Dec 3rd 2009 From The Economist print edition
The many ways in which Britain is living in the shadow of its empire.
IN A London conference centre, spooks and diplomats unpick Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war. In Parliament, politicians argue about the right approach to home-grown Islamists. In the City, financiers worry about their exposure to a foreign-debt crisis. In the Caribbean, the queen and Gordon Brown glad-hand the Commonwealth’s presidents and prime ministers. What these disparate events have in common is that they are all, to some degree, part of the legacy of empire.
When Britons remember their dead empire, they tend to concentrate, with pride or shame, on its impact on the former colonies. The consequences for their own country are mostly thought of as so much pompous bric-a-brac and nostalgic trivia: honours and baubles with imperial names, archaic ceremonies, statues of forgotten heroes, a smattering of exotic vocabulary, curry and distressingly proficient rival cricket teams. This way of thinking about empire is mistaken. In important ways Britain is still even, perhaps, increasingly trapped by its imperial past.
The question that hovers above the Iraq inquiry is since the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s weaponry was so flaky and the post-war planning so atrocious why on earth Tony Blair did it. One theory, albeit not the one likely to be offered by Mr Blair himself, is that his militarism and messianism, the mix of responsibility and entitlement that he evinced, are part of the inheritance of all post-imperial British leaders. Mr Blair was not the first to yearn for an influence bigger than Britain’s now-diminished status justifies, and he is unlikely to be the last: David Cameron says reflexively that he wants Britain to “punch above its weight”. For all their disillusionment over Mr Blair’s wars, lots of Britons want and expect serious international clout too.
The historian Linda Colley sees such imperial longing behind Britain’s devotion to the “special relationship”. “Playing Boy Wonder to America’s Batman”, as she puts it, is British politicians’ only chance of maintaining a global role as if the American Revolution could somehow be cancelled and the two nations confront the world as one. On the other hand, a yen for independent greatness may lie behind the fear of emasculation by America that afflicts some Britons as well.
Mr Brown’s announcement this week of extra troops for Afghanistan, timed to coincide with Barack Obama’s and yet seem autonomous, was a classic example of this dual syndrome. Meanwhile, Britain’s idea of itself as a country that others join, not the other way round, informs its deep Euroscepticism. And the prickliness shown to it by angry states such as Russia and Iran reflects an old but potent hostility to British imperialism.
The sun never really sets
If empire is the backdrop of Britain’s foreign entanglements, it is also implicated in the country’s exposure to another great debacle, the financial crash. The City and the empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it. The empire thus bequeathed commercial habits, and an overmighty financial sector, which British taxpayers now have cause to regret. (Some historians trace Britain’s trouble with real engineering, as well as the financial type, to the empire too, arguing that protected trade inside it coddled British industry and left it uncompetitive.)
The most obvious domestic legacy, of course, is in immigration. Because of worries about terrorism, much public policy and anxiety is currently focused on some Pakistani Britons. But empire helped to determine the attitudes and chances that awaited post-war immigrants to Britain as well as their origins.
Though notionally welcomed by a 1948 act, colonial immigrants caused alarm when they actually turned up, and from 1962 their entry rights were drastically curtailed. Danny Sriskandarajah of the Royal Commonwealth Society describes the experience as a story of evolving disappointments. Instead of fraternity and fairness there was racism sometimes overt, more often and insidiously the supercilious tolerance that the empire cultivated. Many immigrants were marooned at the bottom end of the labour market, some in doomed industries such as textiles, cut off from their families and latterly relegated in government priorities, as they saw it, to a place below new European migrants.
Much of this is the routine lot of immigrants everywhere, but with a cutting post-imperial edge. In some cases the grievances have reverberated through the generations.
The fallout of empire may include the fraying of the union (because the lost colonial opportunities bound Scotland in). Beneath all this is the peculiar British combination of bragging and bewilderment, an air of expectations great but unmet and of unrealised specialness. It is hard to think of another country so keen to magnify its accomplishments (everything must be “the best in the world”), yet also to wallow in its failings; so deluded and yet so morbidly disappointed. Every recent prime minister has struggled to overcome this sense of thwartedness and decline, and to come up with a notion of Britishness to replace the defunct imperial version. Mr Blair tried “Cool Britannia”. It flopped. The gloom may be almost as acute now as it was in the late 1950s or 1970s.
It is arrogant to suppose that where other powers Germany, say, or France were traumatised by their losses, Britain could have lost an empire on which the sun never set, give or take a few tax havens, without side effects. It didn’t: looked at in a certain light, much of its recent history military, political and economic can be seen as a kind of post-imperial malaise. The empire is the Indian elephant in the living room, the tiger under the dinner table. Britain is still living in its own shadow.