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Response to Review no. 531

The study of the ’empire at home’ once played second fiddle in Commonwealth-Imperial history to the study of the ’empire overseas’. That could hardly be said to be true today. Indeed, one of the most rapidly growing dimensions of modern British historiography – in the US as well as the UK – has been Britain’s domestic imperial experience, with a particular focus on how the British peoples viewed their empire, and how far it impinged upon various aspects of their social, economic and political life. When I began teaching this subject to my third-year students at Leeds in 1998 the literature was very patchy, and it was not easy for them to get a handle on the key debates. (Without John Mackenzie’s Studies in Imperialism series (Manchester University Press) it would have been very difficult to put reading lists together.) Now there is almost too much good material to work with; some of it published under the Studies in Imperialism imprint, but plenty beyond. It is no accident, therefore, that several more wide-ranging and synoptic studies of ‘imperial Britain’ have recently emerged. (1) Having looked much more closely at the evidence for the last decade or so, especially regarding the type of cultural, racial and religious attitudes to which the empire gave rise, we are in a much better position to ask the bigger and broader questions about imperialism’s impact on and importance for Britain’s past and for contemporary British society.

Much of the most heated debate is now taking place between the so-called ‘maximalist’ and ‘minimalist’ schools – between those who regard the empire as a fundamental and determining influence on Britain, and those who believe that influence has been vastly overplayed. As Trevor Harris observes in his perceptive commentary on The Empire Strikes Back?, my own contribution to this debate is partly to subject some of the material produced by both sides to further critical scrutiny (for example, that on empire day, exhibitions, juvenile literature and the cinema); partly to try to open up some new avenues of enquiry (especially regarding emigration, which played a crucial role both imaginatively and socially in nineteenth-century British society); and partly to try to set influences emanating from the empire in a meaningful context by comparing them to other types of influence, domestic and international (a key theme of the chapter on the economy). Having done so, what becomes apparent is that the evidence is often too fragmentary or contradictory to draw clear conclusions from (for example, notwithstanding Jonathan Rose’s excellent study, (2) the whole field of popular reading habits, and the salience and significance of the empire in relation to them, needs more research). Moreover, it is clear that findings in one area may not necessarily be mirrored by those in another. Dr Harris rightly flags this up as one of the important points to emerge from my study of the empire’s role in forging British regional and national identities where the study of language, architecture and public institutions all tell somewhat different stories.

Harris’s review also helpfully draws attention to the fact that my book seeks to focus more sharply on the nature of imperial influences on Britain: how empire shaped the character of British society and state. To do this it was vital to range across modern Britain’s political culture, social development and economic performance. In each case, what becomes apparent is that it was possible for a vast array of groups in British society to conscript the empire to their cause. Certainly the empire made a marked impression on the mostly middle-class people who ran it. But its influence and importance extended far beyond a relatively small coterie of administrators and officials. Doctors, engineers, explorers, humanitarians, investors, journalists, missionaries, nurses, scientists, shipping agents, soldiers, traders and trade unionists all became caught up in the processes of overseas expansion, and to varying degrees bent them to their will. In fact, one of the things that most struck me about Britain’s imperial experience is how it markedly extended the boundaries of domestic British society, giving such diverse groups of people perspectives and experiences they would have never gained had their lives been more centred on the British isles. In that sense, a key conclusion to emerge from my book is the intense pluralism that characterised domestic reactions and responses to empire. And precisely because there was such a wide range of engagement, there were a variety of possible or potential repercussions; the empire could both compel change and restrain it, propel progress and fortify tradition. Therefore, the empire’s effects on Britain cannot be understood in terms of a single, simplified tendency or trend, however convenient or appealing it might be to try to boil down the metropolitan significance of imperialism in this way. (Perhaps the closest my book comes to this level of generalisation is the case it sets out for the deep and lasting contribution made by professional people and bodies to territorial expansion and colonisation, and, in return, the way the professions themselves gained greatly – in terms of status, income and prestige – from the colonial encounter.)

Of course, as Harris rightly acknowledges, the subject of ‘imperial Britain’ has been ‘ideologically charged’ and ‘potentially divisive’, and is set to remain so. This is partly to be explained by the way that interpretations of the domestic impact of imperialism before the Second World War have been harnessed to various grand narratives of British state formation. Take, for example, the argument that the British state is fundamentally different from the states of western Europe. Here there has been a tendency to speak of a British Sonderweg, or separate path of development making Britain ‘different’ from other European powers, and to then point to Britain’s unique imperial position to corroborate the claim. Meanwhile, those who see national decline as the main theme of post-war history have either lamented the loss of a world-wide empire and its effects on Britain’s international standing, or, alternatively, have turned to that empire for an explanation of Britain’s economic backwardness and for inflated ideas of Britain’s international role. And those who wish to emphasise disintegration see the break-up of the Union as a concomitant of decolonisation, for without colonies the United Kingdom was supposedly deprived its raison d’être. Clearly, these narratives of British state formation – difference, decline and disintegration – are not neutral readings of our past; rather they are constructions, all of which embody certain ideological assumptions. What we must appreciate, therefore, is that studies of the domestic impact of imperialism have been closely tied to the self-comprehension and self-definition of the British nation.

Controversy surrounding writing about ‘imperial Britain’ also stems from differing views of what is arguably the leading legacy of empire for Britain today: the immigration of people from the so-called ‘new Commonwealth’ (principally the West Indies and Indian subcontinent) during and after the Second World War, and the emergence of a much more diverse, if divided, society in Britain in recent decades. At a time when the cohesiveness of British society is being widely debated in the media and government, many commentators have naturally tried to reconstruct the relationship between racial attitudes forged during Britain’s imperial past and responses to immigrants today. For instance, the author Salman Rushdie insists that it is impossible to grasp the essence of British racism without accepting its historical and colonial roots:

Four hundred years of conquest and looting, four centuries of being told that you are superior to the Fuzzy-Wuzzies and the wogs, leave their stain. This stain has seeped into every part of the culture, the language and daily life; and nothing much has been done to wash it out. (3)

Rushdie’s views have been echoed by a range of postcolonial scholarship which seeks to show how race and ethnicity became ‘foundational to English forms of classification and relations of power’ from the early nineteenth century, and possibly before. (4) But others – in the media as well as academe – have been more resistant to the idea of any direct link between the racism of Britain’s imperial past and the discrimination and hostility experienced by African-Caribbean and Asian immigrants after 1945. Immigrant groups who were not former colonial subjects, we are reminded, have been subject to similarly strong prejudice, while there are plenty of alternative explanations for the intolerance shown toward immigrants from the colonies – competition for jobs, housing, local welfare; real or imagined links between immigration and crime; fears about the impact of immigration on public health, etc.

This is certainly not the place to try to resolve such a debate, but it is perhaps worth briefly reflecting on the fact that neither Britain’s (nor France’s) imperial past seem to have helped them very much to live with racial difference at home. (5) Manifestly, neither the British Liberal-Multicultural nor the French Republican-Assimilationist models have risen successfully to the challenges of integrating immigrants. In both states migrants, especially coloured migrants, continue to experience profound problems of social exclusion and to suffer ethnic penalties in terms of education and employment. And in both states empire, though providing part of the impulse to immigration, has done little to help the transition to a multiracial society. Historians influenced by postcolonial theory and cultural studies have done us an enormous service in exploring how and why this disjunction between notions of ‘metropolitan superiority’ and ‘colonial inferiority’ persists into the twenty-first century, despite the fact that so many people from Britain’s dependencies – not just its self-governing dominions – fought bravely alongside the ‘mother country’ during the twentieth century’s two world wars. But it would probably be fair to say that we as historians still know much more about racism as an intellectual and elite construct than as a popular force. To understand better the nature of the relationship between Britain’s imperial past and today’s domestic racism we need to look further not only at how local communities in Britain reacted to coloured immigrants pre-1945, (6) but at how Britain’s own ‘subaltern classes’ felt toward its colonial peoples. In particular, we need to look much more closely at the British labour movement’s imperial involvement. My foray into this field in The Empire Strikes Back? suggests that British workers’ racial attitudes were complex – instincts of self-preservation vied with humanitarian sympathies for the poor and oppressed. That said, it is equally clear that the channels of communication and exchange opened up between workers in Britain and the wider British World in the later-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were largely circumscribed by race and colour. In particular, the South African and Australian labour movements were a source of an ideology of ‘white labourism’ or ‘racial socialism’ that travelled back to metropolitan Britain via labour journals and peripatetic labour leaders, and that frequently presented cheap colonial African and Asian labour as an unwelcome threat liable to be used by unscrupulous capitalist employers to undermine union power.

In closing, it is perhaps worth thinking about the lines along which this ‘new imperial history’ is likely to develop over the coming years. Among the biggest challenges we currently face is to bring together histories of metropolitan Britain and the overseas British empire in a way that better recognises their mutuality. Having thus far resisted the temptation to pose a question in this response, one might finally succumb and ask: how is this to be done? Perhaps the most promising recent development in the literature has been the growing recognition of the importance of imperial networks. (7) Indeed, there seems to be a move at the moment toward re-conceptualising the empire as a species of global networking: networks through which knowledge and ideas circulated, trust was negotiated, goods were traded and people travelled. The study of these networks, though still in many ways in its infancy, is already helping us to see the empire more clearly for what it really was: an interconnected zone constituted by multiple points of contact and complex circuits of exchange. Interestingly, South African historiography has been at the forefront of this project of re-imagining imperial geographies along networked lines and developing a more decentred approach to the study of empire. (8)

Stemming from the above, we are also beginning to hear calls for imperial cultural history and economic history to be brought more closely together. Up until recently imperial historiography seemed to have bifurcated into new histories of empire laying claim to cultural terrain, and older histories focusing on the political and economic spheres. But if we really are to think trans-nationally as historians, and effectively to explore the empire as a series of interlocking networks or webs, shaped by global and regional currents, then surely we need to be putting economy on one hand, and culture and society on other, in the same analytic frame.

We must not forget that the empire was hugely important in terms of the mobilisation of economic resources. But neither should we ignore how economics, like other forms of human activity, was rooted in cultural attitudes and beliefs. (9) Effectively, what I am talking about here is a ‘cultural’ (rather than ‘political’) economy of empire: the study of how ‘culture’ influenced the ways knowledge was created, disseminated and consumed across the empire, and hence how it conditioned the economic interaction and integration of societies within the British imperial world. (10) If people across this British world invested in a sense of shared imperial community, and in the co-ethnic networks that underpinned it, they did so partly in hope or expectation of the economic benefits that would thereby be accrued. Re-connecting cultural and economic history in this way promises to provide a richer and subtler account of how values, trust and reciprocity developed across the empire, and how they in turn shaped and supported the development of the empire’s commercial life, consumer cultures and population movements. There’s no doubt about it, it is an exciting time to be an historian of empire.


  1. Catherine Hall, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination, 1830–1867 (Cambridge, 2002); Bernard Porter, The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain (Oxford, 2004); Bill Schwartz, Memories of Empire (forthcoming, 2006). Back to (1)
  2. J. Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (New Haven, Conn., 2001). Back to (2)
  3. S. Rushdie, ‘The New Empire Within Britain’ in Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism, 1981–1991 (1991), p.130. Back to (3)
  4. Hall, Civilising Subjects, p. 8. Back to (4)
  5. My thoughts on this subject took shape during an oral history project, conducted with the help of Tameside Council and the Institute of Public Policy Research, the result of which were published in pamphlet form: see A. S. Thompson with R.Begum, Asian ‘Britishness’: A Study of First Generation Asian Migrants in Greater Manchester, Asylum and Migration Working Paper Series, IPPR (2004). Back to (5)
  6. For a useful recent example of what can de done by painstaking local archival research, see D. Renton, Hostility or Welcome? Migration to the North East since 1945, North Eastern History, no.15 (North-East England History Institute, University of Teeside, 2006). Back to (6)
  7. For a recent example, see L. Proudfoot and M. Roche, ‘Introduction: Place, Network, and the Geographies of Empire’ in ed. L. Proudfoot and M. Roche, (Dis)Placing Empire. Renegotiating British Colonial Geographies (Aldershot, 2005), pp.1–11. Back to (7)
  8. A. Lester, Imperial Networks. Creating Identities in Nineteenth Century South African and Britain (2001); S. Dubow, A Commonwealth of Knowledge (Oxford, forthcoming); E. Elbourne, Blood Ground. Colonialism, Missions and the Contest for Christianity in the Cape Colony and Britain, 1799–1853 (Montreal, 2002); J. Hyslop, The Notorious Syndicalist. A Scottish Rebel in Colonial South Africa (Johannesburg, 2004). Back to (8)
  9. For the relationship between economy and culture in the ‘new’ imperial history, see, especially, A New Imperial History. Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840, ed. K. Wilson, (Cambridge, 2004), p.18. Back to (9)
  10. For the outline of such a theory of a ‘cultural economy of empire’, see, A. Thompson and G. Magee, ‘Globalisation from Below: Britain’s imperial economy, c.1850–1914′ (forthcoming). Back to (10)