March 1949. Four years after World War II and no end to austerity. Food rationing is still in force: a weekly adult ration includes two ounces of butter and tea, three pints of milk, four ounces of margarine, eight ounces of sugar, and an egg.

Conservative politician Harry Crookshank tells Parliament that ‘ever since it was first announced there has been hung over it a haze of rejoicing, as if everything were now finished, as if we were getting the product and as if the plan had already been carried out.’

What was he talking about and why does it matter now?

He was talking about the dawn of a sunlit idea. Two years earlier John Strachey (pictured, right), then Minister of Food, had announced a spectacular £25 million scheme: the Groundnut Scheme. The rationale was simple. With no end to food rationing in sight, Strachey sought a way to supply the nation with much-needed margarine and cooking oil. The source of this oil? Africa. The peanuts (or groundnuts) would be grown, squeezed, and the oil delivered to ‘the harassed housewives of Britain’—reducing UK fat imports by a third.

And so the groundnut scheme, and the groundnut dream began. An army of ex-soldiers and experts sailed to British-administered Tangyanika (today’s mainland Tanzania): engineers, agronomists, and mechanics—with a squadron of administrators in tow. The goal? Over six years, to cultivate 3.2 million acres of uncultivated land, an area the size of Connecticut. The dream? To turn a dust bowl to a nut bowl.

Yet confidence and incompetence quickly turned the nut-dream to a bad dream. One early report called on the scheme ‘to proceed immediately and in a headlong manner on an improvised basis’. And so it did. People plunged into planting nuts for the first growing season; whether the soil could grow the nuts, or if rain would water the nuts were mere trifles. Soon the inevitable occurred: a lack of rain turned the ground to a sheet of rock, and nothing short of an atom bomb would crack its crust.

Nuts refused to grow, but chaos flourished. The managing agents, the United Africa Company (UAC), managed to import second-hand tractors from the Philippines at the scheme’s start, the majority of which were broken by the year’s end. As a solution, engineering firm Vickers-Armstrong was asked to repurpose American Sherman tanks—after removing the armour and rebuilding them they became known as Shervicks. Part-tank, part-tractor, the engines of these ‘tranktors’ were soon fully ruined by the dust which blew in through their ventilation holes.

With expenses running at a brisk £1m a month, a public corporation, the Overseas Food Corporation (OFC) stepped in, transporting the scheme to a new plateau of inefficiency and waste. Journalist Alan Wood, in his book The Groundnut Affair, described the scene at the OFC’s base at the port of Dar-es-Salaam: ‘[I]t reminded me of a Marx Brothers film. Doors opened and shut, people popped in and out, telephones rang, worried secretaries searched frantically for papers which somebody else had just taken, a continual succession of cars drove up and drove off, all was bustle and confusion.’

After consuming many more peanuts than it produced, the scheme was finally scrapped in 1951 with losses of £36.5m. Much of the real groundnut scrap remains in Tanzania to this day, and if a hot, dry wind blows across the plain you might glimpse a Shervick stump poking through the sand, hiding a heap of metal cranks, pulleys, and pinions—lost emblems of a planned pipe dream.


Brexit shares many features of the groundnut dream. Experts were wrong about many things, but so was everyone else; bad advice was as bad as any advice. Just as Sherman tanks were repurposed to ‘bush-bash’ the Tanzanian plains, so the civil service, the media, and the public are being repurposed to ‘brexit-bash’ the EU. A cloud-bursting overconfidence pervades both schemes and both dreams, and a will to succeed that vanquishes all doubters, remainers, and realists (obstacles are mere “enemies” to be overcome). Behind each is the blind injunction to get the job done, with no thought to whether the job is worth doing, or even possible.

Echoing Harry Crookshank’s speech of 1949, since the Brexit result was announced ‘there has been hung over it a haze of rejoicing, as if everything were now finished’, when in fact nothing is finished and nothing has been decided. In the daily dose of Brexit bustle and confusion, Theresa May’s ministers fight like cats over competing versions of a bad dream; Brexit’s shock troops, the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), are a bankrupt shadow of their former selves; and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has only a vague call for a “jobs-first Brexit” in response, despite a thirst for change from its grassroots.

We’re stuck in a desert of disillusion neither Remainers nor Leavers can escape. Why? Because Brexit is only a meme, a politician’s dream, a harvesting of political emotion whose only rational kernel was a collective vote of no confidence in the future—with austerity continuing without end, with hope rationing still in force.

And it’s becoming clear that the ongoing Brexit boondoggle is merely an elite colonisation of the English interior—an interior hollowed out by decades of neoliberalism, creating an angry brittle mass demanding change and determined to take the rest of the UK with it. How does this internal colonisation work? Kenyan theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o writes in Decolonising the Mind that a key site of colonialism “was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world.” An elite mindset produced the groundnut scheme; a similar elite mindset has given us Brexit, providing the soil for the growth of anti-migrant rhetoric, nativism, and xenophobia.

So what does this teach us? To paraphrase anti-colonial leader Amílcar Cabral, we won’t get rid of Brexit by shouting insults at it. We need a process—a deeper process similar to decolonisation—that ends the ideological austerity imposed by neoliberal capitalism, battling causes rather than chasing the distorting rays of imaginary symptoms.

We need de-Brexification.

Comments (10)

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    And the groundnut scheme came about because a more effective scheme for producing food using cheap labour from Europe had just come to an end?

  2. Welsh Sion says:

    The Groundnut Scheme obviously didn’t cost peanuts – even in post-war Britain.

    And the British Brexit ‘negotiators’ are clearly nuts of the highest order. I’d even like to say ‘Nuts to Brexit!’

    You also missed a trick, Mr Editor with:

    “the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), are a bankrupt shadow of their former selves”

    Surely you meant:

    “the UK Independence Party (or UKIP), are a husk of their former selves”

    I’m retiring to a darkened room, now … any one care to join me?

  3. Alistair Livingston says:

    A whole factory was built in Dumfries to make fibre called Ardil from the groundnuts.

  4. Richard MacKinnon says:

    “Brexit shares many features of the groundnut dream”, and you know this, how Paul?
    What insight have you got that the rest of us don’t? Please, I would really like to read this book myself. Or is it that you are an academic and we are not? and we, the voters, would not understand such a complicated subject? Is that why you feel the need to educate us?
    “We need de-Brexification”. Please explain? My spell checker does not recognise the term and I don’t have a clue what you are on about. It might help if you stop using all the technical jargon. Keep it simple so the masses can understand you.

  5. paulw says:

    Hi Richard,

    Not an academic myself. Hope that answers most of your initial questions.

    I was frustrated with some of the analysis of Brexit – from both sides – that seemed to fall into two camps: i) throw insults or ii) throw statistics. I’m not sure if either approach persuades anyone to change their mind, or to think differently.

    I chose a simple historical example to compare with Brexit – because I think they have some things in common: the ‘haze of rejoicing’ when both projects were announced, the entrenched mindsets of the people involved, and the sheer waste of time, resources, and energy.

    But there are differences. The groundnut scheme is a very funny story. Brexit isn’t.

    1. Richard MacKinnon says:

      Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment.
      I used to have an opinion. I used to have lots of opinions on most things. The last few years I lost faith in what I believed and become cynical especially about things political. I admit to that and I think it is with some justification. But the reasons for my cynicism is not the point I want to make here.
      Recently I think I am coming out of this state of mind. (Sometimes I drift back into distrust and that is not a bad thing). I read articles now and look at them differently. Instead of trying to work out what the disasters are that lie ahead for us outside the EU I now ask myself, how do people know with such certainty these disasters are going to happen? My thoughts are now not so much about whether leaving the Customs Union is going to be a terrible thing but more, why are so many people such experts on a subject I until recently had never heard of?
      I now think that not having an opinion is a far healthier way to approach an argument, a subject, any subject. I am happier not having an opinion than having one. I like it. I think having too much certainty may blinker you to the opinion of other people and may cause you to miss their point of view. Mix cynicism and innocence and you have a good chance of understanding the plot and getting the jokes.

  6. Gary Cummins says:

    Come on Mike, if you are looking for excuses to knock the UK, this is a weedy one, or is it an example of a crazy UK – Colonial agricultural policy. If it is perhaps you can find something among the bonkers schemes devised by the EU, here’s Jenny Jones on the the subject:
    The most profound weakness of the EU, from the Green point of view, is that it is a super-sized top-down dogmatic project of endless industrial development and growth. It fosters the pointless carting of goods enormous distances, and it smashes local resilience and self-reliance. Often well-intentioned environmental policies are outweighed at every turn by the more fundamental drivers of its bid to turn the whole of Europe into a paradise for (environmentally damaging) agribusiness and industry.

    This flagship of the EU’s common agricultural policy is still damaging our remaining farmland. It is still ripping up sustainable traditional methods of farming in eastern Europe and replacing them with unsustainable heavily industrialised agribusiness. The bottom line is this: EU agricultural policy undermines its own environmental policy.

    Moreover, the EU is in effect (and, sadly, not unwillingly), at the mercy of big corporates and private interest groups, as I’ve previously argued. For example, look at the influence over many years of the car industry in pushing diesel, which has helped to poison the air in many of our towns and cities. Of course, the EU is now helping to clean our polluted air by threatening financial penalties, but this problem of killer air pollution was caused by the EU.

    The power of corporate lobbying is a constituent feature of the EU. There is no European public. There are still separate national publics, and there surely will be for as far ahead as we can see. This creates a paradise for lobbyists, who can (and do) act unhindered by media or public scrutiny to influence the places where real power lies in Brussels, that is with the commission and within the even-more-secretive council. The logic of the EU, if it is ever to be democratised, is to become a United States of Europe. The euro is a Trojan horse to achieve this goal of fiscal and political union. Either one needs to be a federalist, or one needs to ditch the EU. Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn and the rest are trying to have it both ways. It’s an unstable halfway house, and will fail, as in effect the euro has already failed.

    Mike, there is plenty to knock about the UK, but Cherry (or nut) picking one past agricultural experiment is not going to do, the EU can probably beat the UK hands down in disastrous farming policies.

    1. SleepingDog says:

      @Gary, then perhaps the European Union should not be seen as a singular entity, especially considering the conflicting policies you mention. Certainly there are those (including Greens) in DiEM25 who propose that the EU can be repaired, reformed and/or rebuilt.

      Nor need the EU be reduced to a federation with extensive opt-outs. Green environmental policies might reasonably include some authoritarian strands where democracy does not have the final say, or minorities might be coerced. Different kinds of decisions typically need different inputs, expertise and timeframes. The problem with instant referendums is treated in the episode “Majority Rule” in television series The Orville:

      In olden days, opposing generals might mutually agree the fields for their decisive battles, otherwise their wars might drag on, costs mount and their troops desert to take in the harvest. Perhaps the EU is like an agreed battlefield which constrains these warring interest groups, who wish to impose a clear and binding legal and policy framework favourable to their cause. Only unlike the battlefields of 20th Century Europe, millions of civilians and armed force personnel are not being killed or maimed in the process, nor a huge chunk of the living world devastated by weaponry.

  7. paulw says:

    Hi Gary,

    Mike didn’t write this, I did. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Common Agricultural Policy. It also has nothing to do with knocking the UK, or as Nigel Farage often says, ‘Talking the country down’ in one of his ever-popular soundoids. I hear what you’re saying about agriculture and big business – and you have a point- but it has nothing to do with what I wrote. (The CAP is agreed among member states, whereas the groundnut scheme was imposed on Tanzania.)

    My article is about applying the lens of colonialism to Brexit, and it’s about the ideological austerity that Brexit has imposed on the public sphere – such as the endless ‘will of the people’ nonsense.

    ‘The power of corporate lobbying is a constituent feature of the EU.’ – Really? More a ‘constituent feature’ of EU politics than American politics? I don’t agree. The EU has the power to stand up to corporations and does take action on cartels and antitrust violations. If you think the UK will have more power to stand up to multi-national corporations outside the EU then tell me how this will happen.

    I hear the Lexit argument that the EU is neoliberal but then you have to ask yourself: Has the EU always been neoliberal? The answer is no.

    I also fail to see how leaving the EU will reduce the power of corporate lobbying. Leaving the EU via a hard Brexit will only increase corporate power and slash workers’ rights. Just google ‘Liam Fox’ for proof.

    Liam Fox – Empire 2.0 & Africa:

    Liam Fox – Atlantic Bridge:

  8. Melissa West says:

    Interesting article.

    I usually take my Brexit news from eu referendum dot com which is probably the only sane voice in the wilderness. EFTA/EEA a.k.a. as the Norway Option has been well rubbished by both extremes so, at least for the time being, is out of play. Stephen Kinnock understands. Brexit is an exercise to preserve the unity of the Tory Party. Thank God for Michel Barnier and Sabine Wabey who, in spite of our arrogant political class in their bubble, are trying to point us in the right direction. The Press is ill-informed and as lazy as the political class and the electorate is content to think of other things. Only hope there will not be too many empty supermarket shelves when we leave. RoI has, with the aid of the EU, the problem in hand.

    Besides eu ref website, the EU Commission has published many notices to stake holders explaining that how the UK leaving the EU and Single Market, it will become a Third Country. It will not be business as usual and we will be doing it to ourselves. They do not need us more than we need them and Germany is not going to break the Single Market and the EU because of UK Government stupidity and division.

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