On 20th October 2018, the day a “Save Brexit” rally was held in Yorkshire, a Leave voter who had just had his photograph taken with Nigel Farage, did a short interview with a television crew from Sky News. What he said to the camera was this: “For God’s sake let’s just get on, I mean, we’re British. We stood alone for years. Let’s just do it. You know, I mean, I was watching a thing with the Queen, there’s billions of people in the empire. Let’s get back to being the British empire again. That’s what it’s all about, you know? It’s about being the British empire.” A single interview with a single voter on a single day, not the manifesto of a mass movement, yet still an expression of a view that was in the ether long before the EU referendum.
More than half a century after the British empire began to disintegrate, it remains the biggest story in British history; an epic and tragic tale of how a tiny nation created a giant empire and then—within the span of a single life—lost it all. But in Britain’s over-stretched, under-resourced classrooms, the empire has been largely displaced by a twin obsession with the Third Reich and American history—the latter often taught with little emphasis on the decades during which the American colonies were part of the First British Empire.
When the British flag was lowered across the quarter of the world that had once been pink, an empire of territory and domination was replaced by an empire of delusions; a fantasy realm upon which the truth never rises. When the inglorious chapters of the imperial story—slavery, the Indian famines, the genocide in Tasmania—are forced into the national conversation they are relativised away; after all, was British rule not more benign than that of the Belgians in the Congo, was it not less brutal than that imposed on Namibia by the Germans? The closing down of the imperial debate, and its absence in schools, means that few in Britain recognise how the imperial project enriched the nation or how often colonial rule was underwritten by extraordinary violence. Nor is it understood how British culture, the English language and British cuisine were inflected by four centuries of imperial encounter.
In schools and within public debate, we need to confront this vast and vastly neglected aspect of British and global history. We need not just to examine difficult truths but also accept that the imperial story is one that we share with billions of people around the world. We alone do not get to decide if the British empire was a force for good or ill. Schools need to be empowered to teach a curriculum that focuses far more on the empire but also on how the empire seeps into other aspects of the national story—such as the industrial revolution and the two world wars.
To call for such a reassessment is not—as is often claimed—an exercise in identity politics. There are multiple reasons why we should confront the imperial past and among them is national self-interest. Our poorly examined, half-misunderstood, misremembering of what the empire was and what it was not has spawned a strain of imperial exceptionalism; a delusional mindset that is actively damaging to Britain’s interest in the 21st century. The warped nostalgia that surrounds the empire rendered Britain and its leaders almost oblivious as to how the empire is remembered in the former colonies, and resented in many of them. This state of ignorance creates the atmosphere in which dangerously half-baked fantasies like “Empire 2.0,” “Global Britain” and CANZUK are able to take root. The shakiness of their historical foundations would be more apparent in a nation that truly knew its imperial past.
All this needs to change for another reason. Without such a reassessment 21st-century Britain will struggle to forge a national story that functions for the country we are rapidly becoming, one in which, by 2050, a third of the population will be BAME or of mixed-heritage. If demographics is destiny then the old story of the “civilising mission,” British paternalism and “the white man’s burden” is a deadweight on our backs. We need to create a new collective story to share with one another and with the former colonies. And we need to do it fast.
On the eve of its third decade it is clear that the 21st century will be dominated by economic and military giants like the US and China, and giant trading blocs like the EU. Having been a giant in an earlier age will count for nothing. Childish dreams of “being the British empire again” are doomed attempts to project the past on to the future.
Instead we could come to terms with the empire, and the violence and exploitation that were part of it, and take a sober look at who we really are—a middle-sized, relatively stable democracy with the sixth largest economy in the world—and make our peace with that. We remain, by dint of our remarkable history, a nation that still has a special role to play in the world.