By Denis Judd (History Today, April 1999)

Denis Judd questions the role of Empire in defining Britain identity in relation to Europe and the rest of the world.

A cursory look at a map of the world at any time between the years 1765 and 1965 would confirm the impression that the British Empire was central to the British experience and identity. At its height the Empire and Commonwealth encompassed a quarter of the human race and nearly a fifth of the world's land surface.

Kipling's celebrated description of `dominion over palm and pine' was entirely apt, and for good measure could have included dominion over tundra, veld, desert, tropical rainforest, much of the high seas, equatorial jungle, prairie and polar ice.

Now that Hong Kong has been handed back to China, and all that remains of the greatest of Empires, apart from the icy wastelands of Antarctica, are a few unprofitable specks of red on the map, what did it all amount to? This is a particularly tricky question to address as the century draws to a close. For three-and-a-half decades the Empire has trickled away, while the Commonwealth has been reduced to, at best, a fitfully relevant international organisation, and, at worst, to a barely understood geographical expression. At the same time, Europe -- as expressed by the European Union -- has acquired great potency and portent, whether as a concrete reality or as a concept capable of arousing both passionate support and the most bitter hostility. Recently within Britain, public attention has concentrated almost exclusively upon the great European questions of the day rather than Empire-Commonwealth issues. For the British, few of the relative certainties of the late 1950s remain intact, from the prospect of regular economic growth and full employment, to the long-term prospects of the House of Windsor. Even the future of the United Kingdom is unclear as a result of the vote of the Scottish and Welsh people in favour of devolution.

So what impact did empire have on Britain and Britishness? What purpose did it serve in terms of consolidating the United Kingdom, in producing a national and imperial ethic, a national mythology that was not merely wrapped within the Union flag but promoted -- consciously and unconsciously -- by an outpouring of imperial propaganda?

For much of its history the Empire was perceived to be `English'; at least, this is how many foreign peoples saw it. It is, however, evident that for much of its existence, and especially at its height and during its decline, the Empire was manifestly British. The incorporation of Wales, Scotland and finally Ireland within the United Kingdom meant that the Celtic people of the British Isles were invited to participate as partners of the English.

The Celtic involvement in the British imperial mission was, however, often ambivalent, and sometimes downright obstructive. After all, it was the English who had claimed the hegemony of the British Isles, and who had in one way or another subdued, conquered or incorporated the three Celtic nations. Although Scotland was arguably the most independent and self-sufficient of these, the role was more that of junior partner than equal, despite the apparent willingness with which the Scottish people entered the Union by negotiation in 1707. The Welsh, however, were far more clearly a dispossessed nation, driven from the prosperous lowlands of England by the Anglo-Saxon invaders in the wake of the Roman retreat, and the Irish were even more palpably a conquered people, although here the equation was complicated by the passionate pro-Unionism of the Protestant minority in the northern counties.

Further problems of identity arise when examining the dominant populations of the British white settler, self-governing colonies. Outsiders tended to assume too easily that the ruling European populations of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were simply extensions of the British, even the English, overseas. This was simply not the case. French Canadians, Afrikaners, the descendants of Irish transportees to Australia, all demonstrated ambivalence or even hostility to British imperial rule, and to the concept of `Britishness'. There was therefore a multiplicity of identities both inside the United Kingdom and even among the European communities within the imperial system. Nonetheless, the possession of empire helped to define and consolidate a British identity that was both metropolitan and international, insular and worldwide, centred and far-flung.

There is no question that the existence of the Empire brought profit and wealth to a substantial section of the British population, and that even more benefited from the `trickledown' effects of imperial commerce. Undoubtedly the desire for profitable trade, plunder and enrichment was the primary force that led to the establishment of the imperial structure. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the proportion of Britain's trade with the Empire was a healthy 25 to 35 per cent of the nation's global commerce, briefly rising in the aftermath of the Second World War to an annual average of more than 40 per cent. A substantial proportion of overseas investment was sunk in the Empire where British rule and the maintenance of the Pax Britannica guaranteed a safe and sometimes handsome return.

Empire manifestly served many other purposes. Some historians, like Christopher Hill, have seen it as a mainstay of the hitherto discredited Stuart monarchy, restored in 1660 after the brief period of republican rule known as `the Commonwealth':

After the defeat of the radicals in 1660, and the final elimination of the
   old regime in 1688, the rulers of England organised a highly successful
   commercial empire and a system of class rule which proved to have unusual
   staying power.

Beyond acting as a stabilising influence in the post-revolutionary Britain of the late seventeenth century, the Empire provided a means of outdoor relief for substantial numbers of the upper and middle classes. In the first half of the nineteenth century, India was the main provider of employment with young men of the `propertyless leisured class', eagerly competing for employment as officers in the East India Company's armies; later it provided substantial employment outlets for a professional or `service' middle class. By the late nineteenth century other colonial services outside India employed approximately 1,500 people, a total which had risen to some 20,000 by the late 1950s.

Empire provided millions with the chance of a fresh start in life, and the prospect of prosperity, through emigration. Huge expanses of the globe were brought under British control and British migrants journeyed in their hundreds of thousands to open up the hinterlands of recently acquired territories. The future development of the Caribbean, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, southern Africa and Kenya were all irrevocably altered in this fashion. Even where British settlers were an insignificant minority, as in the Indian subcontinent, or particularly vulnerable to local illnesses like yellow fever or malaria, they still came in large numbers to live, trade and work and still had a profound effect upon indigenous societies.

The Empire also helped maintain Britain as a military power on an equal footing with the great continental powers of France, Germany and Russia. This was chiefly because the Indian Army could be sent all over the world to fight on Britain's behalf, and was also capable of being rapidly expanded in a global emergency, as in 1914 and 1939. For most of the history of British involvement and rule in India, troops raised in the subcontinent and paid for largely by the people of the subcontinent maintained Britain's global military status, while enabling politicians to steer clear of the potentially unpopular conscription of young British males.

By the late nineteenth century, however, the Empire served as a fig leaf to disguise the increasing nakedness of Britain's claim to be a truly great power in economic, naval and military terms. So successful was the camouflage, that during the nineteenth century newly unified nations like Italy and Germany made haste to acquire colonies on the assumption that imperial possessions not merely symbolised great power status, but somehow guaranteed it. How could Britain not be a potent world power when the Union Flag flew over so many territories and when so large a proportion of humanity owed allegiance to the British monarch?

British politicians of all parties were quick to discern in the Empire a means of uniting the British people in a common cause, as a means of inspiring a sense of international mission, a device to blunt the edge of class warfare and egalitarian philosophies, and, above all, as a way of looking to the future with more confidence than the realities intrinsically merited. This eager appropriation marked the careers of leading statesman like Disraeli, Joseph Chamberlain and Winston Churchill, proconsuls such as Curzon and Milner and writers, propagandists and activists: Kipling, Rhodes and Baden-Powell being prime examples.

Imperial rule over a multitude of indigenous peoples also provided an easy form of psychological defence mechanism: a great amount of personal and national rubbish could be dumped elsewhere -- principally upon 'inferior' black and brown people, who thus became the repositories of much that was unwanted and disowned at home. The Empire thus helped to boost both the confidence of the individual and of the nation, and to keep fears of inadequacy, degeneration and decline at bay. It also provided manifold opportunities for personal, financial and sexual aggrandisement. It introduced exotic foods, useful words, new philosophies, different sports and a whole host of unfamiliar experiences into the British way of life.

The possession of the Empire also enabled Britons to minimise the significance of Europe, almost to deny their proximity to the Continent. In a sub-imperial jibe it was reckoned in some quarters that `Wogs begin at Calais', an almost perverse projection of the concept of the `wily oriental' onto European neighbours. European nations as sophisticated as France, Germany and Italy were lumped together with the subjects of the Empire as inferior to Britain, and thus of less significance. They were all 'bloody foreigners', British was best, and that was an end to it.

How deeply entrenched was the concept of Empire in British consciousness? It has been argued by historians like Keith Robbins that:

The Empire penetrated the emotions of millions. It gave Britain its
   position among the nations and confirmed a national, not to say racial
   superiority. Taken together with Britain's insularity, the Empire marked
   out an `island race' as a people set apart, with connections across the
   globe matched by no other state. `British culture' had in these respects a
   psychological dimension shared by no other European state, not even by France.

Others have insisted that the existence of the Empire was a matter of some indifference to most Britons, who were scarcely aware of the imperial system's physical ramifications let alone of its significance. It has even been claimed by the Conservative historian Robert Blake that:

The British Empire vanished quietly and almost imperceptibly. Apart from
   those who had made their careers as colonial or Indian civil servants, most
   people scarcely noticed the change. It had no particular economic effects,
   and strategically was, if anything, a relief.

Surely there can be little serious doubt that the lengthy imperial experience affected the way in which people in Britain viewed both themselves and those whom they ruled? Perhaps, though, the Empire was more of a mirror in which British identity and British needs and aspirations were reflected, than a historical phenomenon which single-handedly created some of the major features of modern Britain. For example, Peter Marshall has proposed that the Empire, instead of seriously shaping or reshaping British society and British institutions:

   ... confirmed, it reinforced where it provided an additional outlet. Empire
   gave a people already generally antipathetic to foreigners and convinced of
   their own unique place in the world further grounds for such beliefs.
   Empire was consequence as well as cause of world-wide patterns of trade and
   the world-wide deployment of military and naval power.

Britain's influence upon many of the territories that it ruled was profound, and often long-lasting. The despoliation of local culture, the consequence of British Christianising and `civilising' missions, the effect of various forms of emancipation -- from the freeing of slaves to various social and political reforms, the necessity to accommodate both immigrants of British origin and rulers and officials exercising their power on behalf of the British state, are all well documented. The opening up of colonial and imperial societies to British-based trade and European commercial entrepreneurism, the dislocation of local economies, the manipulation of indigenous markets and industries, all of this -- although it varied from country to country and from continent to continent -- is plain to see.

So, too, is the introduction of a process of Anglicisation, though its impact was variable and erratic. British constitutional practices -- notably the exaltation of the `Westminster model', concepts of law and order, standards of public and private deportment, all of these made their marks. British habits of eating, playing sport, pursuing culture, expressing sexual needs, raising and educating children, all had a variety of impacts on those who were ruled under the Union Flag.

No period of British history seems more imbued with the ideology and substance of Empire than the nineteenth century. Towards its end, with Queen Victoria, now firmly, even passionately, attached to the titular leadership of the Empire, the sub-sections of the social pyramid were far more likely to identify with imperialism as a matter of course. Despite its simplistic quality, the cry `for Queen and Empire' had a potent appeal, not least to those struggling at the bottom of the social pile and to the aspiring, but chair-bound, clerical classes who could dream of adventure and derring-do on the high veld or the Australian outback.

By the end of the nineteenth century the British Empire assumed a size and grandeur that surpassed that of all contemporary imperial systems. Britain's enthusiastic participation in the fin de siecle frenzy of imperial acquisitiveness had led to huge extensions of territory, particularly during the partition of Africa. British holdings were staked out in South East Asia and the South Pacific as well. Soldiers, like Field Marshals Wolseley, Roberts and Kitchener were to become national heroes.

Within the United Kingdom the newly enfranchised masses were fed a rich diet of imperial propaganda which permeated much of society, from school textbooks, to the columns of the rapidly expanding cheap, mass-circulation national newspapers; from brightly coloured biscuit tins to the robust patriotic ballads of the music halls; from great displays like Queen Victoria's Golden and Diamond Jubilees to the names given to new streets in the burgeoning suburbs. Empire thus became associated, both consciously and unconsciously, with many of the good things in life: cheap or exotic foods, small luxuries and entertainment. It also had a grander, more ritual resonance manifested in public events; royal ceremonial, national anniversaries, holidays, street parties and patriotic display.

In domestic politics the Conservative Party now embraced imperial ideology more warmly than ever: for one thing, Empire now produced profits rather than expenses; for another, there were votes to be had. It was Disraeli who bestowed the title of Empress of India upon a gratified Queen and who bought a vital stake in the Suez Canal Company allegedly `for her'. The Conservatives reaped a substantial reward for their efforts when the `imperial' issue of Irish Home Rule split the Liberals and put them into almost permanent majority government between 1886-1905. Even the Liberals, despite the opposition of their left wing, substantially accommodated empire, their right wing going so far as to call themselves `Liberal Imperialists'.

During the Victorian and Edwardian eras, Empire seemed both to confirm Britain's global supremacy and, perhaps more importantly, to guarantee it. Although critics of imperialism could easily be round wherever the British flag flew, they included few who imagined that the Empire would dissolve in the foreseeable future. Indeed, at the start of the twentieth century a new monarch, Edward VII, was crowned King-Emperor amid gorgeous ceremonial that included the first performance of Edward Elgar's `Land of Hope and Glory' with its plain assertion that `wider still and wider' would the Empire's boundaries be set.

The twentieth century saw the Empire and Commonwealth reach its greatest territorial extent in the aftermath of the First World War, but time was running out. The growth of a mass, successfully organised nationalist movement in India was an ominous portent. The cost of the war also seriously damaged Britain's position as the leading financial and commercial nation. Despite the frenetic attempts of British politicians and industrialists between the wars to promote inter-imperial trade and to consolidate and extend the imperial ethic, the clock could not be turned back. The staggering cost of the Second World War destroyed any serious aspirations for the revival and repackaging of the British Empire. Between 1947 and 1948 India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon all achieved independence. By 1960, with the second great phase of decolonisation in Africa and South East Asia in full swing, the British premier, Harold Macmillan, decided that it was membership of the European Economic Community, not the leadership of an increasingly ungovernable empire, that held the key to the future.

The aftermath of empire has been both constructive and destructive. There are innumerable historical connections between Britain and her former colonies, all of them open to creative enterprise and initiative. The independent nations of the Commonwealth have displayed a generosity towards their former rulers of impressive proportions. Business links, diplomatic co-operation, the provision of military bases, various forms of aid and mutual understanding are commonplace. So too is a passion for cricket and at least a lip service to parliamentary democracy. As John Strachey, a minister in the Attlee cabinet, once said, `To know a no-ball from a googly and a point of order from a supplementary question is genuinely to have something in common'.

There is, of course, a negative side. Centuries of imperial supremacy has left many British people ensnared in a mesh of prejudice and shallow assertiveness. Imperialism rested on, indeed was sustained by, assumptions of superiority, where one white person was thought literary to be worth any number of blacks and browns. Such prejudice was lent greater strength by the mass migrations to the United Kingdom of several millions from the Caribbean, the Indian sub-continent and Africa. There have been few objections to immigrants from the `white' Commonwealth, and certainly no race riots. The effect of this empire-linked migration has been profound: it has, once more, changed the definition of Britishness, changed the composition of the crowds in the streets as well as the membership of national sports teams.

Despite recurrent displays of prejudice against `new Commonwealth' immigrants, despite the fact that British power had been maintained when necessary by ruthless shows of military force and by the humiliation and subordination of local elites and populations, the former colonial subjects of the Empire showed considerable forbearance with Britain once they gained their independence. Perhaps one reason for this, and also for the fact that imperial rule did not meet with more consistent and violent resistance, lay in the fact that in many respects the publicly proclaimed imperial ideology had appeared benevolent rather than despotic. The Westminster model of parliamentary government, the rule of law, the rights of the individual, the self-congratulatory denial of administrative corruption, each part and parcel of the `civilising mission', were all seductive pieces of propaganda, and, moreover, based upon sufficient truth and perceived reality to carry conviction. Although the British did not, in general, propagate the Christian faith with the zeal and ruthlessness of, say, the Spanish conquistadors in Latin America, their insistence on the benevolence, justice and evolutionary potential of British imperial rule was, in effect, an alternative religion.

There was also the material residue of Empire. This amounted to a post-colonial inheritance that could be criticised but not gainsaid. On every continent, the British left roads, railways, irrigation schemes, telegraph systems, radio transmitters, great public buildings, a mass of imperial statuary, harbours, airfields, bridges and dams. All of this was accompanied and indeed made possible by the rapid proliferation of British and European administrators, traders and settlers, British technology and weaponry, western banking and commerce, modern industrial techniques and practices, the Christian religion, British concepts of democracy, constitutional and legal practice, and much more besides. In all these ways, the impact of the British Empire on the societies which it controlled was simply part of the broader and apparently irresistible expansion of European civilisation and commerce that had begun in earnest in the late fifteenth century. All this helped to promote pride in `being British' and in `having an Empire' -- achievements more frequently referred to than the economic and financial control that had also marked the heyday of Empire.

As it happened, the rigging of the terms of trade and finance in Britain's favour had a damaging side-effect upon the Mother Country: Empire allowed British industry and various institutions to shelter behind the privileges which imperial supremacy so often involved. Thus not only was industrial modernisation frequently put off, but Britain found herself stranded and effectively isolated in the post-imperial period. In compensation, much was made of the essentially shallow `special relationship' with the US, and the anti-European hysteria demonstrated in some quarters is yet another indication of displacement.

Despite the withdrawal from Hong Kong, Britain's imperial story is, not quite over yet. The Empire has not entirely evaporated; there are still some responsibilities to carry out, a few difficult choices to be made. Will Antarctica be the scene of a quasi-imperial scramble over mineral resources buried beneath the ice? Will the British people still fail to come to terms with their drastically reduced influence in the world, or will they at last accept what many see as their true destiny -- wholehearted membership of the European Union and an acknowledgement that, despite 500 years of imperial history, Britain is inescapably part of the political, social, cultural and economic fabric of Europe? If, as seems likely, Britain plumps for the European option it will represent the final defeat of the grander and wider imperial identity that for so long seemed preferable to an intricate entanglement with a nearby continent of which the British often claimed to know little and care less.


C. Bayly, Imperial Meridian, The British Empire and the World, 1780-1830, (Longman, 1989); P.J. Cain & A.G. Hopkins, British Imperialism; Innovation & Expansion, 1688-1914, (Longman, 1993) and British Imperialism; Crisis and Deconstruction, 1914-1990, (Longman, 1993); Ronald Hyam, Britain's Imperial Century, 1815-1914 (Macmillan, 1993); Bernard Porter, The Lion's Share: a Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-1995 (Longman, 1996).

Denis Judd is Professor of History at the University of North London.

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