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Empire 2.0

On the “imperial nostalgia” driving British culture war

Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves by Peter Mitchell. Manchester University Press, 248 pages.

When I was nine years old, at a stuffy school in a stuffy county in southeastern England, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Golden Jubilee. In fealty to the Crown, we were released from lessons for the whole sodden February day and put out onto the school fields to jubilate. The patio outside the sports hall was prinked out in Union Jack bunting, and we were pressured into spending our pocket money on royalist cupcakes made by the mother of Poppy or Pandora. Culminating the day’s festivities, the whole school performed a rendition of an anthem we had been practicing for weeks. “Red, white and blue, / What does it mean to you? / Surely you’re proud / Shout it aloud. / Britons awake!” The next verse, which I seem to have repressed, runs as follows:

The Empire too,
We can depend on you,
Freedom remains
These are the chains
Nothing can break.

Nothing can break, indeed. My conscription into the taut fabric of English national chauvinism was evidently already well under way. The next year, the summit of my primary school education, I had to produce a book-length project about the exploits of the great explorer Christopher Columbus, replete with inventories of all the wonderful spices he discovered and stories of sea monsters and murderous “savages.” The word colonialism never came up.

Red, white and blue: What does it mean to you? Peter Mitchell grapples with this question in his new book Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves, which takes stock of how a generalized longing for an invented imperial heyday inflects and infects various fronts in the UK’s so-called culture wars. The heady allure of imperial nostalgia, it argues, promises some threadbare consolation for the country’s full-throttle transformation into a managed democracy of authoritarian ethnonationalism. From free speech debates to the criminal mismanagment of the pandemic, the disavowed specter of empire hangs about British political life like flies swarming over an unattended body.

The book opens on June 16, 2016. Mitchell, our fluent, candid guide, is at work on an academic project investigating the day-to-day workings of the British Empire. It’s Bloomsday, and he’s at ease as he sifts through historical minutiae from the 1857 Indian Uprising amid ambient commemoration of the “cosmopolitan universalism” of Joyce’s fêted novel. “Then the news began to happen, in hourly increments,” Mitchell writes. “The first item of the morning was English football fans taunting migrant children on the streets of Lille; the second the unveiling of Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, with its photograph of a column of refugees moving inexorably towards the camera. By lunchtime, Jo Cox MP had been murdered by a white supremacist.” Looking down at the archival remnants of the colonial horrors he is meant to be studying, Mitchell has the lurching realization “that some violence coded in these documents had somehow found its way back out into the world and begun to wreak havoc again.”

The disavowed specter of empire hangs about British political life like flies swarming over an unattended body.

Seven days later, the country would go to the polls to decide on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, with England having the decisive final say: 53 percent of the English, more than any of the UK’s other three nations, voted for its exit. Some seventeen years ago the scholar Paul Gilroy analyzed the phenomenon of “postcolonial melancholia,” anatomizing the seductions of nationalism in Britain’s particular context. “The vanished empire is essentially unmourned,” Gilroy writes. “The meaning of its loss remains pending. The chronic, nagging pain of its absence feeds a melancholic attachment.” The “two-world-wars-and-one-world-cup mentality”— which always has the defeat of Nazism ready at hand while it keeps violent wars of decolonization and their prehistories firmly under lock and key—results in neurotic relivings which “reveal an insidious blockage in British culture, something that helps in turn to explain the political resonance of UKIP and the BNP,” the UK Independence and British National Parties, and the fervid xenophobia these groups manifest. Mitchell’s book builds on some of this analytical hinterland to renew our understanding of how the uninterrogated past bleeds into the present––how the energies attending an image of historical pride have been continually reappropriated by darkly reactionary political forces, and how they can, and should, be redirected.

What is imperial nostalgia? Mitchell begins by sketching the contours of the concept, which has become something of a catch-all in recent years. In his capable hands, however, its operations and effects are named with a precision that does not undermine its psychologically expansive appeal. Mitchell quotes the seventeenth century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer via Soviet American artist and scholar Svetlana Boym. “Nostalgia was said to produce ‘erroneous representations’ that caused the afflicted to lose touch with the present,” Hofer observed in 1688, while treating Swiss students, mercenaries, soldiers and servants working or studying far from home. “Longing for their native land became their single-minded obsession,” with all aspects of daily life capable of being spooled into its span. Likewise, the experience of imperial nostalgia, Mitchell argues, is not just some lightly felt fancy or excuse for “rote grumpiness,” but evidence of a “real and unassuageable grief” that we should take seriously.

Not everyone agrees on the usefulness of this term. The Financial Times’s Jemima Kelly disputes it as a cliché invariably used to scourge Brexiteers over their supposed delusion, when it’s Remainers who more often seem to worry about Britain’s waning influence on the world stage. “We are no longer ‘Great’ Britain,” tweeted the Remainer Tory MP Anna Soubry, tears perhaps planing across her keyboard. The academic Robert Saunders agrees that a lust for grandeur holds across the divide, but among Brexiteers he finds something still more nefarious at play. “Nostalgia at least begins from a sense of rupture: a recognition that something has been left behind, to which we can return only in the imagination,” he writes. “The story they tell is not of a great empire that no longer exists . . . but of a small island that has always punched above its weight; a ‘swashbuckling,’ ‘buccaneering’ people valiantly winning out against the odds.” Given the government’s reported desire to christen post-Brexit trade deals with formerly colonized Commonwealth countries “Empire 2.0,” Saunders raises a fair point.

But these quibbles over nomenclature don’t really deny empire’s disavowed centrality to the country’s day-to-day functioning. Mitchell describes a dynamic of reenacted wounding in which the national psyche swings between denial and mourning, or nostalgia and amnesia, in a cathected state of self-pity. The collective imagination is unable to accommodate itself to the lost object and so sustains that fantasy of imperial splendour through anxious, misdirected chatter. Far from the straightforward amnesia that many have described in operation, we in the UK are almost never not talking about empire, however subliminal or disingenuous that talk may be.

Mitchell describes a dynamic of reenacted wounding in which the national psyche swings between denial and mourning, or nostalgia and amnesia, in a cathected state of self-pity.

Mitchell handles the necessarily abstract language of the social and pyschological elegantly, drawing on an unexpected range of antecedents: he explores his own experience of losing his dad, say, or invokes Homer’s Odyssey to show how violence follows a thwarted homecoming. The book’s titular affect is a repository for feelings that may have altogether different springs and sources: imperial nostalgia offers an incoherent set of compensations for the sense of grievance so often claimed by the right. The quite real pain generated by living in the most unequal nation in Europe, amid stagnating conditions and plummeting life expectancy, can find expression in a simple, static narrative about the past that promises, in the words of the English poet Philip Larkin, to “solve, and satisfy, / And set unchangeably in order.” “We escape the trauma of the history we happen to be living through by entering the mythic time of the history we didn’t,” Mitchell writes.

That there is nothing actually in Englishness is a well-worn line. Writing after historians such as Benedict Anderson and Tom Nairn, who spoke of a “nullity of native intellectual traditions,” authors such as Fintan O’Toole, Anthony Barnett, Paul Gilroy, and Afua Hirsch have argued that there is a void at the heart of English life. This is more than the jibe that all English culture amounts to is its curryhouses (“I am the sugar at the bottom of the English cup of tea,” the British-Jamaican scholar Stuart Hall famously said.) It’s also the idea that Britain spent so much of itself pillaging the rest of the world that it’s never been tempered and developed as, say, a nationalist movement built from below. The main story of English national identity is that it conquered in order to free. Because that’s a lie, all sorts of twisted ideologies have arisen to shore it up. Empire, in this context, is “a cultural totem whose content doesn’t matter . . . enlisted as a symbol of whiteness under threat from various enemies,” Mitchell writes.

One of Mitchell’s insights is that this ersatz quality is actually baked into the DNA of imperial expansion. “After the French Revolution and the nationalist uprisings and secessions of 1848, and in the face of the challenges posed by mass urban society and globalization, elites across the world were beginning to find that the ever more complex machinery of the modern state required mythologies and rituals to sustain it,” he writes, invoking Eric Hobsbawm’s “invention of tradition” to show how our versions of the past get minted and reprinted at scale as social formations expand. Empire was, at first gasp and through its Victorian reprisals, propelled by a mythic ambition to recapture a halcyon past, always forged under the guise of innocence. As the imperialist historian John Robert Seeley wrote in The Expansion of England in 1883, typifying this wilful naivety, “We seem, as it were, to have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind.”

Perceived breaches of this myth of innocence today result in crazed, state-sponsored keyboard wars. Mitchell shows us how the question of what it means to be English is more and more fought through battles whipped up online. Thus he leads us to the stately homes of the National Trust, houses which populate the national landscape, both mental and literal, as refuges of beauty and tranquillity. The Trust’s decision to publish a report in September 2020 detailing their connection to colonialism and slavery was met with a frenzied sense of trespass, as though these houses, which the essayist Patrick Wright describes as “an ethereal kind of holding company for the dead spirit of the nation,” were being bridged by the rampant and censorious forces of the woke. Mitchell patiently disentangles this confected crisis—as he does with the assaults on the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, the crusade waged by Cecil Rhodes-defending Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar, and the statue wars that crop up all the way from Newcastle to Nuneaton—with a consistent sense that it is primarily those in positions of power who are responsible for this mess.

At its impudent best, Imperial Nostalgia analyzes the figure of the Imperial Wonder Boy, whose swashbuckling “derring-do” enacts the puppet show of empire as if it never ended. Homing in on the “rubbery androgyny” of the former Conservative MP Rory Stewart, who became a pet celebrity after his leadership bid in 2019, the book offers an account of how the Tory party, undergoing an identity crisis of its own, has increasingly retreated into a performance of pomposity, a pantomime of the boarding school boy abroad which renders the dauntless explorer somehow beyond the clutches of moral responsibility.

Stewart’s hi-jinks—marauding through the Hindu Kush; meeting helpful locals in Kabul; wandering “from Derry to Dunbar, from Edinburgh to Peterborough” to get the measure of the average English Joe in the wild; serving in the Foreign Office, visiting war-ravaged East Timor and Kosovo; and the insignia of his elite schooling—all add up to a caricature of Englishness in the place of anything you might actually be able to measure or dispute. “Watching Stewart, it is hard not to feel that he is a collection of quotations and stylized gestures, all taken from a certain late imperial vocabulary, and arranged melancholically around an absent center where an empire should be,” Mitchell writes. The imperial boomerang thesis holds that governments whet their repressive capabilities on subject populations in colonial territories before taking aim at those at home. In the “theater of contempt” we might otherwise call the British Isles, Mitchell articulates how race, class, and regionality coagulate when it comes to the work they perform for the powerful, people who treat Britain’s “domestic Others” as “objects of fascination, disgust, ethnographic investigation and a kind of sentimental valorization deeply inflected with nostalgia.”

In Mitchell’s reading, Stewart is the acceptable, sentimental face of the scholar-adventurer effigy-cum-piñata in whose guise the far right now masquerades: Boris Johnson, whose family calls him Al, reportedly has his hair messed up before he appears in front of the camera. Jacob Rees-Mogg, meanwhile, described in the book as a “monstrously pampered child,” an “oddly sexless and ageless patrician figure,” functions as a “different kind of imperial archetype, that of the man of state whose vocation at the centre of power abstracts him from the business of having a body.” The absurdity of the Victoriana circus hosted by these Imperial Wonder Boys intensifies in step with their contempt for the public they purportedly represent. Stewart, sweet soft Stewart, went to the former mining town of Easington in the North East to pay witness to life at the margins, combat lazy tendencies of thought, resist our simplifying narratives, and sympathize. Later winning GQ magazine’s award for Politician of the Year, he joked about phoning his four-year-old son to say goodnight “from a crack den in Easington.”

The question of what it means to be English is more and more fought through battles whipped up online.

Droll though some of this may seem, a deadly serious message undergirds Mitchell’s forensic account. Invented crises over free speech along with their asinine ripostes––Nigel Biggar’s extended account of whether it is possible to label Cecil Rhodes[*] a racist based on whether he ever used the N-word, say––are a subterfuge that draw liberals and conservatives into an altogether nastier form of politics. Reacting against an increasingly chaotic and alienating modernity, “replacement theory, New World Order paranoia, various strands of trutherism and the ‘evolutionary psychology’ of eternal imagos, anxious gender essentialism and resurgent race science trafficked in by the so-called Intellectual Dark Web,” are in the ascendant. This highly readable book, from an unusually eloquent, likable and incisive voice, does its level best to lay those currents bare.

What future for this sceptered and benighted little isle? As Paul Gilroy argued after the toppling of slave trader Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol last year: “It’s not a case of looking for an apology because you are offended, it’s about looking through that history—colonialism, slavery—and familiarizing yourself with it in all its intimate detail.” In most quarters, we are still struggling to steel ourselves to look through that past; in fact, to look directly at it at all. But there is cause for some optimism. By contrast with the anthem put into my mouth as an innocent, the education secretary’s recently decreed national dirge, One Britain One Nation, makes the country sound like a cosmopolitan utopia. In Mitchell’s telling, imperial nostalgia is recrudescent for a reason: Englishness today is more unsettled, insurgent, and open than it has ever been. People are defiantly laying claim to whatever sense of belonging it can be said to offer, and, in the face of vicious threats and realities, bared more and more openly, holding their ground. Its best quality is this capacity for inscription.

The footballer Marcus Rashford––a man who singlehandedly shamed the government into feeding hungry children at the high point of the pandemic––recently responded to the torrent of racist abuse he endured after England’s defeat at the European Championship: “I will never apologize for who I am and where I came from. . . . The communities that always wrapped their arms around me continue to hold me up. I’m Marcus Rashford, twenty-three-year-old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that.” While people cannot live on the consolations of identity alone, Imperial Nostalgia demonstrates the purchase they exert on us all. “I’ve always felt that . . . I have an entitlement to recognition as not only a Londoner . . . but as an Englishman. Can I say that?” Paul Gilroy has said. “I love the green of this country, I love its birds, I love its plants, I love the light in the places that I frequent. It doesn’t mean that’s all I am, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s all I care about, but to me that threshold was worth pressing against, it was worth negotiating . . . as more than a wind-up, actually. To try and say: there are people like me who know this place better than you do. That may be our pathology, I don’t know, but we belong here.”

[*] Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the subject of Nigel Biggar’s account—it was Cecil Rhodes, not Winston Churchill.