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Showcasing Empire’ Past & Present Or A Brief History of Popular Imperialism, from Britannia to Brexit

Promouvoir l’empire hier et aujourd’hui : la culture coloniale du Royaume-Uni, de Britannia au Brexit
Berny Sèbe


Peut-on établir un lien généalogique entre Britannia (au travers notamment de la chanson patriotique Rule Britannia composée par Thomas Arne en 1740) et le Brexit ? Bien que le concept de « Empire 2.0 » ait parfois été mis en avant parmi les raisons qui ont permis aux partisans du Brexit de rendre plausible le principe d’une sécession de l’Union européenne, les raisons sur le long terme susceptibles d’expliquer le choix de 52 % de la population britannique un jour de l’été 2016 ont souvent été négligées. Cela est d’autant plus surprenant qu’une approche du phénomène du Brexit sur la longue durée révèle des continuités saisissantes, étalées sur plusieurs siècles. Les progrès historiographiques depuis les années 1980, ont montré l’influence persistante de l’expérience coloniale sur l’ADN de la culture et des pratiques politiques au Royaume-Uni, reflétée en particulier par une large gamme de manifestations culturelles qui ont atteint de nombreux publics différents dans les îles britanniques — ce que John MacKenzie a nommé le « popular imperialism » (culture coloniale en français). Cet article explore l’hypothèse d’après laquelle cet attachement profond à l’empire a marqué la culture britannique à des degrés divers au moins depuis le dix-huitième siècle, et a trouvé un nouvel élan au sein des soutiens du Brexit, qui ont présenté de manière souvent implicite la force de l’héritage colonial, souvent présenté en tant que source de fierté, comme une option alternative au projet européen. Considérant l’évolution de la culture britannique sur les trois derniers siècles, cet article offre une perspective renouvelée sur les dynamiques à long terme ayant rendu possible ce qui semblait tout simplement impensable : que l’un des pays figurant parmi les plus ardents défenseurs de la coopération européenne et du marché commun dans l’après-guerre, décide un jour de tourner le dos aux idéaux qu’il avait si activement promus — par exemple, en tant que membre fondateur du Conseil de l’Europe.

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‘England is insular, it is a maritime country, it is linked, by its trade, its markets, its networks, to the most diverse countries, and often the farthest ones.  . . . It displays in all its work patterns extremely specific, and original, customs and traditions. In short, the nature and structure, the conjuncture which are peculiar to England, differ profoundly from those of the Continent.’

1Readers could easily be forgiven if they think that we owe the above lines, outlining Britain’s singularity in Europe, to Boris Johnson extolling to his European friends and partners the benefits of having Britain out of the EU, on its doorstep, but both feet out, thanks to a clean and hard Brexit. Such an appraisal could equally have been delivered by Nigel Farage, still digesting the fact that his political victory has meant that he was losing a sizeable chunk of personal income from the EU, revenue which came with no string attached since he received it without expecting that Brussels or Strasbourg would seek to get anything from him, apart from trouble, in return.

2In fact, this appraisal was offered by French president Charles de Gaulle, justifying his decision, on 14 January 1963, to veto the principle of a British accession to the UK (de Gaulle). He would do so again in 1967, and Britain would not be able to join what was then the European Economic Community until 1973, four years after the French General’s departure from power. Whilst some may have forgotten that Britain’s trajectory into the EU was rather a chequered one, this relatively inauspicious start was echoed by an equally anti-climactic departure on 31 January 2020, after a protracted three years of internal political wrangling which saw the concept of Brexit, or British exit from the EU, taking all the hues of a rainbow, with all different tonalities, ranging from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’, and looking either like a menu (‘will you have your Brexit with or without common market? Would you have an extra serving of the student exchange programme Erasmus+?’) or like a bad play, often tapping into Shakespeare. Thus, one could read ‘This England never did, nor never shall, Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror, [. . .] nought shall make us rue, If England to itself do rest but true’ on a pro-Brexit leaflet, whereas Remainers opted for a more sober ‘Much ado about Brexit’.

3The same de Gaulle had apparently confided to his biographer Alain Peyrefitte, the very year when the Elysée treaty was signed with Germany, that Britain would not ‘enter the European Community until it has repudiated both its imperial dreams and its symbiosis with the Americans. In other words, until it will be converted to Europe’ (Peyrefitte 356). De Gaulle hastened to add that he was convinced indeed that Britain would finally make the journey towards becoming European, and that the country would eventually join the EEC. The referendum of 23 June 2016 proved that if his initial views on Britain’s relationship with Europe were right, in fact he proved wrong when trying to predict the direction of travel of British public opinion: with 51.89% of voters, or just above 17.4 m voters choosing to leave the EU, as opposed to 16.1 m, or 48.11%, opting to remain, a small majority of the British public decided that Britain’s future was better outside of the EU, than as part of the largest free-trade area of the world. This seemed to be an unexpected course, to say the least, for a country that had so often been the champion of free trade, very frequently to the despair of its Continental rivals. This choice was confirmed on the occasion of the early general election of December 2019, which returned a majority of eighty MPs in favour of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives. Whilst the first-past-the-post electoral system decidedly skewed the result, with only 48% of the vote going to openly pro-Brexit parties (therefore excluding Labour which, with the rest of the opposition, has gathered around 52% of the votes), the path to ‘Get Brexit done’, as the Conservative electoral slogan put it, lay wide open.1

4Therefore, it is fair to say that Britain is a country which has not voted to leave the EU in a ‘fit of absence of mind’ (to paraphrase John Robert Seeley, of whom we will hear more below). To a small majority of the British population, Brexit appears as a project, the same way as, in John Darwin’s words echoing those of Adam Smith, the British Empire was ‘the project of an empire’. Could it be that Brexit was in the end the twenty-first century equivalent to Henry VIII’s decision to secede from Rome? Beyond blaming Britain’s current electoral system which has provided perhaps a skewed representation of the ‘people’s will’, as it is so widely referred to these days, there are some legitimate grounds to look for reasons explaining the persistence of the British public’s aloofness, or even open hostility, towards the European project. A lot has been said in liberal circles about fake news and the media brainwashing the average British voter into opting out of something that they did not really understand. Whilst this might be applicable in some cases, there is no doubt that voters had at least some understanding of the alternative project they were supporting. Was the past, especially in its colonial form, sending palatable echoes to a significant fringe of British voters, who were lured into the prospect of an ‘Empire 2.0’? Could it be that the British bulldog was biting back, perhaps for the wrong reasons, but answering nonetheless an atavistic call?

5As a historian of the British empire who, from a historiographical perspective, belongs decidedly to the camp of the MacKenzie-ites, perhaps of the sub-type of the MacKenzie-ites sans frontières (Sèbe 2019), and therefore believes in the pervasive influence of the colonial experience on British culture, beliefs and values—what MacKenzie has termed the ‘imperial mindset’, one question becomes inescapable: could it be that all these sediments accumulated over centuries of overseas ventures, these echoes of ‘Britannia rules the waves’, played a role in shaping the 21st-century British worldview, singularly vis-à-vis the major political project of the post-war period, the EU? Could it be that not-too-distant memories of empire have made it easier for the overwhelming majority of UK newspapers to develop a fiercely anti-European, jingoistic tone to the delight of their readers?

6More broadly, can a genealogy be established between Britannia (Thomas Arne composed Rule Britannia in 1740) and Brexit? Whilst the concept of Empire 2.0 has often been used to engage with the range of reasons put forward by Brexiteers to support the principle of a breakaway from the EU, commentators have often neglected the long-term ramifications of the feelings of pride and nostalgia towards a time when, as the word goes, the ‘sun never set on the British empire’. Yet, such feelings may have played a role in the choice of 52% of the British population in the summer of 2016.

7The case for such a perspective is compelling. A longue durée approach reveals robust continuities over several centuries. Historiographical developments since the 1980s, in the wake of MacKenzie’s Propaganda and Empire, have pointed towards the persisting influence of the imperial experience on the DNA of British culture and politics. It is now beyond doubt that a broad range of cultural manifestations reaching large constituencies of the population of the British Isles contributed to the creation of an intellectual and political climate congenial to the blossoming of feelings of exceptionality about Britain’s destiny.

8In other words, did Britannia lead in some way, perhaps via a couple of detours, to Brexit, as some scholars have started to argue recently? (Ward and Rasch; Dorling and Tomlinson) More broadly, can historians contribute in meaningful ways to the soul-searching exercise that events in the last three years have inevitably led liberal thinkers to undertake? This was the case both in the wake of the June 2016 referendum and its sequel, the 2019 general election that gave Boris Johnson an unprecedented level of control over the legislative and executive future of the country, with a clear mandate to implement Brexit, ending the parliamentary limbo brought about by the deep divisions running through the Houses of Parliament about that matter throughout the summer of 2019.

9This paper is based on the hypothesis that this deeply rooted attachment to the Empire has been running consistently (although at varying degrees) at least since the eighteenth century and has found a new lease of life among supporters of the Brexit process, who have celebrated often implicitly, but also explicitly, the strength of the imperial legacy as a suitable and preferable alternative to the EU project, therefore giving vital historically-fuelled momentum to their movement. Spanning three centuries of British cultural history, this paper offers a reflection about the long-term dynamics that have made the unthinkable possible: that one of the leading proponents of post-war European cooperation and free trade, would decide one day to turn its back to the ideals it had actively promoted—for instance, as a founding member of the Council of Europe. Such a radical U-turn is bound to have deeper roots than a skewed parliamentary representation or an unexpected referendum result, and we will be exploring three key themes in the following pages.

10First, under the heading of Britannia, we will consider the ways in which Britishness has taken shape hand in hand with imperial expansion, and how, conversely, the empire has been a major conduit for the emergence of this composite identity, gluing, sometimes with a bit of pressure that was not always welcome at the receiving end, the four constitutive nations of the United Kingdom.

11Secondly, under the concept of ‘Bringers of Progress’, we will examine how imperial thinking fuelled a deep belief in the exceptionalism of British imperialism—a claim that would lay the ground for the third and last stage of our journey, which is Brexit. We will see how the rise of Brexit ideals was fuelled by what I call here the triumph of the ‘Absent-Minded “Civilizer”’ in the postcolonial era.

12Finally, as a concluding coda, we will ask whether Brexit Britain could be seen as a new Brutus, condemned as it is to reinvigorate memories of past imperial grandeur, and the subjugation of others that came with it, to justify its claim for its own national independence, in a blatant example of historical collision that does not fall short of irony.

Britannia: Where It all Started?

13Whilst it might have become less fashionable to celebrate it ever since British policy-makers calculated that an orderly retreat from Empire was preferable to a string of costly wars against independence fighters around the world, the notion of Empire has been historically very closely associated with the concept of Britishness. Even if it was nowhere to be found in the open in the post-colonial period, it still remained almost everywhere. When considering what it takes to be British, or even more generally what makes a British person, the Empire could never be too far. At times, it could even be at the heart of people’s homes, especially when their own lives had included significant spells under imperial skies (Longair and Jeppesen). Ever since the Act of Union of 1707, the Empire offered an outlet to glue the four nations of the United Kingdom, alleviating the tensions between England and its other three junior partners, who resented the former’s leading role, often to their detriment. Among the four nations, the Scots played a significant role in the administration of the empire, as recent scholarship has highlighted, bridging a historiographical oversight that is revealing in itself, as far as the Anglocentrism of Britain is concerned (MacKenzie and Devine). We also know that the Irish contributed to the population of both settler colonies and the ‘Anglo-world’ in general (Kenny; Belich). David Armitage has underlined the close relationship between empire, nationalism, patriotism and national identity, especially revolving around the Anglo-Scottish union of 1707, and the associated hallmarks of national identity that crystallized the ‘British state and empire’, which he has identified as being primarily the Union flag (often featured on overseas flags, until the present day), ‘God Save the King’ and ‘Rule, Britannia’ (Armitage 170)—the imperial echoes of which resurfaced on the occasion of the controversy around the inclusion of the piece in the BBC’s Night of the Proms in the summer of 2020.2 One might add to the list the very fact that many key identity-related elements, some of which formed part and parcel of everyday life, sometimes made direct reference to the Empire: one of the most blatant examples being the ‘imperial system’ of measurements.

14The way in which the empire was ‘showcased’ in the past might explain why its long shadow has influenced current reflections on the subject, sometimes reverberating until the present day. In that context, reading Seeley might offer a key to understanding the reason why Brexit has enjoyed higher levels of support in England than in any of the other constitutive nations. He began his first lecture on The Expansion of England developing the following argument, which would certainly inspire many a Brexiteer these days: the exceptionalism of British history in the past means that, in the present, it cannot tolerate to be put on equal footing with a country such as, let us say, Holland:

It is a favourite maxim of mine that history, while it should be scientific in its method, should pursue a practical object. That is, it should not merely gratify the reader’s curiosity about the past but modify his view of the present and his forecast of the future. Now if this maxim be sound, the history of England ought to end with something that might be called a moral. Some large conclusions ought to arise out of it; it ought to exhibit the general tendency of English affairs in such a way as to set us thinking about the future and divining the destiny which is reserved for us. The more so because the part played by our country in the world certainly does not grow less prominent as history advances. Some countries, such as Holland or Sweden, might pardonably regard their history as in a manner wound up. They were once great, but the conditions of their greatness passed away, and they now hold a secondary place. Their interest in their own past is therefore either sentimental or purely scientific; the only practical lesson of their history is a lesson of resignation. But England has grown steadily greater and greater, absolutely at least if not always relatively. It is far greater now that it was in the eighteenth century; it was far greater in the eighteenth century than in the seventeenth; far greater in the seventeenth than in the sixteenth. The prodigious greatness to which it has attained makes the question of its future infinitely important and at the same time most anxious, because it is evident that the great colonial extension of our state exposes it to new dangers, from which in its ancient insular insignificance it was free. (Seeley, lecture 1).

15Seeley’s series of lectures was influential, in terms of both print run and longevity. 80,000 copies were sold in the first two years following its launch in 1883, and the title still sold as many as 11,000 copies in 1919, twenty-five years after its author’s death. Whilst the annual figure dropped to 3,000 in 1931, it still remained in print until the Suez crisis, and underwent a new edition in 1971 (Thornton 51; Gross in Seeley [1971 ed.], xii). The commercial success of The Expansion of England, as well as Seeley’s role in the founding of British imperial history, indicate that Seeley’s ideas percolated into national self-representation, and influenced several generations of British people when it came to reflecting about the uniqueness of their country’s trajectory (Burroughs).

16As reflected in Seeley’s above-mentioned opening quote, evidence suggests that the development of the feeling of belonging to the British nation—what Benedict Anderson has famously called an ‘imagined community’ (Anderson)—was deeply influenced by the belief in national superiority, relying essentially on its clout as a maritime superpower at the time. Historians of British nationalism such as Linda Colley and David Cannadine have given the empire a central role in their narratives about how Britain was forged as a nation, or how ‘Ornamentalism’, namely how the British saw themselves and their empire, trickled down also at home (Colley; Cannadine). As Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger have argued, the British monarchy played a leading role in the ‘invention of tradition’ throughout the nineteenth century, and within it, the empire played a central part (Hobsbawm and Ranger).

17For his part, drawing on the school of thought pioneered by MacKenzie’s Propaganda and Empire (first published in 1984), Andrew Thompson has shown how support towards the empire included ‘various strands of discourse’ and levels of interaction, citing in particular ‘transnational family ties’, ‘international labour solidarity’ and ‘the adventure, excitement and spectacle of faraway and exotic places’, the appeal of which was mostly felt amongst the working classes (Thompson 240). More abstract political or economic concepts might have remained more exclusive but remained powerful markers of an imperial identity. Overall, Thompson has demonstrated conclusively how the British people ‘developed a remarkably rich relationship with their empire that markedly extended the boundaries of their domestic society’, rejecting in the process the idea that Britain was an ‘empire-free zone’ (Thompson 239). Whilst Thompson’s research focused essentially on the ‘New Imperialism’ of the nineteenth century, Kathleen Wilson has demonstrated in The Sense of the People that empire was also an element of British popular culture in the eighteenth century, a point which was central to the theories of the ‘new imperial history’ (Wilson).

18What John MacKenzie has termed an ‘imperial mindset’ (MacKenzie 2009) penetrated into the interstices of the British psyche, associating closely Britannia and the empire, as was perfectly encapsulated in the famous 1886 world map of the ‘imperial federation’ by Walter Crane which, in spite of some hidden second meanings, conveys a general celebration of the empire as a key constitutive element of what Britannia stood for (Biltcliffe). Through a variety of connections, ranging from the press to the economic sphere and politically-motivated arguments, the empire appeared as Britannia’s intrinsic ally. This association could crystallize around specific reputations attached to exemplary figures, such as imperial heroes widely celebrated as ‘standard-bearers’ of national greatness (Sèbe 2013). Politicians, and especially Conservative ones, took at heart to underline the close link between empire and national greatness: one famous example being Sir Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett, who argued passionately in favour of the empire, not only in Parliament but also in his successive constituencies of Suffolk and Sheffield and also spoke vociferously about British imperial responsibilities in the press. Again and again, the empire would become an essential element of Westminster’s political rhetoric. It is revealing that, upon delivering his famous speech known as ‘the Finest Hour’ on the 18th of June 1940, the very same day the French leader whose quote opened this text pronounced a speech that propelled him to posterity, Winston Churchill made a vibrant call to the British Empire in its concluding lines:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’. (Churchill)

19A considerable body of evidence suggests that Britannia emerged as a figure closely connected with imperialism, an association that would have far-reaching consequences up to the present-day. From that perspective, John MacKenzie has summarised the centrality of the imperial experience to British culture and thinking:

Popular imperialism was not a brief, jingoistic and aberrant phenomenon. It was a continuing factor in British society and politics from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries. If it had seemed invisible or non-functioning to many historians, it is simply because it was always there, a continuing tradition which inevitably underwent changes over time, but which contained more continuities of expression than have been recognized. (MacKenzie 1984, 82)

20In a movement similar to that of the ‘manifest destiny’ in the US, British imperial thinking developed the assumption that British imperialism, as a bringer of progress, was endowed with specific virtues that made it an exceptional political, military and economic achievement—a claim for exceptionalism that resonates until today.

Bringers of Progress: Imperial Thinking and British Exceptionalism

  • 3 All spelling and grammar idiosyncracies or errors were in the original text.

21As the ‘empire project’ took shape and gained more currency, giving rise to the largest and one of the most enduring colonial systems of modern times, another associated belief, which has been underlying a lot of the Brexiteers’ arguments recently, started to gain real traction among the wider British public: the idea that Britain had a unique legacy to give to the world, through its successes based upon the practice of imperialism. British exceptionalism could appear sometimes in rather crude forms, as when Cecil Rhodes defended the concept of a specific place in the world for the Anglo-Saxon race. In his so-called ‘Confession of Faith’ of 1877, the Oxford-educated diamond magnate, who gave his surname to two British colonies in Africa, formulated the ‘dream’ to create a ‘secret society with but one object: the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule’ (Rhodes). When he expressed regret at the fact that the United States (‘the finest [country] in the world’) had chosen to demand independence from Britain, he hastened to add that ‘even from an American’s point of view just picture what they have lost, look at their government, are not the frauds that yearly come before the public view a disgrace to any country and especially their’s’ [sic] (Rhodes). He subsequently asked rhetorically ‘Would they have occurred had they remained under English rule great as they have become how infinitely greater they would have been with the softening and elevating influences of English rule, think of those countless 000’s of Englishmen that during the last 100 years would have crossed the Atlantic and settled and populated the United States’ (Rhodes). 3

22On the one hand, Rhodes regretted the fact that the United States had decided, ‘owing to two or three ignorant pig-headed statesmen of the last century’, as he put it, to go their own way and therefore deprive the US of the benefit of British paramountcy, but also to write off a possible destination for British settlers, because the 1776 declaration of independence, and its outcome with the 1883 Treaty of Paris, brought the US off-limits for British projects in his view:

Does an English father when his sons wish to emigrate ever think of suggesting emigration to a country under another flag, never—it would seem a disgrace to suggest such a thing I think that we all think that poverty is better under our own flag than wealth under a foreign one. (Rhodes).

23On the other hand, Rhodes used his extreme nationalist perspective to advocate British expansion elsewhere, and not surprisingly given his professional and personal interests, on the African continent. He used this moment in his apparently unstoppable train of thought to deliver a direct strike at Britain’s long-standing rival, France:

Put your mind into another train of thought. Fancy Australia discovered and colonised under the French flag, what would it mean merely several millions of English unborn that at present exist we learn from the past and to form our future. We learn from having lost to cling to what we possess. We know the size of the world we know the total extent. Africa is still lying ready for us it is our duty to take it. It is our duty to seize every opportunity of acquiring more territory and we should keep this one idea steadily before our eyes that more territory simply means more of the Anglo-Saxon race more of the best the most human, most honourable race the world possesses. (Rhodes)

24This line of thinking would be echoed in countless interventions, especially by Tory politicians, over several decades. Thus, Joseph Chamberlain, known for his philanthropic efforts at home, with a view to improving the sanitation of the city of Birmingham, and as the founder of the University of Birmingham, claimed in March 1897 that ‘I maintain that our rule does, and has, brought security and peace and comparative prosperity to countries that never knew these blessings before.’ (Chamberlain). German-born and German-educated politician, colonial administrator and pro-colonial publicist Alfred Milner became a champion of British leadership in the era of ‘New Imperialism’. The man who was granted peerage in 1901 as Baron Milner of St James’s and Cape Town, in an association that reflected the central place of the empire in his trajectory, chose as his motto Communis Patria, or ‘patriotism for our common country’ (Lee Thompson 2014, 1). This choice was directly in keeping with his self-depiction as a patriot for the Anglo-Saxon Race. Milner celebrated in the British Empire ‘the power of incorporating alien races without trying to disintegrate them or rob them of their individuality . . . characteristic of the British imperial system’, insisting that it ensures its success not by ‘what it takes away, but what it gives’ and emphasizing that it opened ‘new vistas of culture and advancement, that it seeks to win them to itself’ (Milner xxxviii). A keen promoter of the empire, Milner could draw on his exchanges with his long-time friend W. T. Stead, editor of the Pall Mall Gazette, not only about his creed around government by journalism, but also his support for the empire, demonstrated repeatedly throughout his career. Milner’s most recent biographer has asserted that he was ‘a man moving against the current of history’ (Lee Thompson 2007, 9), which might have an element of truth by today’s standards, but is less clear on the longue durée, when considering that even a Liberal politician like Rosebery felt comfortable defending the principle of a ‘sane imperialism’, which in his view was akin to ‘a larger patriotism’ (Jacobson 86). Among the Liberal family, he had been preceded as early as 1869 (so even before Rhodes’s Confession of Faith) by Charles Dilke’s enthusiastic praise of the ‘grandeur of our race’ which he sought to demonstrate through his globe-trotting account around the English-speaking world, revealingly entitled Greater Britain (Dilke Preface).

25Such views, amply reported through a wide range of cultural productions ranging from films to books and newspaper articles, contained all the ingredients necessary to create a powerful superiority complex revolving around claims of exceptionalism and supremacy (Thomas and Toye). Fast forward a hundred years, once the dust of decolonisation has settled, and the revival of this rhetoric, as we shall see in the following paragraphs, tended to imply by contrast that EU membership would lead mechanically to a dilution of the unique genius of British values and practices. This is what I call the unexpected triumph of the ‘absent-minded “civilizer” in the postcolonial era’.

Brexit: The Triumph of the Absent-Minded ‘Civilizer’ in the Postcolonial Era?

26John Robert Seeley, whom we met earlier, once wrote that ‘we [the British] seem to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’ (Seeley 8). His view has been given a new lease of life when Bernard Porter chose it as the title for his book challenging (at least for the period running up to the 1880s) John MacKenzie’s theories about the extent and depth of ‘popular imperialism’ (Porter). Perhaps the second decade of the twenty-first century has given us a good reason to recycle the concept of absent-mindedness, and to examine whether Britain has experienced on this occasion a bout of imperial nostalgia and self-delusion that might have amounted to the triumph of the ‘absent-minded civiliser’, as a new embodiment of the ‘absent-minded imperialists’ of the late nineteenth-century.

27The outcome of the EU referendum of June 2016 has seemingly led to the resurfacing of old tropes that had somewhat disappeared under the veneer of a post-colonial, Liberal Britain specifically embodied by the Blair and Brown years (with the notable exception of the Iraq war of 2003). Emblematic of this resurgence is the episode when then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was heard in September 2017 reciting the first lines of Kipling’s arch-imperial poem Road to Mandalay whilst on a state visit to the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, where colonial memories remain raw and politically sensitive. This episode led local British ambassador Andrew Patrick to suggest to Britain’s top diplomat at the time that it was ‘probably not a good idea’ to recite them in this context—a claim that he reiterated seconds later, uttering ‘not appropriate’.4 Yet the very fact that the situation happened in the first place, and that the ambassador’s mission in Burma ended a few months later, with Patrick subsequently becoming an advisor working remotely from Bangkok for the Department for Digital Culture, Media and Sport, was a tell-tale of changing attitudes towards Britain’s imperial past. As the British government, backed by an ever-evolving political landscape, opted gradually for a more clear-cut divorce from the EU, secretary of state for International trade (2016–2019) Liam Fox returned to old friends in the Commonwealth and in the Anglosphere to woo them to sign free trade deals with the ex-metropolis. Speaking at the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington to extol the benefits of a post-Brexit UK-US free trade agreement, Fox was eager to celebrate the ‘golden economic opportunities of the future’ presented by ‘the rise of the collective wealth of developing countries’, which referred to Asia-Pacific and Africa, where most of the former members of the British empire are located (Fox).

28It seems fair to say that the long shadow of empire has gained a renewed influence on the world-view of many British politicians in the twenty first century. Even a mundane issue such as the question of visas and migratory opportunities could give rise to a bout of imperial nostalgia (combined with patriotic elan) in the eloquence of then London mayor and not-yet-Brexit supporter, Boris Johnson:

In 2013 I visited Australia and was reminded of the myriad enduring bonds between ‘the English-speaking peoples’, to use Churchill’s phrase. I was also struck by the strength of the Australian economy. A year previously I had been in India, marvelling at its economic growth and yet wondering why Britain’s share of Indian trade remains so relatively small. Recent data from Africa shows an economic renaissance across that continent. It seems that almost all parts of the Commonwealth are brimming with a new energy and optimism, at precisely the time that the European Union is struggling. As we reconsider Britain’s place in the world, I want us to reconsider how we engage with Commonwealth peoples. I have proposed a bilateral migration agreement between Australia and the UK, which if successful could be extended to other Commonwealth countries too, and I am pleased that Commonwealth Exchange has started to examine this idea. The UK has bonds of history, language, law, family and customs across the world and we would be foolish not to make more of these at this time of profound global economic revival. (Johnson 2014)

29The rhetoric developed here resurfaced on many occasions in the lead-up to, and after the Brexit vote: the close cultural and linguistic connection with the kith and kin of the ex-White dominions, the soft power over ‘third-world’ countries which were formerly part of the British empire, the rule of law as a specifically British legacy, or the representation of the Anglosphere as a family that longs to be reunited after Britain’s perceived betrayal when it joined the EU in 1973. This world ‘brimming with a new energy and optimism’ was usually contrasted with a ‘struggling’ EU, as Johnson did it in the above-mentioned text. As the author of the booklet which Johnson introduced stated in his concluding remarks:

[I]t would be shameful and a deep error to disregard the shared language, similar legal system, and customs that the Commonwealth family provides. UK soft power will be significantly weakened if we ignore the Commonwealth and its potential. (Hewish)

30Many leading Conservative figures have adopted a similar stance over the years, among them former party leaders William Hague and Michael Howard, as well as former ministers David Willetts, John Redwood, Norman Lamont or the already-mentioned Liam Fox. During his own trip to Australia in 2013, to which he referred in the above quotation, Boris Johnson argued that ‘when we joined the Common Market, we in effect betrayed our relationships with Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand’ (cited in Parker).

31Whilst imperial nostalgia associated with Brexit longings has been mostly the preserve of the Tories or the far right in recent years, Labour has not been immune to it either. If Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hidden Brexit sympathies may have been influenced by his scepticism towards Brussels’s perceived liberalism, some of his predecessors openly used the imperial card to justify their hostility to closer partnership with Europe. The Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell argued at the 1962 Labour party conference that joining the then European Community meant both ‘the end of independence’ for Britain and no less than the ‘end of the Commonwealth’. Britain would become a mere ‘province’ in a federal Europe, bringing to an end ‘a thousand years of history’, Gaitskell argued, before advocating that

We have a different history. We have ties and links which run across the whole world, and for me at least the Commonwealth, the modern Commonwealth, which owes its creation fundamentally to those vital historic decisions of the Labour Government, is something I want to cherish. [. . .]
I am the last person in the world to belittle what we might call the old Commonwealth. When people say, ‘What did we get out of New Zealand; what did we get out of Australia; what did we get out of Canada?’, I remember that they came to our aid at once in two World Wars. We, at least, do not intend to forget Vimy Ridge and Gallipoli; we, at least, do not intend to forget the help they gave us after this last war. Harold Wilson will remember the loans from Canada, the willingness of New Zealand and Australia to accept very low food prices to help us out year by year.
Then we have the new Commonwealth. Why, what a comment it is that some people should be ready, no sooner is it created to cast it aside! It means something to us and to the world. Where would our influence be in the world without the Commonwealth? It would be very much less. And I believe with all my heart that the existence of this remarkable multi-racial association, of independent nations, stretching across five continents, covering every race, is something that is potentially of immense value to the world. It does matter that we have these special relations with India and with Pakistan, with the African states as well as with Canada, Australia and New Zealand; for together we can, I believe, make a great contribution to the ending of the cold war. (Gaitskell)

32One should observe in the first place how recourse to the Commonwealth was ‘a means of disguising from international observers, from the electorate at home, and even from the policy-makers themselves the full long-term implications of the transfers of power’ (Darwin 1986). Yet and above all, underlying Gaitskell’s argument against Britain joining the EC is a feeling of exceptionality, disguised in a humble but yet distinctive claim which hardly succeeds in hiding a deeply-rooted superiority complex: ‘We have a different history’—in other words, having ‘civilised’ the non-European world gives Britain a special place as a ‘chosen nation’, a view I summarise here as being that of the ‘absent-minded civilizer’.

33This ‘different history’, referred to almost humbly in 1962 by a Labour politician, has been ploughed in recent years, and with much less humility, by a new generation of historians, both popular and academic, who have extolled Britain’s exceptional legacy and, in the background, its claim to a unique role on Earth, based on the claim that it has bestowed the rule of law, free trade and the English language to mankind, setting it aside from the rest of the pack—and especially from the rest of the EU. The 2000s have been somewhat of a watershed in that regard, starting with Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain made the Modern World published in 2003, followed eight years later by Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World. Both made a case for the exceptionality of the British Empire, the former on the basis that ‘it sought to globalize not just an economic but a legal and ultimately a political system too’ (Ferguson 362), and the latter because

The British Empire, in its scale and ethos, was completely unlike any system of government that the world has known. It is highly unlikely that such an enterprise will be undertaken by any nation, no matter how powerful, ever again. The phenomenon of British imperial rule must be understood in its own terms. (Kwarteng 397)

34Whereas the study of the British Empire had fallen so much out of fashion in the late twentieth-century that imperial history had become a ‘dying sub-discipline’ represented only by ‘a fugitive band, chased by the heavily armed columns of “area studies”’, it has attracted by contrast, in the last twenty years, renewed interest in the historical profession and among the British general public (Darwin 2015, 407). Among the many discussions that have taken place around the question of colonialism and imperialisms past and present, three have direct ramifications for our understanding of present forms of ‘popular imperialism’, and its impact on Brexit thinking in the UK.

35The first of these discussions broached ethical and philosophical considerations about the acceptability of imperialism. In stark contrast with the opinion that has prevailed overwhelmingly in academia since the 1960s, some controversial voices have argued in favour of a revision of the standards by which this fact of world history is appraised in the global human trajectory. Particularly vocal in this school of thinking, and drawing upon the likes of Ferguson and Kwarteng, are Bruce Gilley and Nigel Biggar. Whereas the former has sought to put into question, through a highly controversial article entitled ‘The Case for Colonialism’, the ‘orthodoxy’ which ‘for the last 100 years’ had given ‘western colonialism . . . a bad name’, the latter asked readers of the Times not to ‘feel guilty about our colonial history’, on the basis of his arguments and findings resulting from an ‘ethics and empire’ research project that he had led (Gilley; Biggar).

  • 5 These adverts, which featured a large-format picture of Plymouth (UK), were displayed in the toilet (...)

36Secondly, the development, fate and meaning of English-speaking countries worldwide have attracted renewed interest in the last two decades. The ‘end of history’ as it had been identified by Francis Fukuyama meant an almost absolute triumph of the West, in particular in its English-speaking version. With the triumph of English as the world’s lingua franca, the origin of this global success attracted renewed interest. With his magisterial account of how the Anglophone ‘settler revolution’ had ‘replenished the world’, James Belich also offered a powerful narrative about the ‘rise of the Anglo-World’ since American independence. Whilst they are rigorously conducted, historically accurate and not meant to play a political role, books such as this one fuelled renewed feelings of pride in Britain’s imperial past, with the resurgence of a thinly disguised belief in the ‘civilising mission’ of earlier centuries. This was compounded by the place of the memories of empire in the everyday life of many British people, well exemplified by adverts on CrossCountry train services celebrating Britain as the ‘original’ template of modernity, sporting slogans such as ‘You can’t beat the original. There are 52 other Plymouths worldwide, but nothing compares to this one [a picture of Plymouth in the UK]’. Such a statement was complemented with ‘Plymouth, Devon came first. Other places with the same name later popped up in the USA, Australia, New Zealand and the West Indies’.5 Combined with the almost complete absence of critical engagement with the country’s imperial past (Jeanblanc), and an often-whitewashed vision of its ‘end of empire’, the conditions were ripe to generate the third discussion which interests us here.

37With Britain still soul-searching in an ever-changing world (one has in mind Dean Acheson’s famous word in 1962: ‘Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’), recourse to the Anglosphere, as opposed to ‘ever closer union’ with its continental neighbours, seemed to become an alternative, and increasingly promoted, proposition. As a new millennium started, historian Robert Conquest delivered a stringent critique of the world order in the West, including the EU, and offered as a potential solution closer unity between the Anglosphere nations (whilst advocating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU). This proved not to be an isolated case. The Anglosphere has been equally presented as a way of coping with the challenges of the twenty-first century by both US businessman James C. Bennett (The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-first Century) and UK historian Andrew Roberts (A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900). Whilst the racial undertones of the concept might have slowed its spread in earlier decades, right-wing parties in English-speaking countries, and especially in the UK, seized the opportunity to give a new lease of life to a concept that had existed for a long time, but had become dormant as the sun of post-colonialism rose (Kenny and Pearce; Vucetic). Even the revival of the heavily racialized alliance with the ‘white dominions’ of Canada, Australia and New Zealand became a prospect often used to justify Brexit or as a means of reassurance in the transition period, through the project of CANZUK (Geoghegan).

38Whilst such positions were oblivious of the ‘fundamental contradiction of Brexit—a reassertion of imperial self-confidence and an anti-colonial insurgency all at once’ (in the words of Fintan O’Tool), they exerted considerable traction among the public. In his recent Empires of the Mind, Robert Gildea has argued that ‘ambitions and fantasies about empire in the global and metropolitan spheres had an important impact on a third sphere too: Europe’ (5). Indeed, the result of the referendum of 23 June 2016 was a potent sign of the close links between narratives of empire and the Brexit project. The last British Governor in Hong Kong, and chancellor of the University of Oxford, Lord Patten of Barnes, said nothing else when he accused Boris Johnson and his negotiating tactics in the divorce discussions with the EU, to be on a ‘runaway train of English exceptionalism’ (Patten).

Conclusion: Brutus? The Brexit Betrayal of Post-Colonial Liberal Britain

39‘Et tu, mi fili, Brute?’ was what Julius Caesar reportedly exclaimed when he saw that his adoptive son was about to betray him. Is Brexit Britain the Brutus of the liberal values that the country is so proud to have bestowed upon the world, alongside the rule of law, free trade and parliamentary democracy which are constantly presented by Brexiteers as positive aspects of Britain’s imperial legacy that are under threat from Brussels? In other words, is Britain betraying some of its fundamental values by turning its back to the EU project, which owes so much to its ideas and to its practices—often marked by clear and resolute opposition to the views of its Continental partners, which it was able to enrich and to nuance at times? Or is it reconnecting with its imperial past by turning its back to Europe and instead claiming to seek to deal directly with the rest of the world because, in the words of Boris Johnson, ‘We used to run the biggest empire the world has ever seen’, and therefore ‘Are we really unable to do trade deals?’ (Johnson 2016).

40As Britain has chosen to put itself in a position where it sits at the crossroads between the EU and the rest of the world, a wider question has emerged: does being ‘imperially literate’, or, in Andrew Thompson’s word, not ‘imperially illiterate’, amount to being refractory to the mere thought of being a member of the largest economic ensemble in the world, which sits just across the Channel? The concept of ‘popular imperialism’, and above all its legacy today, provides a powerful explanation as to why the 22 miles that separate Dover from Calais might seem to some British voters wider than the 3,800 miles between Cornwall and New York.

41Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January 2017 was enlightening in that regard: post-Brexit Britain would be a ‘country free to leave the European Union and embrace the world’—in other words, answering this call, felt ‘instinctively’ in her view, to ‘get out into the world and rediscover its role as a great, global, trading nation’ (May). This is what Stuart Ward and Astrid Rasch have described as akin to ‘embarking on a voyage of rediscovery’ (2). Whilst the Brexit vote has seemingly resulted from the coalescence of a variety of factors, ranging from fears of being socially downgraded, expressed by sizeable sections of the white working class, to immigration fears and sheer xenophobia, it seems beyond doubt that the long-standing influence of the imperial experience on various constitutive layers of the British public has played a key role in the ultimate success of the Brexiteers’ narrative. A potent drive towards Brexit may have been the sadness at the idea that the British feeling of being ‘the chosen ones’ (or the ‘chosen race’ in the terminology of some nineteenth-century commentators) was being lost in the transnational and possibly supra-national aggregate that the EU is seeking to emulate. Generations of patient and passionate work proudly ‘showcasing empire’ have left a deep imprint in the country’s imaginary, demonstrating once again the intricate relationship between culture and politics and how they can coalesce powerfully at times of national soul-searching. We have every reason to believe that the British Empire, and its image in popular culture, has been, and is bound to remain, a powerful and meaningful key to unlock many aspects of British collective consciousness, past and present.

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1 Analysis of election results based on Accessed 22 August 2020.

2 On the Night of the Proms discussion in the summer of 2020, see for instance Accessed 5 March 2019

3 All spelling and grammar idiosyncracies or errors were in the original text.


5 These adverts, which featured a large-format picture of Plymouth (UK), were displayed in the toilets of CrossCountry train services on the Bournemouth to Manchester Piccadilly line in 2018-2019.

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Berny Sèbe, « Showcasing Empire’ Past & Present Or A Brief History of Popular Imperialism, from Britannia to Brexit »Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 93 Printemps | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 janvier 2021, consulté le 04 mars 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Berny Sèbe

Berny Sèbe is senior lecturer in colonial and postcolonial studies at the University of Birmingham (United Kingdom). He holds a doctorate in imperial and Commonwealth history from the University of Oxford. His career to date has been dedicated to the comparative study of European colonial empires since the nineteenth century, and in particular their influence on the contemporary world and its cultures. His key publications include Heroic Imperialists in Africa: the Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939) (2013 and 2015), Echoes of Empire: Identity, Memory and Colonial Legacies (co-ed. with K. Nicolaïdis & G. Maas, 2015), Decolonising Imperial Heroes: Cultural Legacies of the British and French Empires (co-ed. with M. Jones, B. Taithe & P. Yeandle, 2016) and Decolonising Europe? Popular Responses to the End of Empire (co-ed. with M. Stanard, 2020). He is currently working with Alexander Morrison (New College, Oxford) on the volume Empires of Emptiness: Fortresses of the Steppe and the Sahara which examines strategies of colonial control and administration in arid spaces, around the case studies of the Russian conquest of Central Asia and French expansion into the Sahara Desert. Berny Sèbe is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and of the Higher Education Academy.
Berny Sèbe est senior lecturer en études coloniales et postcoloniales à l’université de Birmingham (Royaume-Uni). Titulaire d’un doctorat en histoire de l’université d’Oxford, il consacre sa carrière à l’étude comparative des empires coloniaux européens depuis le dix-neuvième siècle, notamment à leur influence sur le monde et les cultures contemporains. Il a publié Heroic Imperialists in Africa: the Promotion of British and French Colonial Heroes (1870-1939) (2013 et 2015) et co-dirigé les volumes Echoes of Empire: Identity, Memory and Colonial Legacies (2015), Decolonising Imperial Heroes: Cultural Legacies of the British and French Empires (2016) et Decolonising Europe? Popular Responses to the End of Empire (2020). Il prépare actuellement, en collaboration avec Alexander Morrison (New College, Oxford) l’ouvrage Empires of Emptiness : Fortresses of the Steppe and the Sahara qui examine les stratégies de conquête et d’administration coloniales en milieu aride, autour des cas d’étude de l’annexion russe de l’Asie centrale et de l’expansion française au Sahara. Il est Fellow de la Royal Historical Society, de la Royal Geographical Society et de la Higher Education Academy du Royaume-Uni.

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