Backing Britain: the 1968 campaign. ©CLIVE MCLEAN/REX/SHUTTERSTOCK

How imperialism still stops Britain from grasping how it looks to the world

Time for Britons to relinquish the empire state of mind
October 6, 2017

While international editor of the Guardian, Anthony Hartley visited Amsterdam in 1958. Journeying in the opposite direction from Joris Luyendijk, he was immediately struck by the quiet confidence of the citizenry. It seemed such a contrast to the temper of 1950s Britain that he could not help contemplating the underlying cause. “They have learned to live in Europe as mere Europeans,” he ventured, “and—let us make no mistake—that is the way we ourselves and every ex-colonial power will have to live in the not-so-distant future.” Hartley marvelled at the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an empire state of mind, not only in puncturing the moral imperatives of their civilising mission overseas but also their ready embrace of a new, downsized self-image drawn to a European scale.

In the early 1960s, Hartley returned to this theme in a series of articles for the Spectator, later published as A State of England (1963). By that time, Britain had caught up with the Netherlands in the liquidation of its empire, but rather than producing the same beneficial effects, it had caused “a narrowing of horizons and a sense of frustration in English society.”

Seventeen years ago, I arrived in Britain having completed a book about how far things had changed since Hartley’s day, with the steady release of the empire’s grip on the national imagination. As an Australian, I may have been more “intimately cognate” with Britain (to use Boris Johnson’s tortured turn of phrase) but back in the year 2000, there seemed little sign of the post-imperial torment that had haunted Britain in the 1950s and 60s; the ghost of the past had been laid to rest. Today, I’m not so sure. As Britain enters a new bout of post-Brexit soul-searching about its place in the world, the unsettling questions of the country’s last identity crisis are back with a vengeance, and complicating its haggling with the European Union. If a country doesn’t know what it is, how can it know what it wants? Certainly, it now appears that I was premature in publishing my book The Demise of the Imperial Ideal in Tony Blair’s self-consciously post-imperial Cool Britannia—just a couple of years before his ill-judged adventures in Iraq.

In the early 20th century, Britain was not a country that worried unduly about who it was. The Victorians had invented the idea of a glorious 1,000-year island story. It brushed aside the reality that for the great bulk of this time, the archipelago had been carved up into multiple nations, and conveniently ignored—too—how for a great deal of the time even the kingdom of “England” had in fact been a cross-Channel entity, often ruled from France. In the glory days of Empire, such quibbles seemed remote from everyday concerns.

The experience of the Second World War, and the figure of Winston Churchill in particular, gave the national myths that might have otherwise started to fade an extra lease of life. Churchill was the last British leader to carry the verities of empire deep in his breast, but he also personified a new image of an isolated nation under siege—the legacy of his wartime defiance of Hitler. He finally stepped down as prime minister in 1955, just prior to Britain’s humiliation in the Suez crisis and only two years before African decolonisation got going in earnest.

For Churchill’s generation, the serial setbacks of imperial decline were almost bound to prove deeply disorienting. According to Hartley, however, the sense of frustration in these years was not confined to empire stalwarts, but equally affected the younger generation of progressives who had championed the post-Suez retreat from empire and thus “could hardly admit” any anguish, “even to themselves.” For these people the loss cut even deeper, since it posed the inner dilemma of the English intellectual: “How to give his own position its necessary universality from within a society which was no longer the centre of the world picture, how to move on the earth without a fixed point on which to support himself.”

Permeating Hartley’s diagnosis were metaphors of marginalisation, evoking a people “whose assets of self-respect and conscious international virtue were considerably wasted.” He was saying little new. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s 1962 aphorism about a country that had “lost an Empire, but not yet found a role” remains one of the more quoted one-liners of the 1960s, and his words were themselves pre-empted by any number of domestic critics. “I have the impression… that this nation as a whole does not at the moment know where it is going,” lamented Liberal peer Gladwyn Jebb in the House of Lords in 1961: “The process of ‘de-colonisation,’ as it is called, however desirable and necessary, seems to have left us without any very positive and generally accepted notion of our position in the world.” In the ensuing debate the Conservative whip Edward Astley flaunted all the symptoms of not-yet-finding-a-role in his evocation of Britain as “a pride of lions roaring their challenge in the face of the adversary.”

“The Commonwealth is not talked up with quite the same enthusiasm in 2017 as it was in the immediate aftermath of June 2016”
The 17 years between Suez and the third and finally successful application to enter the Common Market were a time of reckoning, when scientists, soothsayers and social commentators all conducted a sustained dissection of the nation’s perceived shortcomings. A steady stream of “state-of-the-nation” books appeared, bearing titles that strove to outdo one another in grim foreboding—from Michael Shanks’s The Stagnant Society (1961) to Paul Einzig’s Decline and Fall? (1969). Arthur Koestler’s Suicide of a Nation? (1963) pitched its claim at the upper end of the misery scale, while Penguin settled on What’s Wrong with Britain? for a series of books that gnawed at the national fabric.

By no means all of the bleak forecasts were fixated on the fading verities of Empire; the sense of decline was wider, financial as well as imperial. Much as the pound has taken a battering since June 2016, back in the days of decolonisation, balance of payments crises were a perennial worry. After the humiliating devaluation in 1967, the sense of impending doom was only heightened by the 1968 “I’m Backing Britain” campaign—what might today be termed a “start-up” by five Surbiton typists who asked themselves “How can WE put this right?” Their mixed message of volunteerism (30 minutes of unpaid overtime daily) laced with “Buy British” fervour achieved surprising early momentum, with “Backing Britain” badges, mugs and shopping bags enjoying wide circulation. The campaign was not only endorsed by a rather desperate Harold Wilson, whose plans for the country were in tatters after Charles de Gaulle had wielded his second veto at UK Common Market membership the year before, but was—quite literally—lauded by the poets, with newly installed Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis dedicating six dreary stanzas to the cause. But it was abhorred by the trade unions as a non-starter, and when Robert Maxwell offered to publicise the movement, it soon became the butt of many a joke, including the opening gag of the premiere of Dad’s Army.

One of the oddities of the surge of national introspection in these years is that it was not confined to 1960s Britain but affected a much wider constituency grappling with the manifold disorientations of empire’s end, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and indeed elsewhere among the scattered remnants of what was once termed “Greater Britain.” Here, too, a proclivity for diagnosing national maladies became entrenched in the 1960s and 1970s; and the political maladies were often strikingly similar, not least the accusations levelled at a hidebound ruling “establishment,” wielding power through an anachronistic web of social connections. Right across the “Old Commonwealth,” the fading verities of a common imperial ideal prompted a scramble for alternative markers of esteem and purpose.

One of Australia’s leading diagnosticians of this so-called “identity crisis,” Donald Horne (author of the bestselling The Lucky Country) made an effort to comprehend the commonalities in a little-known book from 1969, God is an Englishman. He found that the particular problem with Britain itself was that the sense of crisis had become a reflex, an article of faith: “It is now part of the British way of life. Come to Britain and see the crisis. Those who were born during the devaluation of 1949 were starting their careers by the devaluation of 1967; they had spent the intervening years growing up in a nation that could never seem officially certain of itself for more than two years on end… It is a crisis of habit, in particular of affronted habits of self-esteem.”

The twist with the very similar disruptions in Australia and Canada was that they became coupled to the promise of rebirth. Far from signalling a time of abject failure, this is the era typically associated with the burgeoning of “true” nationhood—Canada’s Maple Leaf flag, Manning Clark’s monumental History of Australia, and the new politics of national uplift symbolised by Gough Whitlam and Pierre Trudeau. Only in Britain itself did the new confusion about how the country fitted into the world lead to a sense of unalloyed decline.

The difference is no real surprise. Where Australians and Canadians could disassociate themselves from the remnants of an obsolete Britishness, the task was considerably more complex for a “Mother” country that continued to carry the imperial can. This goes some way to explaining the sudden electoral success of Plaid Cymru and the SNP, winning their first seats in the Commons in the mid-1960s. “Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on” proclaimed a victorious Winnie Ewing at the 1967 Hamilton by-election, mobilising the same message of deliverance from a decrepit empire state familiar to Australians and Canadians. Meanwhile south of the border, Enoch Powell was lauding a generation “which comes home again after years of distant wandering.” Significantly, he was talking about the English, not the elusive British.

While not everything about the British disease harked back to Empire, it certainly loomed large in contemporary British attempts to make sense of what was going awry: the “What’s-Wrong-with-Britain?” writers would trace myriad problems back to this one root cause. The Empire was, after all, a shared point of reference—a meta-index of national failure that was instantly relatable to all. The book that really cemented the equation was Anthony Sampson’s 1961 bestseller, Anatomy of Britain—a guide to the individuals in politics, business, education, the media and the military who controlled the sinews of power. His abiding question: “who runs Britain?” was premised on the conviction that whoever-they-were needed putting out to pasture. Yet for all his scrutiny of the inner-workings of the British “establishment,” he somehow managed to locate the wellsprings of disquiet far from Britain’s own shores, in imperial retreat. “It is hardly surprising,” he reflected, “that, in 20 years since the war, Britain should have felt confused about her purpose—with those acres of red on the map dwindling, the mission of the war dissolving, and the whole imperial mythology of battleships, governors and generals gone for ever.” Determined to be different, Koestler disavowed the importance of the empire’s end in Suicide of a Nation—only to be flatly contradicted by his contributors, who variously fretted about the imperial “hangover”; “an empire now on which the sun never rises”; and the “damage the gentle passing of empire has done to the spirit of our own islands.”

Amongst politicians as well as writers, a passing reference to fallen empires could invoke the aura of national decline far more efficiently than any statistic. As the 1950s gave way to the 60s, decolonisation picked up pace, and Ian Macleod, the pragmatic Colonial Secretary, did not stand in the way. But he did—perhaps ruefully—recall how the vanishing empire had once brought “consolation” to “this bright little, tight little island.” What was at stake was not any specific longing for a particular colonial enclave, but a generalised feeling of relegation to the confined spaces of England.

Many a contemporary British observer advocated “going into Europe” as the only way to break this cycle of confusion and self-hatred. It took three attempts, with first Harold Macmillan and then Wilson being given the “Non” before Edward Heath finally secured entry in 1973. With a bold commitment to a new corporate enterprise, it was hoped Britain’s lost latitude could at last be restored. Any material prosperity at stake seemed almost incidental to the emotional shock therapy that lay in store. The deed was done with little regard for the future of Australian butter or New Zealand lamb, but these were sentimental hankerings that most in Britain could happily do without.

More recently, however, the tables have turned. The once liberating tonic of “Europe” has come to be seen as the cause of Britain’s confinement. What the likes of Hartley would have made of the current fetish for “Global Britain” leaves little to the imagination. Despite the passing of nearly 60 years, concerns about the proper scale of Britain not only permeate the airwaves but also play directly into political decision-making. Take the overwhelming support for Trident in the House of Commons, for example, and the widespread belief, which defies publicly-available information about how its maintenance entirely depends on US goodwill, that it constitutes an “independent” nuclear deterrent. Consider, too, the endlessly-repeated claim, earnestly mouthed by ministers of all stripes as a self-evident truth, that the UK must somehow “punch above its weight on the world stage.” And consider, most pressingly, the suggestion that the rest of the world will be excited by the chance to haggle a bespoke British trade deal, despite ample indications to the contrary and the obvious perils of jeopardising access to the world’s largest single market for such risky returns.

The embers of empire are still routinely and sometimes explicitly evoked as an ethereal presence, beckoning a divided nation back into the world. This is not just a matter of unrepentant Remainers resorting to easy political put-downs (just type “empire” and “Brexit” into Google for pertinent examples). Extraordinarily, the imperial past is freely invoked by the Brexiteers themselves, presumably having focus-grouped the E-word with surprisingly upbeat results. Johnson’s future vision for Britain constructing “Empires of the mind,” unveiled at last year’s Conservative Party Conference, is but one of several instances where Britain’s imperial track record is wearily trotted out to inspire confidence in a post-Brexit future.

The Commonwealth is not talked up with quite the same enthusiasm in late 2017 as it was in the giddy immediate aftermath of June 2016; as Duncan Bell wrote in Prospect at the start of this year (“Empire of the tongue,” February) the imagined reawakening of a global Anglosphere, stretching from Sydney to Ottawa and beyond, briefly became a Brexiteer obsession. Today, the grinding reality of negotiations with Europe have cooled the ardour. That, and the conspicuous absence of reciprocal feelings emanating from Commonwealth countries themselves. Yet despite everything, “Greater Britain” does still dimly register as the source of great untapped potential—such is the circular logic of losing an empire and not finding a role.
“The embers of empire are still routinely evoked as an ethereal presence, beckoning a divided nation back into the world”
Conversely, the loss of empire remains deeply associated in the public mind with not finding a role. In recent years, any number of contemporary ills has been attributed variously to the “shadow,” “hangover” or “blowback” of empire: the austerity measures introduced in 2010, the London riots of 2011, the recurring ructions over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands have all been explained with one metaphor or another of this type. Above all the problem of Scottish independence has long been associated with a species of unfinished colonial business, pointing to a deeper process of national disintegration. According to one influential variant, which has been pursued by writers including David Marquand and Ian Jack, the end of empire serves as the prelude to no less than the end of Britain itself. When Norman Davies finally reached page 995 of The Isles (2000) he summed up with his conviction that “the United Kingdom was established to serve the interests of Empire, and the loss of Empire has destroyed its raison d’être.”

Having tired of living in Europe, the British must now learn to live as mere… what? Britons? If the past is any guide, it is when confined to their own quarters that they find it hardest to recognise themselves.