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Sunday, 30 July 2017

That Dunkirk Spirit

The chief curiosity of Niall Ferguson's "I won" tweet, claiming that most Brits think the British empire was something to be proud of, is why he recirculated the results of a three year-old YouGov poll. It's like Aaron Ramsey bragging that he'd scored the winning goal in the 2014 FA Cup Final while we're still enjoying the one he scored in this year's. To judge from the rest of the contrarian historian's timeline, this might simply have been a provocation to advertise Ferguson's Brexit-inflected hot-take on Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, though it's also possible he is feeling increasingly isolated in the US and just wanted to remind us that he is still alive. Ferguson advocated a vote to stay in the EU last year, presumably because David Cameron asked him to, but his heart was never in it. He has always believed that the UK has a fundamentally non-european destiny. His misjudgement then has left him in a strange limbo now, ideologically on the same wavelength as leavers such as Daniel Hannan, Andrew Roberts and Andrew Lillico but lacking the credibility of a Brexit true-believer (I wonder if he has worked through a counterfactual in which he was the hero of the leave campaign?).

What I'm interested in here is not so much Ferguson's assessment of the empire's value, which is the usual stuff about its WASP civilisational mission, but the way that this long-cherished idealisation of Britain has been affected by Brexit. However, to explore that we need to first put the YouGov numbers into context and then establish a few truths about the nature of empire and trade. The 2014 poll found that 59% thought the British empire was more something to be proud of than ashamed of. Only 19% plumped for the latter with 23% don't know. Given the emotional baggage of the word "ashamed", this looks biased, and sure enough a subsequent YouGov poll in 2016 that contrasted "should be proud of" with the milder "should regret" produced a 44% to 21% split (23% opted for neither). Leaving aside the possibility that the empire was rapidly going out of fashion in recent years, what I think this shows is that opinion on the subject is shallow and can easily be led by the question. This should hardly come as a surprise, not least because very few of us have any lived experience of the empire. For many, it is little more than a synecdoche of a vague British history.

It is also worth emphasising that few British adults who were alive during the era of formal imperialism (i.e. before 1949) had any direct experience of it either. A feature of empire is that those who experienced it in their daily lives were mostly colonial subjects rather than residents of the metropole (i.e. the UK), and there is little evidence to suggest that most were proud of the empire let alone supporters of the colonial system. Even among the self-governing dominions, dominated by white settlers having a cultural affinity with the UK, the preference for national self-determination over the maintenance of empire had been evident since WW1 (the emblematic moment for many being the Gallipoli campaign). You could dismiss the thought experiment of an opinion poll in the 1930s by saying that a poor farmer in Bihar couldn't see the big picture, but not only is that patronising, it is an argument that would apply equally (if not more so) to a shop assistant in Milton Keynes today. The bottom line is that an opinion poll of contemporary Britons is not a reflection of the value of empire in any meaningful sense, so it is pretty flimsy evidence on which to base a claim of having "won" anything.

What it does reflect is the suspended nature of our popular judgement, which can be seen in the ability to recognise the individual crimes of empire while enjoying the picturesque infrastructure: consider almost any TV treatment of the Indian Raj. This is echoed in the polemical realm where specific evils that can be attributed to individual failings (e.g. the Amritsar massacre) are contrasted via a spurious "balance sheet" with structural and institutional benefits (e.g. railways and cricket). Because the UK did not have a political revolution coincident with the end of empire, its polity cannot generally define itself in opposition to imperialism or "draw a line" under its history (compare and contrast with the Carnation Revolution in Portugal). Indeed, one of the attractions of EU membership for the British state was the way that it allowed the squalid history of empire to be gently pushed into the wings without too much soul-searching. The terminal myth of the British Empire is that it was dismantled willingly, rather than under duress from a combination of independence movements, bankruptcy and the US, which supposedly sets us apart from other former imperial powers and excuses the need for all but the most anodyne half-apologies.

Empires are founded on domination and exploitation but they rarely make the imperial power significantly richer on a lasting basis. The wealth coincident with empire is more likely to be the consequence of geographic or technological factors that in turn facilitated imperial growth. It's synergistic. For example, naval power and control of the Atlantic created the British empire, but it also created the informal trading empire that actually delivered wealth and there is ample evidence that it spurred the advances of the agricultural and industrial revolutions that further amplified imperial power. Empire and commerce were therefore complementary but not coterminus. A well-known proof of this is that Latin America, where Britain had little colonial presence, was more valuable to the UK economy than Australasia. Another way of looking at this is to note that the high period of British colonialism commences in the 1870s and runs to 1914, but far from being the apogee of British power (even if it was considered as such by many at the time), this was precisely the period during which the USA and Germany overtook the UK as economic powers despite their more modest colonial holdings.


Though empire can start out as private enterprise, for example the East India Company, the scale of its operation means that it usually becomes a matter of state. This represents a very large opportunity cost because it means denying resources to other endeavours that depend on state support. An example of this would be the influx of South American gold and silver to 16th century Spain, which undermined the development of its domestic manufacture, essentially because the wealth both funded increased imports from the rest of Europe and restrained exports through currency appreciation. What empire does is bias the economy in the interests of particular industrial sectors and administrative elites. For example, control of India benefited Lancashire cotton. Without that captive market, the British textile industry would probably have been smaller and may not have been as technologically innovative. The City of London would still have been a great financial centre because of its geographical position relative to Europe and the Americas, but empire undoubtedly boosted its reach across the globe (most notably in the Far East) and the congruence of interests between the two significantly influenced policy in the later Victorian period, specifically the commitment to further expansion and the diversion of investment away from domestic industry to foreign speculation.

The British had to be made into imperialists long after the creation of empire, notably during the period of "New Imperialism" that started under Disraeli in the late-1870s, which in turn reinvigorated an anti-imperial movement that dated back to Adam Smith's attack on mercantilism. As that tradition indicates, free trade was long considered inimical to the cause of empire, which makes the Brexiteers' attempt to urge both free trade deals and a preferential union based on the geographically distant fragments of the old commonwealth (Canada, Australia etc) all the more bizarre. While Britain had been an assertively chauvinist nation since the 1707 Act of Union, the idea of pride in the empire was a late-Victorian invention that sought to define the "role" of the imperial system (aka the "white man's burden") both in the context of "race science" (some people were naturally inferior) and the "social question" (some people were naturally inferior). The two combined in the idea that the empire was a matter of superior loyalty at odds with the advance of democracy and socialism, which led to many on the political right advocating imperial federalism among the white-dominated dominions, the belief being that colonial smallholders and Jingoism could together counter the urban proletariat.

Much of the retrospective justification for empire by partisans like Ferguson focuses on developments that would have occurred anyway, such as the adoption of railways or the development of ports. To claim credit for this is to imply that in a counterfactual, where no European states created empires, the non-European natives would have passed up the opportunity or rejected it out of backwardness. Japan and Turkey offer factual arguments against this. Similarly, the claim (echoing late-Victorian thinking) that the colonies were going to be seized by some power or other, and that it was therefore better to be seized by the "liberal" British, manages the trick of patronising every foreigner. The infrastructural legacy of empire argument also occludes the institutional legacy, which is actually more peculiar to empire. A colony designed for exploitation will inherit the institutional framework of that exploitation at independence. Inertia as much as opportunism means that this will favour those social forces attuned to exploitation. The charge of endemic corruption levelled at former colonies, and in particular the crypto-racist claim that corruption arises from "native culture", are an attempt to disown this institutional responsibility. Idi Amin, in his comic absurdity as much as his viciousness and cupidity, was an accurate reflection of the British Empire (an institution he himself was inordinately proud off).

The post-70s vogue for the rehabilitation of empire, and in particular the emphasis on its supposed virtues in the area of the protection of private property and the enforcement of contract law, are obviously bound up with the advance of globalisation and neoliberalism. Some advocates, such as Ferguson, make the link explicit: "A striking number of the things currently recommended by economists to developing countries were in fact imposed by British rule". Those words were written in 2003, five years before the flaws of the "Washington consensus" - the successor to that London consensus - became apparent to all. While Ferguson believes that empire benefited both Britain and the colonies, he does at least accept that opinion on the subject is divided and that there are many historians who consider empire to have been of marginal benefit to the UK, or even deleterious. The point to take away from this is that Ferguson's case is clearly not irrefutable, and indeed it is worth stressing that he is essentially arguing for the aytpicality of the British empire, not for empire in general, hence the importance of his anglocentric "civilizational apps".

Reduced to its essentials, empire is a project of state. It is hardly a surprise then that it rarely survives the arrival of democracy in the metropole for long. This is not because public opinion turns against the evils of empire, which are often barely discernible from afar (see the complacency of much British and French public opinion as late as the 1950s), but because it sees little popular benefit and wishes to direct state resources to other priorities, such as the welfare state or domestic investment. Few Britons pine over the loss of Ireland, and there are few who would oppose unification if that were the will of a majority in the north. Despite the imperial nostalgia of some leavers, much of the rhetoric of Brexit (e.g. "looking after our own") was solidly in this anti-imperial tradition, as was the upsurge of English nationalism and scotophobia after 2014. The hypocrisy of the NHS £350 million bus was clear from the off because it was being advocated by politicians in the tradition of imperial nostalgia, such as Gove and Johnson, for whom the welfare state was harmful precisely because it sapped the moral fibre necessary to maintain the empire.


The valorisation of the British Empire is a supporting act to the current talk of a revived "union" with Canada, Australia and New Zealand, which is an attempt both to big-up what would actually be a series of modest trade deals that would come nowhere near to substituting for the benefits of the EU and to reconstruct a superior loyalty that is essentially racial (CANZUK is the old commonwealth - i.e. dominions - less the black-majority South Africa). The absurdity of soi-disant sovereigntists decrying the federal ambitions of the EU while advocating a more impractical federation echoes the incoherence of the "imperial federalism" of a century ago, which fell apart due to the irreconcilable demands of free trade and imperial preference (mirrored today in the issue of the free movement of labour). A dilute version of this fantasy, shorn of most of the racism and the aversion to national states, would eventually reappear as the Commonwealth in 1949. The current attempt will fail for much the same reasons: the former dominions consider the initiative patronising, have greater priorities elsewhere (e.g. in regional trade deals) and find the culture of sentimental loyalism that underpins the proposal increasingly alien (the mawkish monarchism of the UK doesn't travel as well as the British media like to suggest).

The Tory obsession with a superior loyalty is clearly motivated by the dawning realisation that the inheritor of Brexit may be an emboldened Labour Party. Brussels might have been a tyrannical overlord in the eurosceptics' fevered imaginings, but at least it was a bourgeois tyranny. In his Dunkirk review, Ferguson was barely able to contain his anxiety. This is the opening paragraph: "Traditionally, the British have two ways of responding to disaster. The elites are prone to panic. They wave their arms, indulge in lamentations, wish they could turn the clock back, then recommend orderly surrender. Ordinary people, by contrast, tend to make the best of a bad job. This state of mind is often summed up in the Second World War slogan 'Keep Calm and Carry On'." The focus is on elite betrayal and the supposed common sense of the loyal people. What Ferguson doesn't note is that after Dunkirk and eventually VE Day, the British people were more interested in the establishment of a welfare state than the continuation of empire, hence the victory of Labour in 1945 on a manifesto that committed the country both to the foundation of the NHS and the self-government of India.

That Labour hedged its bets in 1945 over India - being committed to self-government but unclear as to how that would be achieved - was typical of its attitude towards empire in the immediate postwar years. Though it had long and sincerely supported the principle of decolonisation, there was also a desire to defer it (justified as "preparing" native society for independence) in the hope that a little bit more exploitation (albet with a friendlier face) would offset the food and Dollar export shortages that were then crippling the UK. It's worth noting that this "third way" between empire and immediate decolonisation was one factor in the Attlee government's reluctance to participate in early moves towards closer European economic union. Its policy between 1945 and 1951 wasn't always principled or pretty, as the partition of India showed. A less tragic embarrassment was the Seretse Khama affair, which was recently portrayed in A United Kingdom, a film unusual for giving as much space to the political dynamic as the emotional drama and landscape. Labour's fudging over self-rule in Africa would lead to the creation of the short-lived Central African Federation under the new Conservative government in 1953, which in many ways was the last hurrah of the imperial federalism that was such a feature of the politics of Churchill's youth.

What Labour's policy in 1945 did display was a clear bias towards the domestic, despite its formal adherence to the dominant internationalist agenda of the time (the UN, NATO etc), which persists today in its Brexit positioning and goes some way to explain its relative popularity. The remainers who criticise Labour's current ambiguity fail to appreciate this historical precedent, and more generally the ebb and flow of isolationism versus internationalism. Leavers have also struggled to land a blow, but more because of their own contradictions than Labour's slipperiness. The irony of euroscepticism is that it exploited a long tradition of anti-imperialism in the form of a distrust of both federal superstates and impediments to free trade (those bendy bananas). What its champions have now realised is that the logical corollary of this is a scepticism about the value of anglophone federalism in general (the CANZUK fantasy) and a suspicion of US motives in particular (those chlorinated chickens).

The film Dunkirk, which omits mention of empire and America and emphasises self-preservation, is closer to Labour's tone than that of the Tories, which perhaps explains why both committed leavers and remainers have struggled to use it as a metaphor beyond an appeal to a weary patriotism or the promise of an eventual return to Europe. Whatever the outcome of the current Brexit negotiations, from a reversal of the referendum decision to a messy walkout that leaves British industry as crippled as it was 70 years ago, the idea that the UK can establish an independent global presence is surely now too ridiculous to entertain, which might allow us to finally consign the myth of the benevolent empire to the darkened corner of the dressing up box of national identity. The final irony is that Brexit represents a greater discontinuity in the consoling tale that Britain tells itself than joining the Common Market ever did, despite Hugh Gaitskell's hyperbole about "a thousand years of history".

9 comments:

  1. Ben Philliskirk31 July 2017 at 19:27

    There has been some confusion from historians (A.J.P. Taylor for one) on the issue of empire, as the claim that empire was not provoked by economic benefit largely depends on not acknowledging the difference between 'informal' and 'formal' imperialism.

    The 'classic' era of colonialism that started with the Scramble for Africa around 1870 did take place largely for non-economic reasons, mainly as a demarcation of territory that sought to stabilise relationships between European colonialists. But that is to ignore the fact that both Old World colonialism and assertions of military strength had been taking place for centuries, and were essentially means to extort wealth on the basis of a preponderance of power!

    The irony with Brexit is that for all the Right's bluster about global opportunities it effectively involves the UK willingly assuming a place at the receiving end of imperialism, begging to be economically as well as militarily dependent on the US, and prostituting stereotypes of its history in East Asia in order to make a few bob. As you suggest, this could well benefit the Left who can at least offer something more uplifting in terms of wrapping social justice in the flag.

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  2. The British Empire a disaster for subjugated peoples.

    But what is the the British attitude to developing and third world countries today? When you use your smartphone consider the 'artisanal' miner who dug the required tantalite. The IMF and World Bank continue to cripple the development of many countries as effectively as any imperium.

    In May 1940 the Tory party was split. To fight on or negotiate. To support the fight a monumental defeat was spun as a victory (Dunkirk). In 1945 a Labour landslide.

    In August 2017 the Tory party is split. Hard Brexit or a Soft Brexit as close as possible to what we had. The Tory challenge to spin Brexit as something positive. In 2022 a Labour landslide?

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  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment6 August 2017 at 09:33

    I think one thing often overlooked about the Brexiteers is their pro Americanism and their desire to align to the USA’s red in tooth and claw capitalism rather than the USA’s welfare capitalism . I often think of the Brexiters like general Melchett in Blackadder, I imagine them saying, there is a bit of the old afraid to leap over the top and run stark naked into no man’s land about European capitalism!

    I remember Teresa Gorman endlessly reporting from her trips to the USA informing us just how wonderful the US system was in comparison to Europe.

    People tend to look at empire favourably because deep down they know that this exercise in mass theft and murder has directly benefitted them. While a good number of people would gladly see kids die in the sea rather than them reaching our shores for asylum, at the same time they hope somehow the mass theft, grotesque exploitation and murder can enforce the their privileged status in the world. To these people the number of desperate refugees turning up in the Med is not a story about globalisation but one of inconvenienced holidaymakers.

    Just never let these people tell you that they represent civilised values, this is all I ask. Not too much to ask is it?

    I think ultimately labour (i.e. workers) will lose as a result of Brexit. And that is the entire point of it. You may not have noticed but there is a coordinated project going on to force people onto subsistence living, in the UK for example households subsidise business with utility costs (a cost you cannot really escape). Forcing people into debt is the plan to solve the realisation issue, but this can only ever, in the long term, be enforced by authoritarian regimes.

    Which brings me to the other trend, the inexorable move toward totalitarian regimes, that is going on without so much of a blink from liberals. Though to my mind when i look at conservative arguments all I see are conservative arguments dressed in liberal clothes. Modern Feminism is built on this.

    As usual only a mass movement of workers can stop any of this and even then I doubt they could.

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  4. Herbie Destroys the Environment6 August 2017 at 09:35

    That should be "rather than the Europes welfare capitalism"

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  5. Herb you are being way too pessimistic.

    Every day I wake up and pinch myself.

    The statement 'Jeremy Corbyn could be the next prime minister' is taken seriously everywhere. The smart money have stopped laughing.

    The Tory party are fighting like ferrets in a sack. Every scratch and bite is reported at great length in the media.

    The chances of the Tories making anything sensible out of Brexit look remote.

    We just need to get over the final hump.

    I'm a believer that small changes can add up and make a big difference. See Dave Brailsford and cycling.

    It doesn't surprise me that the British public were unmoved by a dead baby on a Greek beach. But what would have happened if a dead puppy had washed up on a Greek beach? A campaign to rescue the trapped pets of Syria would have gained more traction than child refugees. I can easily see a 1000 strong convoy of 4x4s driven by irate home countries matriarchs setting out to rescue the pets of Syria. Of course each rescued pet would have to be accompanied by a rescued pet owner. We could have got thousands out. Who knows RSPCA inspectors are a disciplined force. A couple of battalions of heavily armed elite RSPCA inspectors, with air support out of Akrotiri and we could still be holding Aleppo.

    Pondering the success of Corbyn I can't help thinking that gardening has played an important part. The press depicts Corbyn as the devil incarnate and this jars with the public's knowledge of a man with an allotment who knows his way round an onion set. We need to take advantage of this. Don't restrict Corbyn to the politics shows get him on Gardeners World and the Chelsea flower show. Does John McDonnell own a dog? If not buy him one a labrador or golden retriever. What does John McDonnell's garden look like? Could it be filmed?

    Anything can happen.

    2015-16 Premier League Champions Leicester City

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    1. Truly, if Corbyn is invited onto Gardeners World we'll know the revolution is imminent.

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    2. Herbie Destroys the Environment8 August 2017 at 18:30

      My pessimism will start to wane a touch when the leftist leader after Corbyn is elected.

      This will show 2 things,

      A) Corbyn was a success
      B) New labour no longer controls the Labour party.

      But as things stand there are two problems:

      A) That hideous creature Theresa may is still in power
      B) The Labour party is still owned by the careerist New Labour elements and Corbyn was be a blip

      And even Corbyn can't put all that invasive technology back into the box or change the imperialist mindset of this nation overnight.

      Speaking of which, Brailsford of course is in a sport that gives advantage to advanced nations and is a sport where simple technical changes can make a difference, along with taking drugs. As soon as the degree of skill increases that approach is fundamentally compromised. The Brailsford approach will not work in a complex system, in fact it can only retard and stifle it.

      Having said that I am very cheery that Corbyn is doing well and think if elected he will improve things greatly.

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  6. Herbie Destroys the Environment8 August 2017 at 19:29

    Another thing, we are constantly told ISIS are evil and we have to take that very seriously and soberly. To the point that to deny it would be bordering on criminal.

    But your reaction to Westerners indifference of people dying in the Med is to make a joke of it.

    That is why I am pessimistic and the spirit I am fighting.

    I don’t see gardening being the answer.

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  7. Herbie many apologies for the joke.
    Had a few too many and posted.
    I've sobered up.
    No offence intended.

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