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.