Why on earth now? It seems so very late in the day. It is nearly 75 years since the British Empire started to unravel, famously at midnight on August 14, 1947, when India became free. Yet over the past 18 months the arguments about the Empire have raged afresh, as septic and painful as ever.
Does Britain deserve obloquy for profiting so hugely from the Transatlantic slave trade, or credit for having abolished it? Statues of imperialists and slavers have been toppled and daubed and tossed into rivers. The Right, more rampant and paranoid than at any time since the war, denounces the ‘woke’ movement as a new and noxious threat to Western civilisation. Yet as far back as 1938, the great Lead Belly was already warning travellers to Alabama, “I advise everybody. Be a little careful when they go along through there — best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” But Belly’s warning was a long time ago.
Why has it all come alive again, and with such unappeased ferocity on both sides? The book that caught the zeitgeist in the midriff this year was Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland. It is never simplistic, always thoughtful, wry, and rueful as well as angry.
Sanghera comes from a family of Punjabi Sikhs and was brought up in Wolverhampton. He describes that upbringing in in his touching memoir The Boy with the Topknot. When he first went to school, he was unable to speak English, but he finished up at the great Wolverhampton Grammar School and then got a first in English at Christ’s College, Cambridge. He thus has the most intense imperial legacy, from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech all the way back to the massacre of hundreds of Sikhs at Amritsar by the psychopathic temporary Brigadier Dyer.
In Empireland, he patiently explores that legacy: the loot in British museums (‘Loot’ is the Hindi word for the spoils of war, jocularly adopted by the British — a Pekingese dog found during the looting of the Summer Palace in Peking was christened Looty and sent home as a gift to Queen Victoria); the millions of post-war immigrants from the Commonwealth who have transformed England’s inner cities; above all, the abiding sense of the superiority and exceptionalism of the British race; and always in the background, the dark shadow of slavery, as abiding an embarrassment as it was profitable, best not spoken of in company — witness the silence of the Bertrams in Mansfield Park when their estates in Antigua come up in conversation.
Personally, Sanghera is grateful for everything that Britain has given him, and he acknowledges the formidable achievements of the British in India, up to and including the famous railways, one of the only vestiges of empire that ever make it on to TV, usually omitting the reality that the prime purpose in building them was to ferry troops quicker to suppress native disturbances and to carry British goods to the furthest corners of India at the cruel expense of native producers.
Sanghera refuses to tolerate the vainglorious, barely qualified praise of Empire from Right-wing historians and politicians, or their deliberate bleaching of our Island Story. Take David Starkey’s assertion, made in 2011, that “Britain is a white monoculture and schools should focus on our own history”. Sanghera’s deep-lying target is what he calls “imperial amnesia”, the pretence that the experience of the greatest empire ever known left no serious mark on the British psyche; a fifth of the world painted Peppa Pig pink, the English language the globe’s lingua franca — all this was a passing episode in our long history, which we shrugged off with a gracious smile.
Outside the specialist literature, in the public sphere the whole experience has been muffled in a tactful silence as profound as the silence of the Bertrams. Now the argument has resurfaced with a vengeance — all the more toxic and unsettling for having been so long suppressed. At the many previous hauling downs of the Union Jack, would any royal personage have spoken as bluntly about the horrors of slavery as Prince Charles has just done on declaring Barbados a republic?
Nowhere can the extraordinary fluctuations in the British view of Empire be traced more vividly than in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell, Sanghera’s fellow-Wulfrunian whose shadow loomed so grimly over his childhood. Powell was devastated by the loss of India, but nevertheless wrote in his 1951 election address to the voters of Wolverhampton: “I BELIEVE IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE. Without the empire, Britain would be like a head without a body.” But by the mid-1960s, he was claiming that the British Empire had been “a myth”, “a deception” and “an invention, all along”. That people had ever believed in it was “one of the most extraordinary paradoxes in political history”. He insisted that “England underwent no organic change as the mistress of a world empire”.
His response to Dean Acheson’s wounding taunt that “Great Britain has lost an empire but has not yet found a role” was to sign up wholeheartedly to Macmillan’s application to join the EEC: “It is as a European power… that we shall work out a Britain in the 1970s which does not need make-believe to bolster its self-respect… This is Britain’s world-wide role, no less than that of France or Germany.”
Powell’s recoil from this new enthusiasm was even more violent. By the time of the first referendum in 1975, he had become apocalyptic about the dangers of staying in the EU: “Belonging to the Common Market… spells living death, the abandonment of all prospect of national rebirth.”
You might think that such an erratic record would disqualify Powell from being taken seriously as a sage. Far from it. It is because he publicly charted his zigzags with such melodramatic passion that he attracted and still retains such undiminished veneration; witness the volume published in 2012 to celebrate what would have been his hundredth birthday with contributions from Roger Scruton, Simon Heffer, Andrew Roberts, Iain Duncan Smith et al. For his wanderings were their wanderings too, his disillusion their disillusion. He taught them to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
For Brexiteers, the suppression of imperial memory becomes almost as important for the future of the nation as the promotion of the project was in its heyday. Imperialist hankerings have to be explicitly denied. In This Sovereign Isle, one of the few attempts by a serious historian to justify Brexit, Robert Tombs, who in 1975 voted to stay in, argues that the Empire never did us much good: “Having an Empire had not been the source of Britain’s power and wealth… Empire had been in many ways a political, strategic and economic liability.” He insists that Brexit is in no sense a furtive effort to recreate it.
On the contrary, it is in fact a crucial trope in the Brexiteers argument that it was the European Union that was underpinned by “imperial nostalgia”. For historians like Toombs, and his fellow Cambridge historian Richard Tuck, the EU is indistinguishable — or very soon will be — from the great empires of the past. The idea of voluntarily sharing a range of powers with other nations is unimaginable to them. The simplest shared code of practice is seen as a vile infringement of sovereignty.
For Brexit Minister, David Frost, who is fast becoming the last hero of the cause, divergence is king. If as Lord Frost and Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator, have both admitted, the results so far seem less than satisfactory, that is because Brexit has not been properly tried, an argument familiar from old Communists disillusioned with an earlier god that failed.
This view of the nation sees Britain’s borders as an impermeable, indispensable protection of our national integrity. Up until the Fifties, Powell believed that “we must reduce or remove the barriers to free movement within the Empire of goods, of money, and above all, of human beings”. Now of course the free movement of human beings must be resisted without remorse: send them back, dump them on hulks in the Thames Estuary, send them to Albania, let them drown. Anything rather accept any obligation of humanity, let alone of empire.
This was not how the dream of disentanglement was presented. Once ‘out of Europe’, we would be free, nimble, our bounds would be boundless. What was not said, perhaps not even thought, was that the Brexit dream brought with it harsher implications, of wilful exclusion of others, of hostile vigilance.
Only Nigel Farage and the ultras were prepared to deploy that harsher language, which was why they had to be kept out of sight not to frighten decent folk. With all their faults, the old empires — the Roman, the Ottoman, the British — had a certain openness, a sloppiness about ground rules. Which is partly why half the ministers in the present government are the descendants of recent immigrants, many of them fleeing persecution as well as poverty. Palmerston defended to the hilt the somewhat sleazy character of Don Pacifico, a Portuguese Jew, who happened to be a British citizen by virtue of being born in Gibraltar. These days Pacifico would be lucky to get past immigration control.
It is because Brexiteer rhetoric depends on peddling a sanitised version of the national past that we must redouble our efforts to recover every scrap of that past — the years of Empire, yes, but the years in the EEC/EU too — and not brush over any of the peculiar institutions that have adorned or polluted those pasts, including the most peculiar institution of all, the mass transportation and enslavement of millions of our fellow human beings. With all its attendant sillinesses and petty intolerance, this is a struggle that needs to be played out to the end, until we understand better exactly where we have come from and who we are. Better woke than dead to the world.