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Britain’s Imperial Heyday Is Nothing to Be Nostalgic For

The British Empire should be a fading memory. But modern-day conservatives have turned imperial nostalgia into a powerful weapon in the country’s culture wars, vilifying those who want a more honest reckoning with Britain’s historic crimes.

A group of "patriots" gathers to guard a cenotaph ahead of a Black Lives Matter protest on June 10, 2020, in Hull, United Kingdom. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

On June 13 this year, GB News aired for the first time on British television. The presenter of the channel’s first broadcast was former BBC anchor Andrew Neil. Several of Neil’s interviews with politicians and public figures have gone viral in the past, with liberals and conservatives alike lauding the avowed Thatcherite and former editor of the Sunday Times as a paragon of journalistic integrity. A pliant political and media class has rarely interrogated his ongoing chairmanship of the Spectator magazine, one of the most hospitable outlets for far-right ideas in the UK.

The new channel’s backers envisaged GB News tapping into a demographic they saw as underserved by a liberal drift on the part of publicly funded media, especially the BBC. They positioned GB News as the UK’s first avowedly “anti-woke” television channel, a direct response to social justice movements — in particular, Black Lives Matter (BLM), the struggle for trans rights, and feminism.

The launch came just over a year after there were protests throughout Britain in solidarity with the global BLM movement in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. After the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, a long-standing cause of resentment and disgust for many Bristolians, a series of counterprotests met BLM demonstrators in towns across the country.

Hastily formed groups of “patriots” and “defenders” mobilized with the vague remit of protecting statues from desecration or direct action, despite the scant evidence that the protesters were planning any such thing. What the counterprotesters shared with GB News and its target audience was an intense resistance to the notion of decolonization, and a sense of comfort and pride in Britain’s imperial past. Several of these counterprotests attracted far-right political activists and resulted in violence.

Just a few months later, Andrew Neil quit the nascent channel as its ratings hit rock bottom. It would be easy to label the whole project as a flop, but wider efforts to promote such reactionary politics in Britain, with the empire as a symbol of “anti-wokeness,” only seem to be intensifying.

Nostalgia for Empire

These events appeared to confirm a reading of contemporary Britain favored by the commentariat — namely, that the country has become profoundly divided in terms of social attitudes, especially since the Brexit referendum of 2016. The existence of the divide is undeniable. However, there has been a spate of academically questionable work from leading political-science academics, such as Matthew Goodwin, who claim that the only way to resolve this situation is to pander to the forces of reaction.

This builds on years of faux concern in public discourse about Britain’s white working class. Such commentary presents the inhabitants of left behind (nearly always Northern English) postindustrial towns and cities as a homogenous block of nationalists and social reactionaries with conservative views on immigration, gender, and sexuality. Adherents of the Right and center in British politics both agree that Labour’s crushing 2019 election defeat in its former heartlands was confirmation of these prejudices.

The current phase of the UK’s culture wars increasingly flattens out the complexities and contradictions of social class and culture in the service of rehabilitating British imperialism and its colonial endeavors. Into this ferment arrives Peter Mitchell’s book Imperial Nostalgia.

Mitchell draws upon his previous participation in an academic project that analyzed the everyday activities of the British Empire as a geographical “assemblage — in this case a vast and intricate structure of steamships, jails, territory, grammar books, memoranda, people, ideology, laws, food, files and violence.” This familiarity with the administrative and cultural output of high imperialism enables Mitchell to scrutinize a series of thematic and ideological preoccupations that define the concept of imperial nostalgia.

Mitchell belongs to a cohort of left-wing authors from the northeast of England, including figures like Joe Kennedy and Alex Niven, who have sought to challenge recent depictions of the region as being irrevocably mired in the values of old-school nationalism and intolerance. Such stereotypes jump out from the work of Guardian columnist John Harris, whose insubstantial travelogues from the postindustrial North gravitate with depressing predictability toward caricatures of Northern parochialism that comfortable liberal Southerners find most appealing.

The opening chapters of the book address and define the concepts of empire and nostalgia, setting a template for the following sections, in which Mitchell returns to the contemporary terrain of traditionalist indignation in response to calls for greater diversity and equality. He refers to Svetlana Boym’s excavation of the seventeenth-century Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer, whose writings diagnosed nostalgia as a medical ailment and presented it as a form of melancholy. As Boym summarizes Hofer’s analysis:

Nostalgia operates by an “associationist magic,” by means of which all aspects of everyday life related to one single obsession. In this respect nostalgia was akin to paranoia, only instead of a persecution mania, the nostalgic was possessed by a mania of longing . . . rustic mothers’ soups, thick village milk and the folk melodies of Alpine valleys were particularly conducive to triggering a nostalgic reaction in Swiss soldiers. . . . Scots, particularly Highlanders, were known to succumb to incapacitating nostalgia when hearing the sound of the bagpipes.

Mitchell’s study of the theorists of nostalgia provides his baseline conception: the Greek term nostos can be read as both the physical location of a homeland and the process and journey of homecoming itself. The relationship to the past is a potential site of “mourning and nostalgia, always multivocal and always messy.” For Mitchell, this approach “insists that the past is alive, not as a living and complex part of an ongoing present but as the only possible guide to it” — a fair and concise summary of British political discourse today.

Safe Spaces for Imperialism

This interweaving of mourning and nostalgia is one of the main drivers behind the opposition of a small number of academics in elite institutions to social justice movements on campus. They present universities as being rife with anti-British propaganda and censorious woke students. As the historian Evan Smith has pointed out, the so-called free speech crisis in universities has been a preoccupation of right-wingers for decades.

Mitchell takes on the mildly preposterous but influential figure of Nigel Biggar, who has made a name for himself as a virulent defender of Britain’s imperial past. Biggar is not a historian by academic training but rather a professor of moral and pastoral theology. His apologist position is rooted in deference toward the ruling-class academic institutions that he serves. Britain’s elite universities, after all, have historically acted as finishing schools for imperial adventurers and pipelines to government.

Biggar sees the call of the marginalized for greater recognition and representation as an existential threat to the institutions that have for so long provided a safe haven for historical and political orthodoxies. The implication is that movements for decolonization, in tandem with the influence of humanities departments supposedly overrun with Marxist academics, constitute foreign imports in both the geographical and ideological sense.

Biggar and his supporters present the firm but unfailingly calm responses of his colleagues challenging his unhistorical reading of empire as a form of bullying and as somehow uncivil. This allows the imperial nostalgists to cast themselves as the truly marginalized figures in modern life. As Mitchell notes, this rhetorical technique is as cowardly as it is transparent.

Stewart of Arabia

One illuminating chapter looks at Rory Stewart, a former Conservative MP who has sought to present himself as the new face of muscularly liberal, one-nation conservatism. Stewart’s imperial archetype is that of the gentleman colonizer and the patrician Orientalist. He is the kind of Tory who considers his more populist contemporaries to be impossibly gauche and unbecoming. For Mitchell, he embodies the figure of the “Imperial wonder boy.”

A former MP for the Cumbrian constituency of Penrith and the Borders, Stewart, the son of an imperial officer, was born in colonial Hong Kong. After the United States–UK invasion of Iraq in 2003, he served as a deputy governor in a southern Iraqi district, having completed a thirty-six-day walk across Afghanistan the previous year — an episode that Stewart frequently recalls and which forms the basis of his public image as a somewhat quixotic adventurer.

Mitchell highlights an anecdote from Stewart’s memoirs in which he claims that a worried Afghan acquaintance mistook him for an Arab and attempted to warn him of the danger of the oncoming Anglo-American occupying forces. This was the ultimate accolade for Stewart, confirming his self-perception as a modern embodiment of the patrician imperialist tradition personified by the likes of T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) — a vital cog in the everyday functioning of the extractive empire, yet one who deflects criticism through a patronizing fetishization of indigenous cultures and languages.

During Stewart’s bid for the Conservative leadership in 2019, he engaged in a series of filmed treks to promote his candidacy, bringing his imperial-wonder-boy persona to various locations across Britain itself, and often staying overnight in people’s homes. Sold as an effort to read the political pulse of the nation, it was a shallow performance indeed. Mitchell contrasts this carefully crafted public image with a revealing moment when Stewart referred to a house that had sheltered him, located in a traditionally working-class area of the northeast, as a “crack den.”

Poppymania

Mitchell mentions Ireland, one of Britain’s earliest colonies, several times throughout the book, drawing out the eugenicist underpinnings of anti-Irish bigotry and the primacy of exploited Irish labor in the construction of industry, domesticity, and empire. It is somewhat surprising, then, that he makes no mention of the long-running conflict in the North of Ireland. 

The aftermath of that conflict has shown us that the core repressive institutions of British imperialism remain deeply resistant to acknowledging their historical wrongdoing, especially when it comes to the actions of the British military and the record of security-force collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. In 2021 alone, we have seen another refusal to hold a public inquiry into the 1989 murder of Pat Finucane and the breakdown of trials of British soldiers charged with historic crimes, including the Bloody Sunday massacre of 1972. The role that imperial nostalgia plays in contemporary Anglo-Irish relations could have made for a fascinating case study.

The fact that the Conservative government now feels emboldened to impose a statute of limitations on atrocities committed during the Troubles is linked to the growing militarization of British public life. Military involvement in sporting ceremonies, ahistorical attempts to rebrand World War I as a noble and necessary sacrifice, and the annual public meltdown around the subject of poppy-wearing in the buildup to Remembrance Sunday all serve to reinforce a culture of regressive nationalism.

Mitchell does touch on this phenomenon in the book’s introduction, picking up on the increasingly breathless and bizarre treatment of Captain Tom Moore, the war-veteran pensioner who undertook laps of his back garden to raise money for the National Health Service (NHS) in the early stages of the pandemic. The health service itself became the object of a kind of recuperative imperial nostalgia, with its centenarian fundraiser used to promote all kinds of mawkish nationalist sentiment.

Beyond the Empire

In the book’s closing chapters, Mitchell builds on the work of Joe Kennedy and his concept of authentocracy to analyze the language of class and its relation to empire. There is a fascinating overview of historical projects that sought to categorize and map the working class of Britain, generally possessing the same air of detached fascination and barely disguised repulsion as comparable surveys of British colonial outposts at the height of empire.

Mitchell includes a priceless reference to a London evangelical philanthropist, Thomas Barnardo. Barnardo’s efforts to warn the great unwashed of the perils of drink and idleness met with derision from a gang of youths, who pelted him with human feces — the kind of fate one might wish on Barnardo’s latter-day equivalents.

How can we escape from the seemingly endless feedback loops fueled by strident apologists for our imperial past? While much of Imperial Nostalgia makes for bleak reading, Mitchell does allow himself a qualified crumb of optimism in the book’s conclusion, which sees the pandemic as a potential blow against received notions of British exceptionalism and postwar anti-collectivism. As imperial nostalgia collides with the reality of an NHS that has not yet been fully subsumed into right-wing conceptions of nationalism, and which is sustained by the labor and sacrifice of ethnic-minority and immigrant workers, one such avenue for shifting the conversation about identity may emerge.

Throughout the book, Mitchell writes with eloquence, unsparing contempt for reactionary charlatanism, and a commitment to historical rigor that the objects of his most incisive criticism could learn from (but won’t). All of which make this book one of the more perceptive and vital interventions that have emerged from an otherwise reductive and inadequate discourse surrounding Britain’s imperial past.