analyse experiences presented through systematic racism embedded in the workplace, in UK education, and policies implemented. These departments will be emphasised through media articles and journals, as well as experiences found through primary research methods like surveys and author-based incidents. This chapter aims to scrutinise the UK for the common practice of racism, discrimination, and prejudice within institutions and the media. Key concepts entail tokenism, modern racism, racism in IR theory that directly correlates and could explain the hidden existence of racism. This chapter will invite you to look at evidence that suggests that racism exists in institutions like the police, education, and the workplace relating to policy. Structurally, the chapter will begin with a literature review surrounding the opinions of racism in the UK as well as emphasising theories like tokenism and critical race theory. Then, anecdotes from experience are used to give a primary research glimpse of real events that have happened, because of racism in the UK. I am a recent Masters graduate, that came to the UK in 2005 from Zimbabwe. I am of mixed Black-African decent and currently reside in Surrey. I have been studying politics and International Relations to grasp the ideologies of the world and those in power and decision-making roles. The Guardian mainly will be used to show news reporting of these incidents, and opinions and various other news forums and polls to show for valid research behind the hypothesis that the UK is in denial that racism exists; it is something that needs to end, however would only begin once it is accepted as part of daily life in the UK.

Is the UK in denial that racism exists within its institutions?

The issue of racism has plagued and infected all corners of the world. In journals, media, and throughout history there have been many challenges towards racism and the problems that come from it. The UK is known for taking pride in being one of the most diverse and multi-ethnic countries in the world, and it can be agreed that it is diverse and is home to many ethnicities. But it is no secret that “racial tensions” in mostly “north-west towns – Oldham, Burnley, Rochdale and Blackburn” (all of which show to have elevated levels of “internal ethnic segregation”) triggers a speculation that racism is still prevalent in the UK[ii]. The theory of racism and the psychology behind it hold many experiences that haunt the past, mark the present, and impact the future. For the UK, the legacy of its empire that stretched over 300 years from the 1600s has seen many revolutionary changes, but old practices remain, as a result of slavery and competition which can be seen in immigration laws, education, and the workplace. This review of the literature involved in debating or speaking on racism will highlight and identify theories related to controversial media coverage on acts of racism. Additionally, this review will form the basis of the methods used to seek out modern racism in contemporary UK society.

Jacqueline Nelson posits that the “denial of racism, in varied forms, is a key feature of modern racism[iii]”. Also, within this review, racist events and challenges towards their existence will be portrayed in three dimensions : (1)work, (2) education and, (3)politics shown in the media, and particular coverage on global crisis events like COVID-19 that underscore racial inequalities. Ultimately, the existence of racism will be explored, with an area for resolve if practiced and made by law that could cure the alarms of it. Acts like the Race Relation Act 1965 which addresses “the prohibition of racial discrimination and followed previously unsuccessful bills. The Act banned racial discrimination in public places and made the promotion of hatred on the grounds of ‘colour, race, or ethnic or national origins’ an offence ” do not hold weight in law as the UK Government proport the denial of racisms existence and so this law seemingly is not practiced due to the high volume of racist performances in the UK.

Critical Race Theory (CRT) ‘draws from and extends a broad literature base in law, sociology, history, ethnic studies, and women’s studies[iv]’. Daniel Solorzano, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso (2000) maintain a good, descriptive account of CRT by explaining its five elements focusing on: “(a) the centrality of race and racism and their intersectionality with other forms of subordination, (b) the challenge to the dominant ideology, (c) the commitment to social justice, (d) the centrality of experiential knowledge, and (e) the transdisciplinary perspective”. (pg. 63). Interestingly, CRT creates the idea that racism is “normal” for people of colour, in that it is the way American culture was intentionally structured. The intersectionality of this theory posits that no person has a single unitary identity, and it is assumed that anti-racist movements tend to make progress when it is in the best interest of those in positions of power, not due to moral persuasion. Ultimately, CRT holds that positions of power and movements are not “anti-white”, much rather, it recognises that white voices have dominated the discourse, and centring the voices of ‘persons of colour’ disrupts the practice of white supremacy. Errol Henderson 2013 gives a satisfactory account for the centrality of white supremacism in IR theory and maintains that “social contract theses that are often cast as ‘race-neutral’ suggest one type of relations for white people and their institutions and states and another for non-white people and their institutions.[v]”. To speak on history, Henderson 2013 highlights that during the “late nineteenth and early twentieth-century IR theorists built on racial dualism as they built their conception of a global anarchy and the role of ‘civilized’ whites in providing, maintaining and ensuring order within it by means of a system of international power relations among whites – or, at a minimum, dominated by whites: and a system of colonial subjugation for non-whites” (Henderson 2013 pg.88). As a result, it is no surprise that practices and biases formed for white supremacy continue into modern times, which is reflected as modern racism.

Additionally, an account of this can be witnessed through the horrors of slavery being a key factor towards racism in today’s global arena. Empirical evidence that suggests modern racism, and the UK’s denial of it, can be shown through the theory of tokenism. Niemann 2012 investigates the theory of tokenism. Relating to institutes with employees of ethnic minorities, tokenism can lead to “stereotype threat [vi]”. Belonging to a minority where there is a stigma can influence detrimental effects, especially within the workplace, as non-whites internalise negative views that can lead to significant actions. Despite Niemann creating this autobiography, we must comprehend the dangers of the existence of such theories present in the UK. Niemann offers a decent anecdotal narrative, and this is apposite when attempting to understand the racial injustice that occurs in the workplace when it comes to employment. As a result, tokenism is suggested as a question and an element for investigation when seeking evidence behind racism in the workplace in the UK.

Moreover, relating to tokenism, the topic of ethnic pay gaps in the UK also stimulates the conversation of racism being overt, however denied of its existence. Longhi and Brynin 2017 state that “there is the clear expectancy that immigration affects pay[vii]” , and it is “expected that ethnic minorities are paid less on average than white people”. This is in conjunction with Salehyan 2008 as they further promote the consequences of refugee movement under refugees and immigrants being a source of conflict, in this case, modern racism. Saleyhan specifies that “refugee flows between states significantly increase the likelihood of militarized interstate disputes[viii]”. Significantly, Saleyhan allows for an appreciation of how having a high percentage of immigrants can form prejudice, discrimination, and ultimately racism due to immigration laws in the UK. Further to this, the Office for National Statistics highlights research that suggests “on average, employees from the Bangladeshi ethnic group earned 20.2% less than White British employee’s[ix]” in 2018. Therefore, a clear pay gap based on ethnicity is acknowledged and persists in UK society -ultimately emphasising that racism exists in institutions. It also sparks the question of ‘what is being done about these statistics?’


Several articles from newspapers, mainly the Guardian and the BBC news, are saturated with headlines related to racism in the UK. For this chapter, articles from the Guardian represent a right-wing attitude for news reporting. This would give an idea of what the ‘public perception’ is on this topic, and the government’s thoughts as the UK is currently a Conservative (Tory) government. In addition, personal experiences with quotes will also be used within the methods of this chapter’s research question. This is to provide some primary evidence of racism existing or not existing in the UK.

A 2020 Guardian article reads that “British people believe their empire to have been a force for good in the world, or at the very least did nothing to be ashamed of[x]”, additionally revealing that the “true impact of colonialism is still widely misunderstood within the British psyche”. In understanding, many Brits may feel that racism does not exist, but the impact of colonialism is an ongoing theme when you hear popular remarks like “go back to your country[xi]” being told unto immigrants. To support the hypothesis that racism exists in the UK, the Guardian also reports that “racism is always the easiest excuse for everyone[xii]”. This lack of respect or a lack of creativity when in an emotional state is what leads to easy excuses like racism. An empirical example can be seen in the following anecdote:

I was working in Ladbrokes (betting shop) in Leicestershire, it was 9 pm on a Thursday. A man of white ethnicity walked in and started to shout at my manager. I asked politely if he could stop shouting as she is doing her best to help, that’s when his anger turned to me, he proceeded to tell me ‘Shut your mouth you little n****’, this moment is forged in my memory” — author story.

This experience held many emotions during and after, three years later it remains. The shellshock of hearing the derogatory term that was coined during the slavery and colonial-era had suddenly taken over my body. This was something I thought to be unimaginable, something you only see happen in the media. These are occurrences that a lot of immigrants and non-white people have to be subject to and victim to, resulting in the Guardian article proving valid because “racism is always the easiest excuse for everyone”. Experiences like this cement the fact that racism in the UK exists and it sees no end unless people become educated on the topic and develop a sense of morality.

Racism in the workplace and policy:

Racism in workplaces has seen an exponential rise especially during the current global crisis that is COVID-19. The Guardian 2020 exemplifies BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnics) communities portrayed as martyrs when investigating policies held for front line workers in the NHS. A compelling story is seen in the case of Dr. Abdul Mabud Chowdhury, a consultant urologist at Homerton hospital who died from contracting the virus. Dr. Chowdhury’s son, Intisar Chowdhury gives a powerful account of the horrors the virus poses to NHS workers and underscores that staff within the NHS “…should not have to go as martyrs…they did not sign up to battle on the frontline and give up their lives” (Marsh and Mcintyre 2020).

A dissertation I proposed[xiii] showed how racism plays an integral part when it is related to the policy domain. Public Health England ingeniously put from a data review that stakeholders “highlighted the high proportion of BAME groups that were key workers and in occupations that placed them at risk by increasing the likelihood of social contact and increasing the risk of being exposed to those infected with COVID-19[xiv]”. Consequently, Public Health England emphasised that there is a “legal duty and moral responsibility to reduce inequalities”. To this chapter, the Guardian and PHE as a case study stimulates the arguments that racism for immigrants is not as undercover as the government attempts to portray with their too-late policies and afterthoughts for people of other ethnicities, that is not white. This is strikingly interesting as the NHS is an institution that affects the whole of the UK, but despite its necessity in society, the inequalities have shown harm BAME communities.

“I witnessed my manager (of Asian descent) at a GP practice being told to ‘go back to your country as she was trying to tell a patient that we cannot help with dental provisions as GP’s do not cover this, the patient proceeded to be violent towards her by snatching the phone away from her when she attempted to call the police as he refused to leave and maintained his aggression” — author story

This experience was not the only incident within the NHS and GP practice that I both experienced and witnessed racism. There is not enough help for victims of such behaviours, nor do these workplaces do enough to tackle the issue of racism from the public. Thusly, it says a lot about the ones in power of making policies, as this is something that happens continuously and remains unchecked. Fuelling the idea that racism is hidden in plain sight, and still, the UK government and media deny its existence in this ‘multi-ethnic’, ‘multicultural society’.

Racism in different institutions

Anushka Asthana 2020 reported that “People are more likely to say that racism has got worse or stayed the same during their lifetimes than it has become less common”. This was reflected in a poll that paints a “bleak picture of discrimination in the UK”. Interestingly, the study that was used for the poll revealed that “almost two-thirds of the population think there is a ‘fair amount’ or ‘a great deal of racism in the British society”, but people of black descent are twice as much seen to say the problem is widespread, then white respondents. Asthana 2020 also highlights that those exchanges of personal experiences showed “large numbers of black, Asian and other minority-ethnic people reported incidents of racial abuse – both verbal and physical – with many experiencing attacks regularly” (Asthana 2020).

Also, Matt Singh 2020 draws to an ITV programme Stephen Lawrence: Has Britain changed? , which conducted a poll on 3000+ UK adults looking at experiences of, and attitudes towards racism in Britain. The poll used 1502 subsamples of ethnic minority respondents, which was weighted independently of white subsamples. The poll shows a sufficient size of the black subsample (405 unweighted) representing the perspective and views of the UK’s black community with “a statistical margin of error of +5points[xv]”.

The ethnic minority respondent poll emphasised that most respondents believe and perceive there to be a culture of racism in the Police force. The 65+ age group presented the highest scoring for this belief, and this can reflect life experiences impacting their decision. With more years of age, comes more experience and the witnessing of racism. This alongside people of black ethnicity scoring the highest for this belief.

The poll also features ethnic minority and white respondent’s responses to the question “please say whether or not you think it has a culture of racism (the education system[xvi])” ,which scored 393 respondents from differing ethnic groups (black, mixed, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Other Asian and other), responding that racism does exist within the education system (schools) in the UK. To support this, David Batty and Nazia Parveen 2021 from the Guardian reported that “UK schools record more than 60,000 racist incidents in five years[xvii]”. Further to this, the “freedom of information (FOI) requests sent to 201 councils and about a fifth of England’s multi-academy trusts uncovered a total of 60,177 racist incidents being defined as any situation perceived to be racist by the alleged victim or any other person, including unintentional racism” (Batty and Parveen 2021).

Overall, the poll reveals British attitudes from both white and ethnic minorities, expressing that systematic racism is prevalent and is increasing in the UK. This is an alarming poll that was shown on ITV and should be a benchmark for the UK to see that despite politics speaking of its non-existence, racism does exist.

Can the UK end the perpetuation of Racism?

In summary, this chapter has illustrated that reform in UK society is needed when tackling the issue of racism. The effects of racism remain deeply felt by BAME groups. This translates on into how this community appropriates itself in the UK and has detrimental effects when practiced in institutions like work, education, and the justice system. This chapter has succeeded in showing public perception of the increase or prevalence of racism in the country, whilst underscoring the many article headlines from the Guardian that present notions that racism exists; and crucially that the government’s denial of it appears to be too optimistic, compared to the reality of what occurs –with no formal consequences. Critical race theory poses threat to the how Racism is actioned upon as it presents the idea that racism is ‘normal’ in being felt by people of colour. This sense of normality is what gives room for racism to grow, because if the public perceives that it is normal, then the actions which include discrimination and prejudice are seen as normal, and that makes it acceptable for BAME groups to experience them. This danger is something that needs to be given clarity too, as confusion about this can lead to more violations of basic human rights within a society; specifically, when they are under a social contract which binds security to citizens. Nonetheless, tokenism should be spoken more on, as workplaces maintain a percentage of black or other ethnicities, mainly in corporate jobs. This is inequality at its peak in the workplace. Ultimately, an awareness of the existence of racism in the UK would begin to help stop its progression once it is accepted as a part of daily life. As a resolution, the UK Government should stop stating that the racism is not an occurrence of British society, as this dilutes the topic and reduces it to something personal to a few citizens. Rather, the Government should highlight and emphasise the issue that is frequent in the media and felt in multi-ethnic communities, by having difficult conversations that can help mediate the issues and let people who feel the effects of racism have more say and contribution as to how to make equality a permeant part of society. The Race Relations Act 1965 is not sufficient in today’s society, and it is not protecting citizens. As an ending point, racism can only be stopped if there are strict laws in place for perpetrators, and more engagement with victims. Racism can be reduced to a lack of education, empathy, ignorance, and insecurity that is apparent in all those that make these attacks on people. These should no longer be reasons for racism to be seen as acceptable.

[i] Tapsfield, James, and Jack Maidment. 2021. “Landmark Report Urges UK To ‘Look Beyond Race’ Amid Row”. Mail Online. [ii] Katwala, Sunder. 2001. “The Truth Of Multicultural Britain”. The Guardian. [iii] Nelson, Jacqueline K. “Denial of Racism and Its Implications for Local Action.” Discourse & Society 24, no. 1 (2013): 89-109. Accessed April 29, 2021. [iv] Solorzano, Daniel, Miguel Ceja, and Tara Yosso. “Critical Race Theory, Racial Microaggressions, and Campus Racial Climate: The Experiences of African American College Students.” The Journal of Negro Education 69, no. 1/2 (2000): 60-73. Accessed April 29, 2021. [v] Henderson, Errol A. 2013. “Hidden In Plain Sight: Racism In International Relations Theory”. Cambridge Review Of International Affairs 26 (1): 71-92. doi:10.1080/09557571.2012.710585. [vi] Niemann, Yolanda Flores. “The Making of a Token: A Case Study of Stereotype Threat, Stigma, Racism, and Tokenism in Academe.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20, no. 1 (1999): 111-34. Accessed April 29, 2021. doi:10.2307/3346994. [vii] Longhi, Simonetta, and Malcolm Brynin. 2017. The Ethnicity Pay Gap. Ebook. Equality and Human Rights Commission. [viii] Salehyan, Idean. “The Externalities of Civil Strife: Refugees as a Source of International Conflict.” American Journal of Political Science 52, no. 4 (2008): 787-801. Accessed April 29, 2021. [ix] “Ethnicity Pay Gaps In Great Britain – Office For National Statistics”. 2019. Ons.Gov.Uk.,less%20than%20White%20British%20employees. [x] Shillington, Kevin, Frances Rehal, and James Griffiths. 2020. “The Uncomfortable Truth About Britain’S Imperial Legacy | Letters”. The Guardian. [xi] Berry, Darragh, and Mark Corcoran. 2021. “Woman Tells Boy, 9, ‘Go Back To Your Country’ In Vile Racist Rant On Bus”. Mirror. [xii] Booth, Robert. 2019. “‘Always The Easiest Excuse’: Is Racism Rising In The UK’s Most Diverse Area?”. The Guardian. [xiii] Holmes, Kim. 2020. “An Analysis Of COVID-19 Policy On BAME Communities And Medical Professionals”. Postgraduate Masters, University of Surrey. [xiv] Beyond the data: Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on BAME groups, 2020 pg.6 [xv] Singh, Matt. 2020. “Stephen Lawrence: Has Britain Changed? – Number Cruncher Politics”. Number Cruncher Politics. [xvi] ITV Has Britain Changed Poll (Ethnic Minority Respondents). 2020. Ebook. Number Crunching Politics. [xvii] Batty, David, and Nazia Parveen. 2021. “UK Schools Record More Than 60,000 Racist Incidents In Five Years”. The Guardian.


Uninvited Protector: An Assessment of Egyptian Autonomy During British Occupation, 1882-1922

By Jack Lashendock

When attempting to quantify the vast territorial holdings of the British Empire, particularly throughout much of the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century, it has often been noted that from the Western Canadian shores to Australia and Oceania, the sun never set on the Empire. Put another way, if a map of territories invaded by or brought under the political control of the British Crown were overlaid with a map of United Nations member states, 171 of the organization’s present 193 states would have been historically impacted by British colonialism in some way. Much of these British holdings were concentrated in locations other than the Middle East given the vastness of the local Ottoman Empire, but at the end of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the Sultan’s grip on the region was drastically weakening.

            The era of the First World War was a period of extreme change in the Arab world — the conflict in Europe truly had a global effect. The three decades which preceded the Great War brought new actors into the Arab lands and by the War’s end, the region’s stabilizing force was lost with the capitulation and dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. In its wake, European empires grew and extended their control into the Middle East. Indeed, the post-War superpowers — the United Kingdom and France — were no strangers to the region or its people. Prior to World War I, the French established a number of colonial outposts in Algeria and North Africa (and smaller ones in the Levant) in the 19th Century, with regional involvement dating back to the early days of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. On the other hand, Britain’s expansion into the Levant was only the second time the island empire forayed into the Middle East. The Sykes-Picot Agreement which carved up the former Ottoman Empire granted British control of the Levant nations of what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and much of southern Iraq.

            However, before this secret agreement, the British presence in the region was confined only to greater Egypt. In 1882, the British gained victory in the Anglo-Egyptian War and began to exercise control of the region which would last until the mid-1950s. Officially, Egypt, which at the time was still an autonomous province of the Ottoman Empire, was retained as a de facto protectorate of the British; however, due to a lack of legal status for British occupation and Egypt’s position in the Ottoman Empire, the ‘veiled protectorate’ was never formally a part of the British Empire.

            This paper seeks to examine the state of affairs in Egypt during this period and assess the degree to which the Egyptian state had the autonomy to conduct affairs as any other state not colonized or under a protectorate would be able to do. The paper will begin by highlighting the role of the British in Egypt and then the author will undertake an analytical assessment of the various components of statehood and juxtapose them with British action between 1882-1914. The final section will briefly examine what changes occurred with the official declaration of Egypt as a British protectorate from a legal and practical standpoint and touch upon the concluding years and decades of British occupation.

Early British Involvement in Egypt

Before further examining the involvement of the British in the politics and society of pre-war, wartime, and post-war Egypt, it is first beneficial to understand the broad history of Britain’s unique colonial procession in the region. Substantial control in the region began in 1875 with the British take-over of the Suez Canal by then Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. At the time, the Khedivate under Isma’il Pasha was in serious financial trouble and sought to ease economic woes by selling off shares of the Suez Canal Company. Financed by the Rothschild family, Great Britain purchased nearly 44 percent (approximately 176,602 shares) of the company’s holdings for a total of £4 million in contemporary funds.[1] While this was not enough to give Great Britain majority control of the Canal (France maintained 51 percent), it did allow for Britain to exercise effective control of the waterway and by extension, in the region. Moreover, Britain continued to dominate the canal and the majority of ships that passed through the Sinai Peninsula were flagged with the Union Jack.[2] In 1870, 60 percent of ships passing through the canal were British and by 1880, that percentage rose to approximately 80 percent.[3] More critical than purely economic control of the Canal was the route’s importance to the rest of the British Empire; because the Suez Canal significantly reduced the time it took to reach Asia, and it was a critical piece of infrastructure and an extension of British interests in India. Proponents of expanded British influence in the region “argued that Egypt must be made secure under British rule… [and contended] that the only way Britain could safeguard the route to the East was to force French influence out of Egypt and establish British paramountcy.”[4] The British came to exercise even greater economic control a year after their purchase of Suez Canal shares. Ismail and his government defaulted on loans which prompted European creditors, including Britain to “[form] a debt commission to take control of Egypt’s economy” which redirected income from previously state-owned railways, communications (telegraph infrastructure), and taxes and customs fees into European coffers. European powers also took complete control of Egypt’s cotton export/trade, banking sector, and postal and telegram communications networks further stripping Egypt of its own autonomy.[5] While of course, Great Britain was not alone in this management (read: takeover) of Egypt, it was an influential power and this period served as a harbinger of what was to come under increased British occupation and subjugation.

            While many in the British political elite expected the biggest threat to the canal and British interests in Egypt more broadly to come from another European power, namely France, in reality, the canal’s threat was more homegrown. In 1879, Egyptian officer Ahmed ‘Urabi Pasha and his fellow officers began to express severe grievances at the government of Khedive Tewfik Pasha, the son of Khedive Isma’il Pasha, ranging from reforms of the army, the creation of an Egyptian constitution, and changes in government. More critically, Tewfik’s government was viewed by the nationalists under Ahmed ‘Urabi to be nothing more than a puppet to the European powers, namely Great Britain and France, and sought to remove foreign influence from Egypt. Pressured by ‘Urabi and his movement, Tewfik appointed the nationalist to the position of Minister of War.[6] In his position, which included powers over internal security matters, ‘Urabi began to become a powerful figure in Tewfik’s government and the ruler sought foreign help in quelling any threats to his power. By June 1882, following a series of deadly anti-Christian and anti-foreigner riots lead by ‘Urabi, the British began to wage war against the Egyptians and by September 1882, the British victory at the Battle of Tel-al-Kebir resulted in the capture of ‘Urabi, “the [British] occupation of Cairo, and the collapse of the rebellion,” and established that “Great Britain was in absolute and undisputed possession of Egypt.”[7]

            It is also critical to note the dissolution of the Dual Control following the British victory at Tel-al-Kebir. The Dual Control was a power-sharing agreement between the British, French, and Egyptian governments whereby the Egyptian government was allowed to exercise a degree of autonomy, while the European powers would be able to secure their own objectives relatively easily. This dissolution angered France and following the display of military superiority, the Egyptian government was subdued considerably; the result was effective British control of the nation. In part motivated by complex factors regarding Egypt’s legal status in the Ottoman Empire and the world more broadly, the British government, as early as October of 1882, maintained that its military presence in the region was temporary and that British troops stationed in Egypt would be withdrawn when it was safe to do so.[8] However, Britain benefited greatly from the presence of her military which helped secure growing administrative power as it was widely understood that “the withdrawal of British troops would have been tantamount to the withdrawal of any effective British control.”[9]

            While Marlowe argues that the British were burdened by the control of Egypt and sought to “divest herself of her Egyptian responsibilities as soon as she decently could,” there is no denying the geopolitical value of Egypt.[10] Firstly, as aforementioned, British interests in Asia (such as the East Indies and India) were critical to the strength of the Empire, militarily and economically. Because of the Suez Canal’s importance in shortening routes to the Pacific, the Royal Navy and the British merchant fleet were better able to ensure linkage between Asia and Europe. Second, effective control of the Nile River delta and much of the river itself was a particular military benefit for the British, who had established colonies upstream, including Sudan, Uganda, British Somaliland, the East Africa Protectorate and Kenya.[11] Like many other waterways on the continent, Europeans viewed the Nile River as a pathway into the heart of Africa and so control of the river valley and its downstream entrance would be beneficial. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, control of the Nile River was critical for British industry; intense British involvement in Egypt came around the time the domestic textile industry was emerging from the Second Industrial Revolution. Policymakers and businessmen alike recognized the importance of Egyptian cotton in providing the raw material for these mills, which in turn would rival American cotton production and help ensure Britain’s status on the world stage. Motivated by this, the British “….understood from the very beginning that the economic stability, economic development and political stability of Egypt depended on [British control of the Nile].”[12] Additionally, the Empire also “understood that in the long run, it might be very useful for London to have control over the Nile upstream of Egypt. So, if [the] need would arise, then they would have a potential power against Egyptian nationalism.”[13]

            While some in the British government may have agreed with Marlowe’s comments on wanting to divest from Egyptian affairs as quickly as possible following the Anglo-Egyptian War, it more likely stands to reason that the benefits of greater involvement in Egypt far outweighed any costs.

Evaluating Egypt’s Autonomy as a State Under British Occupation

            Especially in the post-Westphalian era, modern theory and international law have established that the basic building blocks of a nation-state are: (1) A people; (2) A government; (3) A territory; and (4) Recognition enough by the international community to conduct foreign affairs. Some scholars debate the narrowness of these definitions and that greater attention ought to be paid to sub-state factors such as civil society, business, and the military when looking to define statehood. While this conversation on the minimum components for statehood is beyond the scope of this paper, it is beneficial to explore which factors the Egyptian territory met during the intervention of European (and namely, British) colonial influence. The establishment of a protectorate was generally a direct process whereby the protecting state exercised a right they believed to have, safeguarded by economic, political, and/or military power. In the context of the British Empire, they were cautious to establish a formal protectorate given the relationship between Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, however, given their status as the most powerful nation (at that time) in the world, there would likely have been very little resistance. Because of a lack of an official declaration, historians refer to this period of British imperialism in Egypt as the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ Era, yet despite official declarations; the American Journal of International Law notes that “Egypt was from that date [1882/1883] in fact, though not in law, a dependency of Great Britain.”[14] This section will attempt to apply these definitions of statehood to determine if the American Journal of International Law’s characterization of Egypt as a British dependency is accurate.

            An important caveat worth noting is that in the Nineteenth Century, Egypt was never a sovereign state, even before the debt crisis and the Anglo-Egyptian War. Stepping back in 1517, the Ottoman Empire invaded Egypt following the overthrow and massacre of the ruling Mamluks and appear to have directly ruled the region as part of the broader Empire until the French invasion under Napoleon Bonaparte (which took place in the late 18th Century).[15] Over time the Ottoman seat of power began to gradually lose the control over outer provinces it used to exercise.[16] In Egypt in particular, under the reign of Muhammad Ali (1805-1848), Egypt began to adopt government, land, economic, and military reforms modelled after the French; given the strength of the Egyptian provide, “the Ottomans both relied on and were wary of their vassal [Muhammad Ali]…” and the state he had built.[17] By the time of the British invasion, Egypt was technically still a part of the Ottoman Empire in name only, but in reality fully autonomous with a sovereign governing structure, economy, and relatively abled military. By the late Nineteenth Century, these features which made Egypt autonomous and relatively unique in the region were no longer existent as strongly as they were before the 1880s. Lastly, for the purposes of this comparison, we will assume Egypt to have been, in practice, a sovereign state prior to the European arrival, even if the legal definition does not match.

            Returning now to the definitions the author will use to determine Egyptian statehood. The basic components of statehood used in this section include a defined territory, with a defined people, who are governed by an independent, local body, the ability to conduct foreign relations, economic autonomy, military control, and decision-making in the civil service and education. Egypt, while under home or British rule, had a defined territory extending from the Sinai in the east into the Libyan Desert in the west. The annexation of Sudan by Muhammad Ali extended Egypt from the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north to down to the modern-day nation of South Sudan. The fairly static nature of these borders helps satisfy the first condition of statehood. The second condition for statehood is also met relatively easily; census data from 1881, the year before British occupation shows an Egyptian population of nearly 7.5 million.[18] Furthermore, data from between 1846-1881 shows an increasing population so it is reasonable to extrapolate a steady population that existed after 1881.[19]

            Beyond territory and population, determining the true extent of Egyptian during the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ period becomes complicated. The next basic aspect of sovereignty is government. Following the Battle of Tel-al-Kebit, the British “recognized the immediate necessity for the continuance of the personal rule of the Khedive, exercised through his Ministers…” however, British advisors (as they were called) ensured that the reestablished government would have the opportunity for “… a gradual progress towards the constitutional government.”[20] The resulting government blended familiar Khedivate rule with the ideals of European enlightenment and representative democracy. The first legislative body was the thirty member Legislative Council, which had 14 members appointed by the Khedive and the remaining 16 elected by indirect suffrage; the second body, the General Assembly, was the meeting of the Legislative Council, the Council of Ministers, and 46 Notables; and the final body was an indirectly elected Provincial Council which drew representatives from each of subdivision and were tasked with advising matters of general administration.[21] This system helped to promote the former system of authoritarian rule and mechanisms such as indirect suffrage, helped to further the power of the elite which were most impacted by the British pseudo-colonial presence. Similarly, “membership in [these elected bodies were] confined to the established, wealthy classes, who, while not likely supporters of the occupation, were not likely to espouse radical economic or political doctrines.”[22]

            While indigenous power is observable in this new government, it is important to understand what the role of the British was in all of this. Unequivocally, the British commanded a strong presence within the Egyptian government. The head British official in Cairo held the rank of Consul-General and critically, represented the British Foreign Office and not the Colonial Office. His “…powers, ostensibly, were no greater than those of the counsels of other powers,” but “of course, in practice, the British Consul-General had considerably greater powers than other foreign delegates.”[23] Because the British could not directly make policies that gave them the keys to power, early British doctrine was to “maintain the framework of the old authoritarian system, within which a team of British advisors and inspectors would have the power to limit folly, even if they would not have the power to implement wisdom.”[24] Frustratingly for the British, Egypt’s feeble government under the first few ministers following the establishment of the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ commanded a relatively strong presence in policymaking and were not only able to pursue their own governance but even “compelled [the British] to accept a large measure of independent Egyptian authority in the government.”[25] However, with the succession of Mustafa Fahmi as Prime Minister of the Egyptian state, “the British had a puppet minister through whom they were able to govern almost as they wished.”[26] Full control of Egypt, by Egyptians, would not be achieved until the mid-1950s.

            Turning now to the assessment of foreign affairs and the control Egypt had over such activity in this era. It is well documented that foreign nations (namely France and to a lesser extent, the Ottoman Empire) maintained diplomatic personnel in Cairo, however, there is not much scholarship on the matter of foreign affairs on the whole. It would likely follow that as long as the Egyptians were able to maintain pockets of independence in their government, they could conduct relations with other nations and once the state became a British puppet, this control, like many other facets of administration, became tainted with British influence.

            In light of this lack of material on the political conduct between nations, consider the interaction between actors at a different level — namely through immigration. Both preceding the British occupation, as well as during it, Egypt accepted two main categories of foreigners: political refugees and labourers. Through projects such as the Suez Canal, urbanization under and British endorsed modernization endeavours, and irrigation expansion in the Nile River Valley, “the demand for skilled foreign labour had remained high since the time of Muhammad ‘Ali…” and remained steady following the British takeover.”[27] Finally, as aforementioned, Egypt lies at a geopolitical crossroads and has been of great interest to a number of external actors going back to before the construction of the Suez Canal. As such, it enjoyed attention from and relations with various groups hailing from sub-Sahara, the Levent, Europe, and the Gulf most directly.

            A final point to explore in the effort of determining the true extent of Egyptian statehood and autonomy is the administration of its internal affairs/civil society of the state. This differs from the above section on government and the author has chosen to explore these two aspects — policymaking (government) and administration of the civil society — independently. Critically, it is important to understand what is meant by civil society for this paper, as the topic is broad and can include many aspects; in the interest of brevity and this paper’s focus, two aspects of civil society will be explored — the administrative bureaucracy and education. Turning first to the bureaucratic apparatus of the Egyptian state.

Even before the British occupation, the Egyptian army was one of the major bureaucratic powers and ‘Urabi was brought into the Ministry of the Interior. Following the Anglo-Egyptian War, the Army had been disbanded as a threat to the peace and British officers. However, it soon became clear that the” restoration of public order and security” was essential for the effective control of Egypt and the Army was reconstituted under strong British oversight.[28] While command of the Egyptian Army was indigenous, “British officers seconded from the British Army” were embedded within the force as supervision. Additionally, on the matter of law enforcement, “a mobile gendarmerie under British guidance [was established] for the policing of rural districts” which not only demonstrates a British interjection into the internal affairs of the Egyptian state but also highlights an extension of British involvement and control beyond population centres.[29] By 1894, the Egyptian Prime Minister, then Riyad Pasha, attempted to wrest control of the military away from the British and break the Egyptian’s obedience to Royal Officers, however, this move led to his political downfall. Prime Minister Riyad had been no stranger to the see-saw of power which existed between the British and the Egyptian centres of power; during his early years, the Prime Minister “conced[ed] Great Britain a free hand in the Ministries of Finance and War…” and ceded control of the Ministry of Public Works partially to the British for Egyptian control of the Ministries of Justice and the Interior.[30] However, during his second term in the 1890s, Riyad acquiesced to the British, undoing the autonomy he had fought for six years prior, and allowed a British Advisor to the Ministry of the Interior. This appointment strengthened the “comprehensive system of British control over the whole administration.”[31] In the decades between the Anglo-Egyptian War and World War I, both the legislative and executive departments of the Egyptian government and the civil service was retained, To retain the puppet government, “Egyptian officials held administrative positions, at least in name, although they were subject to varying degrees of control by the British,” whose control of Egypt grew expanded over time.[32]

            Undoubtedly, control of the levers of policymaking and administration is critical when occupying a foreign government. Equally important, however, is the education system as its curriculum can have important impacts on training the future generation. In the case of British occupied Egypt, the educational policies (or rather, lack thereof) were critical to undermining Egyptian statehood and furthering British control. Firstly, over the course of 30 years, only two percent of the Egyptian revenue was spent on education, which represents a low level of spending. It is then no surprise that this education was not only inadequate and lacked instruction in practical and technical skills, but also not widely accessible by the public at large.[33] In Egypt, western-style reforms to education were welcomed by the people and their creation predated the English arrival. However, under the British, extensive reforms were made including, the requirement of tuition at government-run schools and the introduction of English as the language of instruction.[34] The British also directly supervised schools (mainly elementary), working to improve cleanliness and the quality of instructors with limited success; in the waning years of the ‘Veiled Protectorate,’ the British supervised 4,432 schools (which accounted for 156,542 students) which was up from 301 schools during the first year of occupation.[35] In regards to higher education (or even secondary education), the British were less concerned, but it is worth mentioning enrollment openings in these institutions was limited and extremely popular with young men, who saw education as a stepping stone to the civil service. However, even if a young man was lucky enough to get a spot, “he was in constant competition with the foreigner, or more generally, his education prepared him to hold subordinate government positions. Here again, he was in competition competed with the Englishman.”[36]

            This section explored the role of the British during the ‘Veiled Protectorate’ and attempted to assess its autonomy. Overall, British control over the important facets of the state was crippling enough to deny the Egyptians the right to function as an independent state. While there was some promise at the onset of occupation that British interference would be limited and short-lived, by the 1890s, the British had considerable influence over the education system, civil society, and government function, in addition to economic/debt control which predated the Anglo-Egyptian War (as discussed in Section I). By 1914, the legal grey area of the British occupation was fully resolved with the wartime proclamation of Egypt as an official British Protectorate.

Change of Status: Official Protectorate     

With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, Europe was plunged into a war that the world could not escape. Nearly six months after this tinderbox incident, the British calmly declared:

His Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs gives notice that, in view of the state of war arising out of the action of Turkey, Egypt is placed under the protection of His Majesty and will henceforth constitute a British Protectorate. The suzerainty of Turkey over Egypt is thus terminated, and His Majesty’s Government will adopt all measures necessary for the defence of Egypt, and protection of its inhabitants and interests.[37]

Soon after this announcement, the British disposed of the current government and appointed one that was more sympathetic to the British.[38]  This action had made formal a British takeover almost thirty years in the making. Despite assurances from the British that the establishment of the Protectorate was done to safeguard the Egyptian people, the expansion of the Empire to another corner of the world, especially one so strategic during the War as Egypt, was welcomed by the British. As a protecting power, the British committed to the full defence of the Egyptian people, both in Northern Africa and even abroad, denying even more autonomy from the Egyptian government. Whatever burden this protection resulted in, the benefits far outweighed any cost. Almost immediately, the British took control of Egyptian foreign relations, expressing matter-of-factly that “‘His Majesty’s Government deem it most consistent with the new responsibilities assumed by Great Britain that the relations between Your Highness’s Government [The Khedivate] and the Representatives of Foreign Powers should, henceforth, be conducted through His Majesty’s Representative in Cairo.”[39] The Dispatch goes on to declare a continued British presence in the internal affairs of the state for an undetermined amount of time. Finally, as a quick aside—as evidenced by the selected quote above, the attitude of the British surrounding the establishment of this protectorate was that they were somehow doing the Egyptians a massive favor for which the indigenous peoples should be thankful. Lastly, the protectorate had no end date and the British maintained that troops would only remain in Egypt until they could be safely withdrawn. This, as well the language of the official declaration of the proclamation “also offered [an] opportunity for misinterpretation [as] the Egyptians looked on it [the Protectorate] as a war measure, while the Englishmen say it was a satisfactory settlement of Egyptian affairs which could be revised at leisure.”[40] By the end of 1914, the British had control over the entirety of the Egyptian government, civil service, education, and economy, and also enjoyed military supremacy with the deployment of the British armed forces to ‘protect’ Egypt from the War. This control was further reinforced by the self-evidently titled Disarmament Act of 1917 which further curtailed those the British were there to protect. It is then no wonder that anti-British resentment had become to reach a fever pitch.


What was supposed to be a wartime effort outlived the conflict by almost three years. In February 1922, the British issued the Unilateral Proclamation of Egyptian Independence which in theory established and promoted Egyptian sovereignty. However, like much of the past British history, there were some critical caveats in the declaration which undermined the true intention of the announcement. The most glaring of these caveats were the four reservations from the Protectorate period that the British kept for themselves; there were: “(a) security of the communications of the British Empire in Egypt; (b) The defence of Egypt against all foreign aggression or interference, direct or indirect; (c) The protection of foreign interests in Egypt and the protection of minorities; (d) The Soudan.”[41] With British control in these four areas, it not only still perpetuated the colonial narrative in Egypt but also left the newly declared independent state of Egypt very little power in governing her own affairs.

            Unsurprisingly, during the latter years of the War and into the post-War period, genuine hatred towards the  British occupation and policy fueled unrest. In some situations, local leaders sought to profit off this discontentment and use the British as a scapegoat, however, more commonly, the discontentment fueled nationalist movements which radiated out from youth and student groups. While Egyptian nationalism is too broad a topic for this paper to even attempt to address, it is important to highlight the powerful impact it has had on historic and contemporary events in Egypt (and beyond) and what the role of the British was in all of it.

            While the power balance between the British and the Egyptians would slowly start to shift into the latter’s favor, full British withdrawal did not occur until the 1950s — nearly 70 years after the ‘temporary’ occupation began.

            In some regards, however, it would almost seem that Egypt was destined to mold itself into a European-like state beginning with Muhammad ‘Ali whose reforms allowed his grandson to remark “‘my country is no longer in Africa, we are now a part of Europe.”[42] While the once-mighty British Empire has now been reduced to a small island in the North Sea, there is no denying that “whether for good or bad, for humanitarian or for selfish motives, the non-Western world was uprooted and made over during this time” and it is now time for contemporary and future generations to make sense of what the past means for the future, especially in places such as Egypt.


Declaration to Egypt by His Britannic Majesty’s Government (February 28, 1922).

Editorial Board. “Egypt a British Protectorate.” The American Journal of International Law 9, no. 1 (January 1915): 202-204.

Fletcher, Max E. “The Suez Canal and World Shipping.” The Journal of Economic History 18, no. 4 (December 1958): 556-573.

Gorman, Anthony. “International Thought, Local Practice: Life and Death in the Anarchist Movement in 1890s Egypt.” in The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance eds. Marilyn Booth and Anthony Gorman. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Marlowe, John. A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations: 1800-1956. Hamden: Archon Books, 1965.

McCarthy, Justin A. “Nineteenth-Century Egyptian Population.” Middle Eastern Studies 12, no. 3 (October 1976): 1-39.

McIlwraith, Malcolm. “The Declaration of a Protectorate in Egypt and its Legal Effects.” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 17, no. 1/2 (1917): 238-256.

Parsons, Timothy H. The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World Perspective 2nd Ed. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Russell, Mona. Middle East in Focus: Egypt. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013.

Skilling, Margaret. “Egypt and World War I.” The Historian 11, no. 2 (Spring 1949): 204-218.

Suez Canal Purchase Loan.” The Rothschild Archive. n.d..

Tignor, Robert L. “Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966. 

Tvedt, Terje. “The Nile and the British Road to Imperialism.” Al-Jazeera. June 12, 2011.

Winter, Michael. “Turks, Arabs and Mamluks in the Army of the Ottoman Empire.” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 72, no. 1 (1980): 97-122.

[1] “Suex Canal Purchase Loan,” The Rothschild Archive, n.d.,

[2] Robert L. Tignor, “Modernization and British Colonial Rule in Egypt, 1882-1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 12.

[3] Max E. Fletcher, “The Suez Canal and World Shipping,” The Journal of Economic History 18, no. 4 (December 1958): 556-573,

[4] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 12-13.

[5] Timothy H. Parsons, The British Imperial Century, 1815-1914: A World Perspective 2nd Ed. (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), 125.

[6] Mona Russell, Middle East in Focus: Egypt (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2013), 61.

[7] John Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt and Anglo-Egyptian Relations: 1800-1956 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1965), 125.

[8]Editorial Board, “Egypt a British Protectorate,” The American Journal of International Law 9, no. 1 (January 1915): 202-204,

[9] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 131.

[10] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 132.

[11] Parsons, The British Imperial Century, 91.

[12] Terje Tvedt, “The Nile and the British Road to Imperialism,” Al-Jazeera, June 12, 2011,

[13] Tvedt, “The Nile and the British Road to Imperialism.” 

[14] Editorial Board, “Egypt a British Protectorate.”

[15] Michael Winter, “Turks, Arabs and Mamluks in the Army of the Ottoman Empire,” Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 72, no. 1 (1980), 97-122,

[16] Winter, “Turks, Arabs, and Mamluks.

[17] Russell, Middle East in Focus, 55.

[18] Justin A. McCarthy, “Nineteenth-Century Egyptian Population,” Middle Eastern Studies 12, no. 3 (October 1976): 20,

[19] McCarthy, “Nineteenth-Century Egyptian Population,” 20.

[20] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 133.

[21] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 133.

[22] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 55.

[23] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 50.

[24] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 133-134.

[25] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule,65.

[26] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 66.

[27] Anthony Gorman, “International Thought, Local Practice,: Life and Death in the Anarchist Movement in 1890s Egypt,” in The Long 1890s in Egypt: Colonial Quiescence, Subterranean Resistance eds. Marilyn Booth and Anthony Gorman (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh University Press, 2014), 223,

[28] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 132.

[29] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 132.

[30] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 164.

[31] Marlowe, A History of Modern Egypt, 166.

[32] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 50.

[33] Margaret Skilling, “Egypt and World War I,” The Historian 11, no. 2 (Spring 1949), 204-218,

[34] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 325-348.

[35] Tignor, Modernization and British Colonial Rule, 330.

[36] Skilling, “Egypt and World War I,” 206-207.

[37] Malcom McIlwraith, “The Declaration of a Protectorate in Egypt and its Legal Effects,” Journal of the Society of Comparative Legislation 17, no. 1/2 (1917), 238-256,

[38] McIlwraith, “The Declaration of a Protectorate in Egypt.”

[39] McIlwraith, “The Declaration of a Protectorate in Egypt,” 239.

[40] Skilling, “Egypt and World War I,” 209.

[41] Declaration to Egypt by His Britannic Majesty’s Government (February 28, 1922),

[42] Parsons, The British Imperial Century, 124.


IGE Event: The Legacy of Empire for Russian Foreign Policy

By Stephan Raab

Looking at the map it is hardly possible to overlook the Russian Federation, a country spanning over two continents, connecting the Baltic Sea and the Pacific Ocean, extending from the Artic up to the Black Sea. However, nowadays, the heydays of old Soviet times seem to be gone. Where does Mother Russia locate itself in a global post-cold war world? Discussing the legacy of empire for Russian foreign policy, the Institute for Greater Europe has organized a new event as part of the Europe Lab in corporation with the EU-Russia Civil Society Forum.

This panel was joined by distinguished academics and renowned practitioners in the field of EU-Russia studies, including Professor Viacheslav Morozov, professor for EU-Russia studies at the Johan Skytte Institute Tartu, as well as Professor Vladislav Zubok, professor of International History at the London School of Economics and Dr. Aude Merlin, lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Each panelist provided an individual insight into the trajectories of Russian foreign policy, emphasizing the still geopolitical importance of Russia. Facing the demand for energy supply as the European Union depending upon, the Russian Federation and its abundance of natural resources those are still important factors to be considered, when dealing with this area of international relations.

Besides that, the discussion revealed the importance of contemporary history such as the Soviet Union and its demise, still shaping the perception and the behaviour of Russia in setting up its foreign policy. Considering the turbulences and ruptures of globalization after the end of the cold war, this discussion revealed the external demands and internal discussions of the Russian Federation, presenting the geographically speaking biggest country on the globe, searching for its position in that global map, in other words searching its strategy between the legacy of an empire and the desire to be considered as a global player. Facing rising interest in post-socialist and post-colonial studies, it can be assumed, that those debates about Russia´s global approach will be continued.

You can also watch the recording of the event here