The Empire's new clothes

Come to Britain and see the crisis

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.’

Seventeen years ago, I arrived in Britain having completed a book about how far things had changed since Hartley and Horne’s day, with the steady release of the Empire’s grip on the national imagination. As an Australian, I may have been more ‘intimately cognate’ with Britain (to use Boris Johnson’s tortured turn of phrase), but back in the year 2000 there seemed little sign of the post-imperial torment that had dogged Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, I’m not so sure. As Britain enters a new bout of post-Brexit uncertainty, the familiar strains of collective soul-searching are back with a vengeance, and complicating its haggling with the European Union.

In recent years, any number of contemporary ills has been attributed variously to the ‘shadow’, ‘hangover’ or ‘blowback’ of Empire: the austerity measures introduced in 2010, the London riots of 2011 and the recurring ructions over Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands have all been explained with one metaphor or another of this type. Above all, the problem of Scottish independence has long been associated with a species of unfinished colonial business, pointing to a deeper process of national disintegration. According to one influential variant, which has been pursued by writers ranging from Norman Davies to David Marquand to Ian Jack, the end of Empire serves as the prelude to no less than the end of Britain itself. Certainly, it now appears that I was premature in heralding ‘the demise of the imperial ideal’ in Tony Blair’s self-consciously post-imperial Cool Britannia – only a couple of years before his ill-judged adventures in Iraq.


MUCH OF THE recent gesturing to imperial totems of decline harks back to an earlier reckoning: the crucial years between the Suez Crisis in 1956 and Britain’s entry to the European Common Market in 1973. This was a time when scientists, soothsayers and social commentators all conducted a sustained dissection of the nation’s perceived shortcomings. The intellectual fashion of the day produced a steady stream of ‘state-of-the-nation’ books, bearing titles that strove to outdo one another in grim foreboding – from Michael Shanks’s The Stagnant Society (Penguin, 1961) to Paul Einzig’s Decline and Fall? (Macmillan, 1969). Arthur Koestler’s Suicide of a Nation? (Hutchinson, 1963) pitched its claim at the upper end of the misery scale, while Penguin settled on What’s Wrong with Britain? for a series of books that gnawed at the national fabric. While not everything about the British disease was attributed to Empire, it certainly loomed large in contemporary British attempts to make sense of what was going awry: the What’s Wrong writers would trace myriad problems back to this one root cause. The Empire was, after all, a shared point of reference – a meta-index of national failure that was instantly relatable to all.

The book that really cemented the equation was Anthony Sampson’s 1962 bestseller, Anatomy of Britain (Hodder & Stoughton) – a guide to the individuals in politics, business, education, the media and the military who controlled the sinews of power. His abiding question, ‘Who runs Britain?’, was premised on the conviction that whoever-they-were needed putting out to pasture. Yet for all his scrutiny of the inner workings of the British ‘establishment’, he somehow managed to locate the wellsprings of disquiet far from Britain’s own shores, in imperial retreat. ‘It is hardly surprising,’ he reflected, ‘that, in twenty years since the war, Britain should have felt confused about her purpose – with those acres of red on the map dwindling, the mission of the war dissolving, and the whole imperial mythology of battleships, governors and generals gone for ever.’ Determined to be different, Koestler disavowed the importance of the Empire’s end in Suicide of a Nation? – only to be flatly contradicted by his contributors, who variously fretted about the imperial ‘hangover’; ‘an empire now on which the sun never rises’; and the ‘damage the gentle passing of empire has done to the spirit of our own islands’.

Among politicians as well as writers, a passing reference to fallen empires could invoke the aura of national decline far more efficiently than any statistic. ‘I have the impression…that this nation as a whole does not at the moment know where it is going,’ lamented the Liberal Party’s Gladwyn Jebb in the House of Lords in 1961. ‘The process of decolonisation, as it is called, however desirable and necessary, seems to have left us without any very positive and generally accepted notion of our position in the world.’ In the ensuing debate, the Conservative whip Edward Astley flaunted all the symptoms of not-yet-finding-a-role in his evocation of Britain as ‘a pride of lions roaring their challenge in the face of the adversary’. But as decolonisation gathered pace in the early 1960s, Ian Macleod, the pragmatic Colonial Secretary, did not stand in the way. He did however – perhaps ruefully – recall how the vanishing Empire had once brought ‘consolation’ to ‘this bright little, tight little island’. What was at stake was not any specific longing for a particular colonial enclave, but a generalised feeling of relegation to the confined spaces of England.


THE POUND STERLING was a particularly potent symbol of a nation under siege, struggling to maintain global prestige in the face of depleted assets and dwindling confidence at home and overseas. After the humiliating devaluation in 1967, the sense of impending doom was only heightened by the 1968 ‘I’m Backing Britain’ campaign – what might today be termed a ‘start-up’ by five Surbiton typists who asked themselves, ‘How can we put this right?’ Their mixed message of volunteerism (thirty minutes of unpaid overtime daily) laced with ‘Buy British’ fervour achieved surprising early momentum, with ‘Backing Britain’ badges, mugs and shopping bags enjoying wide circulation. The campaign was not only endorsed by a rather desperate Harold Wilson, who was saddled with the political burden of liquidating Britain’s last military liabilities in the Far East, but was – quite literally – lauded by the poets, with newly installed Poet Laureate Cecil Day-Lewis dedicating six dreary stanzas to the cause. But it was abhorred by the trade unions as a non-starter, and when the flamboyant publicist Robert Maxwell offered to promote the movement, it soon became the butt of many a joke, including the opening gag of the premiere of Dad’s Army.

One of the oddities of the surge of national introspection in these years is that it was not confined to 1960s Britain but affected a much wider constituency grappling with the manifold disorientations of Empire’s end, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and indeed elsewhere among the scattered remnants of what was once termed ‘Greater Britain’. Here, too, a proclivity for diagnosing national maladies became entrenched in the 1960s and 1970s; and the perceived ailments were often strikingly similar, not least the accusations levelled at a hidebound ruling ‘establishment’, wielding power through an anachronistic web of social connections. Right across the ‘Old Commonwealth’, the fading verities of a common imperial ideal prompted a scramble for alternative markers of esteem and purpose.

Donald Horne himself emerged at this time as one of the leading diagnosticians of what he termed Australia’s ‘identity crisis’ – perhaps unconsciously learning the very habits of self-critique he had observed in Britain in 1963. His bestselling The Lucky Country (Penguin, 1964) was initially inspired by Sampson’s Anatomy of Britain – even bearing the working title Anatomy of Australia, which was only altered days before submission of the final manuscript. Similar works sprouted in Canada and New Zealand with titles ranging from Colony or Nation? (Sydney University Press, 1966) to The Distemper of Our Times (McClelland & Stewart, 1968), all with a view to exorcising the inhibiting mindset of colonial provincialism. But what distinguished these efforts from the morbid musings of Britain’s doomsayers was that they became coupled to the promise of rebirth. Far from signalling a time of abject failure, this is the era typically associated with the burgeoning of ‘true’ nationhood – Canada’s maple-leaf flag, Manning Clark’s monumental A History of Australia (MUP, 1962), and the new politics of national uplift symbolised by Gough Whitlam and Pierre Trudeau. Only in Britain itself did the new confusion about ‘finding a role’ lead to a sense of unalloyed decline. Where Australians and Canadians could disassociate themselves from the remnants of an obsolete Britishness, the task was considerably more complex for a ‘mother’ country that continued to carry the imperial can.

This goes some way to explaining the sudden electoral success of Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, both winning their first seats in the Commons in the mid-1960s with their drive for Welsh and Scottish separatism. ‘Stop the world, Scotland wants to get on’ proclaimed the SNP’s victorious Winnie Ewing at the 1967 Hamilton by-election, mobilising the same message of deliverance from a decrepit Empire state that was familiar to Australians and Canadians. Meanwhile, south of the border, Enoch Powell was lauding a generation ‘which comes home again after years of distant wandering’. Significantly, he was talking about the English, not the elusive British. This was also the time when Northern Irish Catholics began to agitate for their civil rights, beginning the spiral of recrimination and violence of ‘the Troubles’, which placed all of the protagonists – Protestant and Catholic alike – at one remove from their fellow Britons across the Irish Sea.


MANY A CONTEMPORARY British observer advocated ‘going into Europe’ as the only way to break this cycle of confusion and dislocation. It took three attempts, with first Harold Macmillan and then Harold Wilson being given the ‘Non’ by France’s President Charles de Gaulle before Edward Heath finally secured entry in 1973. With a bold commitment to a new corporate enterprise, it was hoped Britain’s lost latitude could at last be restored. Any material prosperity at stake seemed almost incidental to the emotional shock therapy that lay in store. The deed was done with little regard for the future of Australian butter or New Zealand lamb, but these were sentimental hankerings that most in Britain could happily do without.

More recently, however, the tables have turned. The once liberating tonic of ‘Europe’ has come to be seen as the cause of Britain’s confinement. The embers of Empire are invoked as an ethereal presence, beckoning a divided nation back into the world. What the likes of Hartley and Horne would have made of the current fetish for ‘Global Britain’ leaves little to the imagination. Despite the passing of nearly sixty years, concerns about the proper scale of Britain not only permeate the airwaves but also play directly into the bitter polemics of exiting the European Union. This is not just a matter of unrepentant Remainers resorting to easy political put-downs (just type ‘Empire’ and ‘Brexit’ into Google for pertinent examples). Extraordinarily, the imperial past is routinely lauded by the Brexiteers themselves, presumably having focus-grouped the ‘E’ word with surprisingly upbeat results. Boris Johnson’s future vision for Britain constructing ‘empires of the mind’, unveiled at the 2016 Conservative Party Conference, is but one of several instances where Britain’s imperial track record is wearily trotted out to inspire confidence in a post-Brexit future.

Much of Brexit’s promise has been eroded since June 2016: drastic curbs to immigration, a National Health Service awash with fresh funding, the cake-and-eat-it world of single-market access with restored sovereignty are all widely discredited. But one core conviction remains: that the rest of the world eagerly awaits the chance to enter a dynamic new trading relationship with a Britain freed from EU tutelage. This, despite ample indications to the contrary and the obvious perils of jeopardising access to the world’s largest single market for only marginal returns. Such is the circular logic of losing an empire and not finding a role. Having tired of living in Europe, the British must now learn to live as mere…what? Britons? It is when confined to their own quarters that they find it hardest to recognise themselves.


This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in the November 2017 edition of Prospect Magazine as ‘How imperialism still stops Britain from grasping how it looks to the world’.

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