The Empire’s new clothes

Come to Britain and see the crisis

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  • Published 20180206
  • ISBN: 9781925603293
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

WHEN THE GUARDIAN’S international editor, Anthony Hartley, visited Amsterdam in 1958, he was immediately struck by the quiet confidence of the citizenry. It seemed such a contrast to the temper of 1950s Britain that he could not help contemplating the underlying cause. ‘They have learned to live in Europe as mere Europeans,’ he ventured, ‘and – let us make no mistake – that is the way we ourselves and every ex-colonial power will have to live in the not-so-distant future.’ Hartley marvelled at the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an imperial state of mind, not only in puncturing the moral imperatives of their civilising mission overseas but also their ready embrace of a new, downsized self-image drawn to a European scale – a far cry from the ‘narrowing of horizons and a sense of frustration’ he found in English society. Permeating his diagnosis were metaphors of marginalisation, evoking a British people ‘whose assets of self-respect and conscious international virtue were considerably wasted’.

The idea that the British were uniquely ill-equipped to renounce their imperial calling is by no means unfamiliar. Former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s 1962 aphorism about a country that had ‘lost an empire, but not yet found a role’ remains one of the more quoted one-liners of the 1960s, and his words were echoed at the time by domestic and international critics. Australia’s Donald Horne noted the persistence of ‘an imperial obsession with the moral importance of Britain to the world’ following a short visit to London in 1963. This, he said, fuelled a decline complex that had become intrinsic to the idea of Britain itself, indeed ‘part of the British way of life. Come to Britain and see the crisis… It is a crisis of habit, in particular of affronted habits of self-esteem.’

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