James Ferguson web

As a piece of branding, it was unfortunate. The fact that some British officials refer to their efforts to sign new trade deals with Commonwealth nations as “ Empire 2.0” started life as an internal office joke. But the phrase has been seized upon by critics of Brexit as confirmation that the whole idea is driven by nostalgia for empire.

This strikes me as a serious misunderstanding of Britain’s relationship with its past. Rather than being obsessed by empire, the British have largely consigned the whole imperial experience to George Orwell’s “memory hole”. Most British people, including leading politicians, are profoundly ignorant of the country’s imperial history.

This imperial amnesia does, however, have a crucial bearing on Brexit. It means that leading Brexiters and advocates of “Global Britain” misunderstand the past — with dangerous consequences for the future. They speak warmly of returning to Britain’s historical vocation as a “great trading nation”, when it was actually a great imperial nation. That important distinction leads to overconfidence about the ease of re-creating a global trading destiny, in a world in which Britannia no longer rules the waves.

In the imperial age, Britain was in the habit of blasting its way into global markets. The East India Company went to war when its trading privileges were threatened, and ended up extending its rule over most of India. And when China tried to stop the opium trade in the 19th century, Britain went to war again — sinking the Chinese fleet and forcing the Qing dynasty to cede Hong Kong.

The British ignorance of their own imperial history is captured by a passage in Tony Blair’s autobiography. The former prime minister records that when the UK handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Jiang Zemin, the Chinese president at the time, suggested that Britain and China could now put the past behind them. Mr Blair admits that: “I had, at the time, only a fairly dim and sketchy understanding of what that past was.”

But while the British elite may have largely forgotten their own imperial history, the countries that Britain sees as crucial to its future as a trading nation most decidedly have not.

Shashi Tharoor, head of the foreign affairs committee of the Indian parliament, has just published an excoriating account of Britain’s imperial rule in India, Inglorious Empire. Those Brits who speak confidently about how Britain’s “historical and cultural ties” to India will make it easy to strike a great new trade deal should read Mr Tharoor’s book. It would help them to see the world through the eyes of the emerging economic superpowers of the 21st century — India and China — countries once colonised or defeated by Britain; and that, in consequence, harbour decidedly ambivalent feelings about the UK.

British vagueness about the country’s imperial past reflects the history that is taught at schools and universities. The standard curriculums stress British political history and the development of parliamentary democracy. As for Britain’s interactions with the rest of the world, students will learn about wars against Napoleon and Hitler — but very little about the empire.

For a Martian historian, the most interesting thing about modern British history would surely be that the country built a massive global empire. But for the Brits themselves, shaping a national story that centres around the war against the Nazis — rather than the empire — makes psychological sense. It has allowed Britain to nurture a national self-image as champions of freedom and plucky underdogs (captured in the eternal popularity of the television programme Dad’s Army) rather than imperialist oppressors.

circa 1839: Officers of the 15th Punjabees in their tent at Pehtang during the First Opium War between Britain and China. Original Publication: Illustrated London News - pub.1860 Original Artwork: Engraving after drawing by C Wirgman. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Officers of the 15th Punjabees at Pehtang during the first opium war © Getty

The fact that victory in the second world war and loss of empire more or less coincided was also helpful. Victory in Europe was a moment of national triumph that cushioned the psychological blow of the loss of empire. All British opinion formers have 1945 stamped on their memory — the year that marked victory in Europe. Few would be able to tell you that 1947 was the year of the independence of India.

Victory in two world wars has also cemented the role of parliament as a symbol of the nation and of freedom. It was from the floor of the House of Commons that Winston Churchill made his famous vow to “fight them on the beaches”.

The domestic history that the British elite revere is the story of parliament: Oliver Cromwell, William Gladstone, the great reform acts and the like. The mental imprint of this on modern British politicians is reflected in the arch decision to call the bill pulling Britain out of the EU “ the Great Repeal Act”, which is presumably a deliberate reference to the Great Reform Act of 1832.

If Prime Minister Theresa May truly wants to forge a future for a “global Britain”, she might consider changing the kind of history that its citizens are taught. It would be helpful if future British politicians understood the significance not just of 1939, the year that the second world war broke out, but also of 1839, the year that the first opium war broke out.

Still, it would be unfair to say that the British establishment has entirely forgotten the great empire builders of the past. Palmerston, who was prime minister at the time of the second opium war in the 1850s, is still remembered at the Foreign Office. The office cat has been named after him.


Letters in response to this column:

How Burke impeached the captain-general of iniquity, Hastings / From Francis Ghilès, Barcelona, Spain

EU imperialism convinced me it was time to get out / From Malcolm Webb, Ashtead, Surrey, UK

These English — had they no redeeming features? / From Henry Cottrell, Bath, UK

New Zealand won’t want to turn the clock back / From Michael Lake, Lugwardine, Herefordshire, UK

‘British’ need help to come to terms with their past / From Nicholas Boyle, University of Cambridge, UK

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