Empire – having had it and having lost it – is the constant background noise to our culture, an underlying neurosis which has begun to erupt in ever clearer, more frightening and more cathartic forms.
The memory and experience of empire is built into the deep structure of how we engage with race, class and gender; it pervades our culture, from prestige TV to the textures of everyday consumer existence; it is built into our constitutional arrangements, just as its legacy structures the arrangements of global capitalism by which we remain one of the world’s richest countries at the expense of its poorest; and it is the contested ground on which we play out some of our most violent and estranging conflicts.
We in the UK have never made the empire a taboo enthusiasm
It would be nice if this were only our problem, but it isn’t.
The world is getting hotter and we’re running out of both space and time: there’s nowhere to escape to and no more room for prevarication.
Almost everywhere, in the face of this fatal entangledness, societies are turning inward – to the nation, to the sovereign state, and especially to its power to exclude and punish.
It is easy to imagine the millions or billions of deaths that climate change will cause this century as deaths caused by drowning, natural disaster, scarcity or disease, but most of them will be caused by conflict, by poverty and by borders.
Those lethal borders are built and sustained not only by guards and fences and checkpoints, but by ideological structures which determine who qualifies and who does not, based on the con- venient, and necessarily ever more closely policed, fictions of race, nationality and belonging.
These fictions always take a local form. Poland and Hungary have based their emergent nationalist authoritarianisms on memories of domination, rebel nineteenth-century national- isms, blood-and-soil peasant identity, Catholicism, antisemitism and antiziganism.
Russia has based its own brand on Great Russian chauvinism, Third-Rome Orthodox Christianity and an opposition to decadent liberal mores.
America’s inward turn has mobilised the familiar languages of frontier mythology and embattled white supremacy, along with opportunistic misogyny and hysterical free-market fundamentalism.
In all these examples, the salient features are more or less the same: a pre- occupation with sovereignty and borders, and with the purity (ethnic, linguistic, cultural) of the national community; a violent defence of masculinity and the nuclear family against the inroads of the female, the trans and the queer; and above all a furious and aggrieved exceptionalism, a sense that it is high time that this community (this male, national, white, Christian or at least not non-Christian community) was restored to its pre- eminent place in the natural order of things.
In Britain, that natural order of things is imperial.
As a culture, we in the UK have never made the empire a taboo enthusiasm. Quite the reverse: through our engagement with it, we have been able to indulge a rich and varied range of nostalgias and animosities.
It’s a field on which we inscribe our most acrid anxieties and through which we project, often, the worst versions of our communal selves.
But because it is still so live and so open, it is still possible to see ways forward to a better historical accounting. Because the empire is speakable, we can find better, less destructive ways to speak of it.
Peter Mitchell is the author of:
Imperial nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves
Published by Manchester University Press