Why ‘Empire nostalgia’ is declining

Ignore Remainer academics and commentators – British people are not pining for empire.

James Heartfield

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Britain’s surprise decision to leave the European Union in the referendum of 2016 has encouraged many people to ask why the majority of voters rejected the advice given to them by the government and experts in economics.

Political scientists like the late Peter Mair, Matthew Goodwin and David Goodhart had long been explaining that popular disaffection with mainstream politics meant that the pro-EU stance of the political class was particularly disliked by voters. For reasons best known to themselves, most commentators refused to hear these sensible and well-founded conclusions.

Rejecting the actual evidence on popular disaffection with the EU, most academics and commentators latched on to bizarre and hate-fuelled prejudices about their fellow citizens to ‘explain’ why they had voted ‘the wrong way’. The most telling reaction was to blame the voters’ incipient racism for the Brexit vote.

The flaw in that reasoning was that negative sentiments towards migrants have generally been falling in Britain for decades now, and they fell more sharply in the period after the Brexit vote.

When they aren’t promoting their counter-factual belief that their fellow citizens have become more racist, those who were uncomfortable with the decision to leave the EU have argued that Britain is clearly mired in ‘Empire nostalgia’. This was the argument put in Fintan O’Toole’s anti-Brexit book Heroic Failure, by columnist and media professor Gary Younge, and by SOAS’s Eleanor Newbigin, among others.

A new YouGov poll commissioned by the Guardian has been reported with the headline ‘UK more nostalgic for Empire than other ex-colonial powers’. The Guardian’s report on the poll includes the factoid that ‘more than 30 per cent of British people are proud of the British Empire’.

But this is less remarkable than it appears. Thirty-two per cent thought that the Empire was ‘more something to be proud of’ (the question was actually ‘to be more proud of than ashamed of’). That means that 68 per cent did not think that the Empire was more something to be proud of. The plurality – 37 per cent – held the eminently sensible view that the Empire was something neither to be proud of nor ashamed of. And then, a fifth of Brits are woke enough to be ashamed of the British Empire.

The figure of 32 per cent who think that the Empire is more something to be proud of than ashamed of is hardly remarkable. Since Britain has for most of the past 300 years had an Empire, it is not easy to be proud of Britain’s history without that meaning the Empire, too. Are you proud of the way that the British Empire fought against fascism in the Second World War? Or are you proud of the role that the West Africa Squadron of the Royal Navy played in suppressing the slave trade in the 19th century? Do you feel a shiver of pride at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Day? These are not views that should put you outside of the mainstream of public opinion.

What about the direction of travel in public attitudes to the Empire? Though the discussion of ‘Empire nostalgia’ is framed as if it was obvious that a positive assessment of the Empire was on the rise, that is not the case at all. In fact, the same YouGov poll carried out in 2016 found that 44 per cent were proud of the British Empire. A better headline in 2020 might have been, ‘Marked decline in identification with the British Empire’. But that would disturb the prejudice that ‘Empire nostalgia’ is on the rise.

Those who fear the rise of Empire nostalgia are like people on a train who think that the station is moving away from them. They have not understood that it is they who are moving. The belief among academics and intellectuals that wider British society is in the grip of a yearning for the past are surprised that the rest of the country does not feel the same compulsion to decry the past. That does not mean that the popular reputation of the Empire is reviving – it is just not falling as fast or as hard as the critics would like it to.

How should we understand the shift in attitudes on the Empire? I would like to suggest that the substantial change driving attitudes to Empire is the transformation of the Labour Party, from a party rooted in a mass labour movement to what it is today: a more middle-class and somewhat alienated minority.

No institution in British society did more to popularise the Empire in the 20th century than the Labour Party. When popular disaffection with war was rising in 1915, it was the Labour Party that rallied Britons to back the war effort. When dismay at the prospect of another war was at its height in the late 1930s, it was Labour that won the people over to support the ‘People’s War’. Labour gave an anti-fascist gloss to the British Empire all through to the 1980s. Labour leaders were, generally speaking, patriots who identified with British influence in the world, seeing it as a force for good.

Behind those Labour leaders stood trade-union leaders who similarly identified with British success overseas. Baron Geddes of Epsom had been general secretary of the Post Office Workers’ Union from 1944 to 1957, and president of the Trades Union Congress in 1955. On 18 March 1969, he told the House of Lords that ‘the men who ran the trade-union movement… could be called patriots’:

‘They believed that they supported the government of the day, not because they were, in the left-wing words, “capitalist lackeys”, but because they believed that the good of the country in the long run, in the long term, was for the good of their members.’

Baron Geddes stood in the tradition of a long line of patriotic trade-union leaders going back to the railwaymen’s Jimmy Thomas.

The patriotic strand in the organised labour movement, and in the Labour Party, barely exists today. Margaret Thatcher’s determination to undermine the corporate status of the unions in the 1980s put paid to its influence. The Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did nothing to reverse the corrosion of the official – and patriotic – trade-union movement.

The decline of labour institutions had both destructive and liberating aspects. The popular patriotism of the trade-union movement was for the most part a conservative tradition, hostile to migrants and younger workers, supine to the employers.

The contemporary sentiment that British people should feel bad about the Empire is driven by a snobbish instinct that sees popular assertiveness as a bad thing in itself. Whenever people in Britain stand up for themselves, as they did in the referendum, the ‘decolonise the curriculum’ influenced academics see some portent of Empire nostalgia, the same way that a man with a hammer sees a world full of nails. They like the idea that people should go around feeling bad about things that their great grandparents might have done. This is an attitude that is entirely at home in the modern Labour Party, so pointedly at odds with the party that it has replaced.

What few seem to have noticed is that most people in Britain do not care about the Empire. They do not feel greatly motivated to glory in things that they never did, nor do they feel bad about bad things they never did. This is a wholly intelligent point of view. The one thing we know for sure about history is that it is what no longer exists.

James Heartfield is co-author of The Blood Stained Poppy, published by Zero Books. Order a copy here.

Picture by: Getty.

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Christopher Tyson

16th March 2020 at 9:47 pm

People have picked up on my comment below, and there are all kinds of avenues that we can go down. But really I was writing in support of the article, responding to the comment that someone made that ‘ In Africa only a fool would say that the British Empire was not an utterly good thing’. This is a provocative statement which cuts the ground from under the article. Such an uncritical defence of the British Empire invites those who disagree to respond with their own catalogue of all the terrible things that were done in the name of empire. We are then right back in the culturewars with each side using history to fight today’s political battles. I think that there are things that are ahistorically immoral, for example we can accept that there have always been wars, from a historical distance we can analyse some conflicts more dispassionately than others, but even within war there is conduct that we might find particularly barbaric, for example the slaughter of civilians or the mistreatment of POW’s. My view is that deciding whether the British Empire was a good or bad thing is not a sensible question. For example was the Norman Conquest a good thing? It was a transformative thing, it created societies and institutions, territories and relationships that did not exist before. Our idea of Africa today is an idea that was created by European colonialism. We are in the realms of counterfactual history if we ask what would the world look like if there had been no British Empire or scramble for Africa. The Normans did not leave Britain, they became part of the fabric of Britain. The British Empire could not be dismantled and the world return to a pre-empire state like a factory setting. Nonetheless Heartfield is asking something of us. He is asking those on the side of the enslaved and colonised to distance themselves from these questions and to regard them as historical questions. He is asking those who are proud and defensive about empire to see the full picture of what empire was, warts and all, he asking us to remove the history of the British Empire from the culturewars and place it where it belongs in the discipline of dispassionate history, it’s a big ask.

James Knight

16th March 2020 at 8:44 pm

Todays left agitators always paint us as prisoners of the past. Any example of racism today is portrayed as a legacy of Empire. Or a legacy of slavery in the US. Any racism that exists today has fuck all to do with Empire. I guess it is easier to fight a battle against a long gone Empire than locate and challenge the causes of prejudice in the here and now.

Paul Winfield

17th March 2020 at 9:52 pm

We have the same in Cyprus, mainly from Cypriots who moved to UK eons ago (living in / around London, claiming benefits) complaining about Colonialism and the dastardly Brits, even decrying the current Tory Govt!! If Makarios hadn’t been so keen to get Independence in 1960 and dilute the British influence, in favour of Hellenism (and Enosis, partition with Greece) then the country may well not have suffered the 1974 invasion and the following 46yrs of partition / distrust that have consumed such a lovely place.

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