One of the most popular themes by those who wish to represent England as a country unable to modernise is that it remains tied to imperialist myths and dreams. A typical example, distinguished only by its vehemence, is a column by the Independent's Matthew Norman in February last year on Jacob Rees-Mogg, an ardent Brexiteer. He has an old-fashioned formal dress sense and an accent of a poshness now only found in the royal family.
His behaviour can be quixotic: he stood, at the age of 27, as the Conservative candidate in then solidly Labour, de-industrialised Central Fife, in the midst of the Thatcher premiership, touring the constituency in, reportedly, a Bentley (he later said it was his mother's Mercedes estate) with his nanny, which he confirmed. If you were an unemployed craftsman, his behaviour would seem more infuriating than quixotic: the more, since he reportedly called people on benefits (at another time) 'the scourge of the earth'.
One man, who was infuriated, threatened at a meeting to come up to the platform and beat him up. Rees-Mogg was saved by his Labour opponent, Henry McLeish, who later received a letter of thanks from his father, the former editor of the Times, 'for the way you looked after my son'. McLeish told a Scotsman reporter that 'Jacob was like a fish out of water and clearly bewildered by places like Methil and Kennoway'. Norman wrote in the Independent that Rees-Mogg, now an MP – for North East Somerset, not Central Fife – appealed strongly to 'the dwindling band of old, white, rural, mostly male party members who pick Tory leaders, (which) is cocooned within the demented fantasy bubble of a post-Brexit imperial renaissance'.
The phrase 'post-Brexit imperial renaissance' points to what Norman, and other imperialism inspectors, mean. They mean people who boost Britain, which they regard as imperialism in a new guise. Rees-Mogg has been particularly eloquent on this: a successful, wealthy financial entrepreneur, he co-founded Somerset Capital Management in 2007, and was elected MP the same year. In January 2018, he gave a speech, widely praised in Brexit circles, which argued that since the EU accounted for only 10% of world trade and was declining, while the other 90% was growing, Brexit was, economically, a no-brainer.
The speech, at the private Churcher's College school in Hampshire, was aimed to rouse:
If the UK can achieve the independence necessary it can become a rule-setter in the world… its future can be true to its history… Britain's success as a nation… has been translated through free trade and free markets and has allowed people to come together to meet each other's needs in voluntary exchange... our best days lie before us... Britain has been called on to be a shaper not only of our destiny but that of the whole world... the next great economic revolution should be made in Britain for the benefit of the world.
There is much to criticise in Rees-Mogg's career. Somerset Capital Management – the Panama Papers show – is managed through subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands and Singapore. Rees-Mogg has defended tax havens. He has called the growth of food banks 'uplifting': a stupid description of an institution which is testimony to poverty. The forecasts of success in his Churcher's College speech are likely to be over-optimistic, and give no nod to the export success of Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
But the speech, given in the protected space of an 18th-century foundation, has no trace of imperial invocations. Imperialism is the control of peoples outside of the imperial mother-state's borders, for purposes of economic gain, military domination and, in Britain's case particularly, the export of a culture and religion considered superior.
Rees-Mogg is a free marketer, the opposite of an imperialist. His Britain of the future will 'benefit the world' by its example of free trading, not by territorial domination. That which Rees-Mogg confidently predicts will be a large trick to pull off: but we must hope there's some truth in it, not because it sketches an imperial future but because our living standards depend on the success of Britain in a Darwinian world, where what Christopher Coker calls the 'civilisational states', as Russia and China, are the active imperialists of the 21st century.
The charge of imperialist fantasy isn't just the easy resort of columnists. Serious writers include the scholar Danny Dorling – professor of geography at Oxford University. He has established a high reputation as a severe critic of the large and growing inequalities in British society, mapping inequalities in both the UK and the world.
His 2019 book, 'Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of Empire', written with Sally Tomlinson, a senior research fellow at Oxford's Department of Education is, however, of a quite different standard from his professional work. It's a polemic, full of assumptions and un-supported claims, the 'proof' of the imperial ivy poisoning British souls often centuries old – as 'rather than never (never never) being slaves, as the chorus of "Rule Britannia" implies, many ancient Britons were slaves of the Romans, the Vikings and the Danes and then for many centuries they were vassals of the feudal Normans'. So? These were one, or two millennia ago. In any case, the text says 'never shall be'.
Dorling and Tomlinson write that Britain's education on empire 'is still mainly stuck in a mythical past, especially in its history and geography teaching': Yet a 2016 full length study of teaching on the empire by Terry Haydn, a professor of education at East Anglia University, finds that 'textbooks and websites used by teachers take a balanced approach, examining positive and negative historical sources, opinion and commentary'.
As to the cruelty and exploitation of the British empire, there's no doubt. It's true that contemporary prime ministers, David Cameron on the centre-right and Gordon Brown on the centre-left, have said that empire was a force for good. It's true that much in which the British take pride, including its fine universities, were funded by exploitation of the colonies. But to make the case that Britain now remains in thrall to the grandeur that was Britannia, and insisting that the UK is uniquely arrogant and uncaring about its imperial past, is to ignore the experiences of France, Japan and Italy; to ignore the huge literature, as much British as foreign, critical of the UK's imperial history and to distort the real condition of teaching colonial history in Britain's schools.
At university level, many, perhaps the majority of scholars teaching colonial history, are strongly critical of the British empire. In December 2017, 170 scholars (not including Dorling) signed a letter, expressing disappointment with Oxford University for supporting the project.
With Dorling stands the distinguished Irish journalist Fintan O'Toole. His book, 'Heroic Failure' (Apollo), is a similarly fact-light insistence that Britain is hopelessly mired in imperial regret: the major reason it voted Brexit. His is a 'not unfriendly' endeavour: 'when your neighbour is going mad it is only reasonable to want to understand the source of their distress'. It is a project of pity: the approach of a wholly sane man in a white coat pointing out the mental dysfunctions of a gibbering idiot.
His 'proofs' includes the critic Cyril Connolly (1903-1974), quoted as seeing the post-war order as one in which the English would play a part of 'supreme importance… and take on the cares of a confused, impoverished and reactionary… Europe'. He also cites Joan Robinson (1903-1983), the left-wing Cambridge economist, who believed that the British empire 'was not discreditable' and that Britain should 'try to show the world how to preserve some elements of civilisation and decency'.
These are, to be sure, more recent than the Romans or the Normans – but their major influence ceased in the 1970s: and the fact that they were voiced soon after the defeat of the Nazis, in which Britain and its then dissolving empire played a major and at first lonely part, means they should be cut some slack for their pride. Yet O'Toole's contemporary evidence is much stranger. It is the fantasy of submission and dominance which is E L James' 'Fifty Shades of Grey'. O'Toole sees it as not seeming 'entirely beside the point' that the book was published in the lead-up to Brexit, with the dominant Christian Grey a proxy for the EU, and the submissive Anastasia Steele 'an innocent England seduced into entering into his Red Room of Pain'. Like England in the sado-masochistic hallucinations of the Brexiteers, she cannot resist the 'sweet agonizing torture of playing submissive to Brussels Dominant'. A jest? No – a serious proposal.
Britain was, he notes, a racist place in the 1960s: true. Enoch Powell's 'Rivers of Blood' speech was explicitly racist, and widely supported. Houses with rooms to let had notices in the windows: 'No Negroes, No Irish'. But complete racial accommodation comes slowly, and probably never completely. Though Ireland, all but entirely white while the UK was growing steadily more multicultural, has changed in attitudes to both sexual and racial minorities – yet like everywhere else, two steps forward may be followed by a step back.
In its November 2018 report, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights ranked Ireland second worst among EU states (jointly with Austria) for violence to black people: and this, in Ireland's case, without benefit of past empire. The UK was second best, after Portugal. Social shifts don't go in straight lines: yet in both countries, the trend remains towards acceptance and understanding.
Britain voted Brexit not because its citizens regretted the loss of empire, or saw the EU as a sado-masochistic monster. YouGov, polling leavers after the 2016 vote, found the top reason was 'to strike a better balance between Britain's right to act independently, and the appropriate level of co-operation with other countries' (45%). Lord Ashcroft's polling among leavers found that 49% placed first: 'The principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK'. 'Taking control of immigration' came lower in both – selected as first by 33% of Leave voters in the Ashcroft survey and 26% by YouGov. The reasons were that the British wished to be governed by a parliament which had the prime political control, importantly, but not necessarily primarily, over immigration.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan and a remainer, wrote in the New York Review of Books that her 'Leave-voting constituents have been called stupid, racist little Englanders. The truth is nothing of the sort… when people were asked if they wanted to leave the EU, it was an opportunity to push back against one of the most vivid symbols of a political system that is faceless, unresponsive and unaccountable, where decisions are made by people hundreds of miles away'.
O’Toole's tender concern for Britain is misplaced: it has not gone mad. The chaotic scenes in parliament and the millions of arguments up and down the country bear witness to a deeply democratic and civic culture. Those who prefer politics to be the smooth management of the people by an elite mistake this for dementia.
The section on 'Heroic Failure' is adapted from John Lloyd's commentary in the Irish Times on 23 January 2019