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Still fighting the history wars

Debates about Britain’s colonial legacy are not just a product of Brexit or woke politics – empire has always been contested.

By Hannah Rose Woods

We are often told, in the midst of the culture wars, that to dwell on the less congenial aspects of the British empire is to judge the past by today’s standards. For those who argue that so-called woke historians and activists are indulging in an excess of shame about Britain’s imperial history, atrocities such as the slave trade are remote episodes from a time when attitudes were very different to our own.

Yet, as Charlotte Lydia Riley points out in her new book, British imperialism is also “a very modern story”. The British empire reached its greatest territorial extent less than a century ago, in 1929. Colonial atrocities, such as those committed during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya (1952-1960), happened within many people’s living memories.

Imperialism continues to shape life in Britain today,  not just through the waves of migrants who arrived from Britain’s former colonies throughout the second half of the 20th century, nor through the imperial mentalities that have lingered in British politics and society into the 21st. “Britain is still a colonial power,” Riley writes, “because Britain still administers an empire,” encompassing around 270,000 people across 14 British Overseas Territories. While some of these islands are uninhabited, such as in the Chagos archipelago, they were not always so. “The story of the people who lived there shows that violence of empire continues to reverberate to this day.”

Imperial Island sets out to show how the empire has shaped Britain over the past 70 years, from the conglomeration of 500 million people who “stood alone” during the Second World War, to its disintegration in the postwar decades and ever-present aftermath today.

From the outset, Riley shows that attitudes to empire in Britain were always complex and contested. When the Mass Observation social research project sent out a questionnaire in 1942, asking respondents “What are your present feelings about the British empire?” and “Have they changed since war began?”, wartime patriotism contended with expressions of shame at the way Britain had acquired its colonies. With the country finding itself under threat of invasion, one respondent proclaimed, the British “tolerance of exploitation” was “coming home to roost”. Another recorded their discomfort with the tropes of imperialism – “the ‘far-flung flag’, Kipling, the pukka sahib”, and regretted that “the coloured peoples have so often been exploited”. Far from taking imperial loyalties to the “mother country” for granted, the researchers noted that “a number of people express surprise that the enthusiasm and solidarity of the empire with this country had proved as great as it has”.

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Riley provides some important corrections to the pervasive idea that postwar colonial atrocities have come to attention only in recent years, and that the British public remained largely unaware of what was happening “over there” at the time. Certainly, the British state repressed details of events such as the 1948 Batang Kali massacre, in which British soldiers killed 24 unarmed men in what is now Malaysia, for decades afterwards. Colonial records were systematically destroyed in Operation Legacy, between the 1950s and 1970s, to prevent evidence of wrongdoing being accessed by former colonies. The British state was still actively concealing its colonial history as late as 2011, when the government admitted under instructions from a court that a number of files had been kept and “migrated” back to Britain.

[See also: Europe’s race delusions]

But other events were matters of public record and outcry. Politicians such as Barbara Castle and Fenner Brockway fought to expose the 1959 Hola massacre in Kenya, in which 11 detainees were clubbed to death by guards at a colonial detention camp. One of the few Conservative MPs to take his own government to task in the House of Commons was none other than Enoch Powell. The Colonial Office collected numerous letters of complaint written to MPs by members of the public, including one that argued that the atrocities in Kenya differed “not in principle but only in number from those of the Nazis against the Jews”. Half a century later, journalists and documentarians would present “revelations” of torture and extra-judicial killings in Kenya as “far beyond what was known at the time”.

Decolonisation was not the linear process we are often told, in which Britain accepted the inevitability of the “wind of change”, as the prime minister Harold Macmillan termed independence movements in 1960. (Riley notes that Macmillan was so anxious about the controversy that was sure to erupt over the phrase in his speech in Cape Town that he apparently vomited with nerves before delivering it.) Ever since, Riley argues, we have read the postwar years backwards, as a time in which empire was everywhere felt to be “imperilled, fragile, falling apart”. But this was not how it looked to many people at the time.

As late as the end of the 1940s the Colonial Office had little sense that decolonisation was imminent, predicting only that some African colonies might attain a measure of self-government “by the end of the century”. While decolonisation had swept through British Asia, in the immediate postwar years territories in the West Indies and British Africa were brought under more direct control, as schemes were launched in an effort to make imperialism more profitable – in part to compensate for the loss of Asian resources. Even in the 1960s, as African nations were gaining independence, Britain was creating a new colony in the Chagos Islands and forcibly deporting its population.

Riley charts how, in the wake of decolonisation, imperialism continued to shape life in Britain, from racism and anti-immigrant sentiments to the festival of tabloid jingoism during the Falklands War, as well as neo-colonialist attitudes embedded in humanitarian organisations, which were brought into wider public consciousness through phenomena such as Band Aid and Live Aid. (Depressingly, a 2012 Oxfam survey concluded that the campaigns had been extremely damaging in the long term to British attitudes to African people, fostering patronising stereotypes and media coverage that even Bob Geldof came to find “exploitative” and “distasteful”.)

Neo-imperialist assumptions about Britain’s role in the world would resurface, too, in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “We are sitting here as if we still had an empire,” exclaimed Tony Benn during a debate in the House of Commons in 1998 over Operation Desert Fox – when America bombed Iraq with British support (but not the UN’s) – incredulous at the way US military might was enabling Britain to maintain this illusion.

The yearning for a vanished heyday of imperial power reached new rhetorical heights in the Brexit campaign in 2016. It has become a kind of received wisdom that the vote to leave the European Union was motivated by imperial nostalgia – an assumption that was fostered by the many extravagant invocations of Britain’s great and glorious global history by prominent voices in the Leave campaigns. Yet, as Riley notes, the Stronger in Europe campaign also drew on an image of Britain’s historic role as a global nation with “a proud history of reaching beyond its borders”, invoking traditional “British values” in defence of liberal internationalism. “The benign past of a happy, tolerant, internationalist Britain,” she writes, “was just as much a construction as the image of Britannia ruling the waves.”

Since Brexit, debates about Britain’s relationship to its imperial history have only grown more prominent and more divisive. Yet, if the history of empire in Britain that Imperial Island tells is a very modern one, Riley shows, too, that our “history wars” have a long history of their own.

Cabinet ministers have been complaining about no-platforming and student protesters since the 1960s, just as students have disrupted their speeches with shouts of “Fascist!”. Amid present-day debates over the toppling of statues such as that of the slave-trader Edward Colston, Riley cites a vicar in Bristol who questioned whether Colston was a figure fit to have been commemorated in the first place. While people might equivocate that Colston’s engagement in slavery had to be “set against his historical background”, the vicar argued, that historical background included many people in the 17th century who understood the nature of the slave trade and opposed it. He was writing in 1920.

Imperial Island: A History of Empire in Modern Britain
Charlotte Lydia Riley
Bodley Head, 384pp, £25

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[See also: The delusion of a new European empire]

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This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain