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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Modern Britons grapple with the legacy of a lost empire

Winston Churchill image is defaced as multicultural post-Brexit UK seeks a new identity

The Winston Churchill corner at the Blighty UK cafe in north London. Paul Peachey / The National
The Winston Churchill corner at the Blighty UK cafe in north London. Paul Peachey / The National

The Blighty UK café located at the heart of one of London’s most diverse multicultural communities is a homage to Britain and its wartime leader, Winston Churchill.

A dummy of Churchill sits behind a table in the corner of the café wrapped in the red-and-white scarf of the local team Arsenal. A cardboard cut-out of the former prime minister wearing an apron is balanced on the stairs. But his looming presence has disappeared from a large mural on the building’s outside wall after vandals repeatedly attacked his image.

The picture - with the leader’s trademark two-fingered wartime salute – was defaced with graffiti declaring him “imperialist scum”, “warmonger” - and worse - before café owner Chris Evans had the wall repainted.

The episode highlighted how multicultural Britain continues to grapple with its imperial past as it repositions itself following the 2016 vote to leave the European Union – and how establishment icons of the imperial era are being reassessed.

“I’m a proud Britisher and wanted to create a British café,” said Mr Evans. “This type of incident shows that there’s always someone who says you shouldn’t be overtly British.”

The UK’s decision to leave the EU in 2019 has raised the prospect of Britain revitalising its links with former colonies as it re-orients its trading and political relationships. This potential resurgence of the importance of the Commonwealth – a group of 52 nations with historical links to the UK and home to more than two billion people - is encapsulated in Mr Evans’ plans for chain of cafes in London celebrating that association. At the moment, he has two.

The first branch in the Finsbury Park district of north London is focused on the UK and dominated by the presence of Churchill from quotes on the wall, to murals on the wall – to the cooked breakfast that bears his name.

Churchill, an unabashed imperialist whose political decline mirrored that of the Empire, remains a popular and instantly recognisable figure 73 years after he lost power.

A 2002 poll carried out by the BBC installed him as the country’s “Greatest Briton” owing to his premiership from 1940 to 1945. The film the Darkest Hour that charts his wartime leadership is playing to packed cinemas.

Yet – as the incident at the café reveals – his popularity has been tempered by his colonial attitudes and accusations of racism.

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Churchill’s statue outside parliament was defaced with red paint and a turf of grass placed on his head during anti-capitalist demonstrations in 2000. A man fined over the incident said he wished to “express a challenge to an icon of the British establishment”.

Churchill’s legacy is not alone in being challenged of imperial-era British statesmen with a vigorous campus campaign calling for the removal of statues of those tarnished by their roles in colonialism. More than 170 scholars last month signed a letter criticising Oxford University’s support for a project named Ethics and Empire, claiming that it amounted to an apology of colonialism.

A second branch of Mr Evans’ chain replaces Churchill with Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, which has also been targeted in a small online campaign because it “insensitively evokes the memory of the Empire”, according to the Times newspaper, and called for the café to be redecorated. The online petition – which was signed by some 70 people - appears to have been taken down.

Analysts said the protest was not supported by the wider public with a poll in 2014 suggesting that nearly 60 per cent of Britons thought that Empire was something to be proud of – and a third of those questioned wanted to see its return.

“The people criticising this café or even vandalising it were not representative of the British public as a whole,” said YouGov political researcher Chris Curtis. When pollsters ask about Winston Churchill the “first thing that would come to mind would be that he won the Second World War”.

Mr Evans, who sources his ingredients from Commonwealth countries, said he had no intention of redecorating and plans further cafes beginning with Kenya and Jamaica despite the cafes theme harking back to past that for many represents an era of brutality and oppression.

“It’s a nonsense. I have every right to celebrate our history and mark what we did – good and bad – rather than become bland. What should I change the name to, Coffee and Cakes?”

Blighty cafe boss Chris Evans says his chain celebrates the diversity of the Commonwealth. Paul Peachey / The National
Blighty cafe boss Chris Evans says his chain celebrates the diversity of the Commonwealth. Paul Peachey / The National

Mr Evans says he is not an apologist for empire, or a poster boy for insular Britain – he voted to remain in the European Union – and his employees are representative of the multicultural community.

Alongside the wartime friezes of World War Two air dogfights and Churchill’s most famous utterances, a poster appeals for charitable donations for a microfinance scheme for women in India and Rwanda.

Blighty UK – a slang term for Britain used by troops in the Second World War - opened five years ago in a part of London notable for its multiculturalism. The street includes an Ethiopian restaurant, a halal butcher.

The Finsbury Park mosque is just a few hundred yards away that was the target of one of five terrorist attacks in 2017. An alleged extremist is currently on trial accused of murdering Makram Ali, 51, and mowing down nine others by driving into them as they left the mosque in June last year.

The man on trial, Darren Osborne, is accused to have driven from his home in Wales to carry out the attack.

“It became very apparent to all of us that Finsbury Park is a cohesive community when everyone came out to show love and support after the attack,” said councillor Asima Shaikh, who represents the area. “We are a very diverse, multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith community but we are very cohesive in that diversity.”

The sentiment was echoed by a customer at the café, Mark Lalbeharry, a writer and Briton of Guyanese heritage, who said that the café had been unfairly targeted. “They’re trying to be different and it has a community spirit. It brings people together.”