Early in his tenure as Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove followed the historian Niall Ferguson in calling for history lessons in schools to “celebrate” the legacy of the British empire. In his new book, “Ten Cities that Made an Empire“, Gove’s Labour shadow Tristram Hunt offers a more equivocal, though not straightforwardly critical, exploration of that legacy. Hunt takes ten former outposts of empire, from Hong Kong to Bombay, and “traces the history of these cities, their ruling ideas and their place within the story of British imperialism.”
I visited Hunt in his Westminster office recently and talked to him about the book, as well as about Gove’s record in office, Labour’s plans to redistribute power to the regions and the future of the United Kingdom.
JD: One of the main claims in the book is that the debate about the British empire has become unhelpfully polarised in recent years with breathless boosterism on one side, represented by someone like Niall Ferguson, and unqualified criticism on the other—one thinks, for example, of Richard Gott’s book Britain’s Empire.
TH: One is often as unhelpful as the other. They’re in a symbiotic relationship and feed off each other. And that academic discourse begins to shape the public discourse. Is empire good or bad? Right or wrong? I thought the virtue of focusing on cities is that they provide a way of pursuing some more interesting understandings of imperial and colonial history and reframing some of the “right or wrong, good or bad” stuff.