The Ambience of Empire
A remarkably coherent piece by Andrew O’Hagan appeared in the Guardian at the weekend. He writes about assimilation and sedation: “The Gordon Brown who wrote a biography of the Scottish socialist politician James Maxton would not be electable as British prime minister. He has transformed himself, like Blair, into a simulacrum of Margaret Thatcher.”
Here is a short extract of his piece which is itself an edited version of the author’s recent George Orwell Memorial Lecture:
“There was, and is, an English arrogance which resides in the view that they are naturally dominant within the British Isles. This notion was virulent in 18th-century Britain, when the Scots and the Irish were lampooned in the journals and pictorials of the day. The British Museum holds a great and hot-making archive of English caricatures that show the Scots and the Irish as drunken, hopeless, arse-kissing louts. Dr Johnson baited his friend James Boswell along similar lines, and the Scots got their own back in ways briskly intellectual and industrial. Yet the resentment lasted. My grandparents would bristle at the idea of any supposed English superiority – I remember reading a line of Milton’s, “Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live”, finding it intolerable and wondering whether or not reading it aloud would give my granny a heart attack.
What drove my forebears to drink wasn’t Dr Johnson, but the Edwardian imperial snobbery of the English that hurt the Irish and undervalued the Scots contribution to the making of the United Kingdom. My people weren’t nationalists, they were socialists, and they disliked the English habit of superiority in what they otherwise considered to be a perfectly sensible union.
The historian Perry Anderson has drawn attention to the “lasting imprint of imperialism on English life, of how deeply acclimatised English culture became to the ambience of empire”. It is an ambience that made a curiously small imprint on modern Scotland, despite the Scots’ energetic cooperation and sometimes aggressive lead in foreign adventures. The Scottish nationalists of today are able to exploit a ridiculous pretension: that their country is an occupied territory, occupied by a devilish England bent on colonisation. Anyone who knows anything about tobacco and cotton will need no convincing about Scotland’s part in exploiting the empire, but England carries the can, and the English seem perfectly willing to do so.
In the winter of 1941, while bombers sped through the dark overhead, George Orwell explored the strange compendium of strictness and laxity that goes towards making up the English character. His essay “England Your England” summons a nation on the brink of its own destruction. Orwell’s England was a place of passionate moralists and inveterate gamblers. The English were a practical people with no worldview: a more or less temperate collection of Blimps and hypocrites, foul speakers and pointless intellectuals, horny-handed sons of toil and blind lovers of legality. He showed a nation of people with no artistic temper and bad teeth; he spoke of an upper class that would easily opt for fascism. He wrote of the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns and queues outside the Labour Exchanges. It was a world of graded snobberies, each to his own, but where a certain unmistakable gentleness infused the day.
As we have seen in the banking crisis, the English people call for sedation not sedition, and the spirit of the post-empire age has long been one of declinism. The English people today are addicted to the rhythms of their own industrial and imperial valediction: they like saying goodbye to the past, and saying goodbye to the past is the single biggest thing they can’t say goodbye to.” Read the full article here.