Vernon Bogdanor

Not lions, but ostriches

Jeremy Paxman has written an excellent book, but it is not the book that he set out to write. His central argument is that, since the empire had a formative influence on modern India, it must also have had a formative influence on modern Britain. If it influenced the colonised, it must have influenced the colonisers.
But that, surely, is a fallacy. For the British empire was, for most of its history, an elite project. There is little evidence that it ever enthused the British people, except perhaps in the decade following Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, when Beatrice Webb found ‘all classes’ to be ‘drunk with the sightseeing and hysterical loyalty’. Yet, in the one general election in which imperial questions were squarely at the forefront — that of 1906, which was dominated by Joseph Chamberlain’s appeal for tariff reform as a means to secure closer ties between the Dominions and the ‘Mother Country’ — the voters responded by giving the Little Englanders of the Liberal party a landslide majority. The hold of the ideology of empire upon the British people had been short-lived, and, once over, was rapidly forgotten. It had been rather like a party at which the drink had flowed so copiously that one could hardly remember having been there at all.

It was precisely because empire had never been a popular project that we were able to surrender it so easily without the traumas that assailed the French in Algeria or the Belgians in the Congo. ‘Think imperially,’ Churchill begged the Dominions before 1939, but neither they nor the British people were willing to do so. ‘I think I can save the British empire from anything,’ Churchill told his private secretary sadly at the end of his life, ‘except the British.’
Paxman believes that ‘the only place which has yet properly to decolonise itself is Britain’.

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