We need to talk about the British Empire and the endurance of the Empire State


Gerry Hassan looks at the Empire State of Mind which informs and emboldens Britain’s far right and the politics of racism.

The legacy of the British Empire is everywhere. Its ghosts still haunt us; landmarks, people and dates that connect to it abound – while its myths, deceptions and omissions are regularly invoked.

This should not be understood as an arcane debate about some long-lost past. At its core it is about the present and how we see ourselves, how we became who we are, and how we understand how we fit into the world and how we share a common humanity with others.

For many years serious historians involved themselves in uncovering the complex mosaic of the British Empire – placing it in a wider global context of mercantile capitalism and competition, exploitation and appropriation, and the legacy of slavery and the slave trade.

But in more recent times a new revisionist perspective associated with right-wing populists and ultra-right dissemblers has arisen that claims that this is some sinister plot to shame and humiliate Britain. Rather, they argue, we should walk tall about Empire and many of its associations – occasionally admitting error but seeing it as part of a ‘great British civilising project’.

Seven Ways of Defending Empire

The historian and academic Alan Lester has studied and written on this subject extensively. His Deny and Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Pasts in the Culture Wars explicitly looks at the interpretation of Empire which exists in the present and in everyday discourse. He identifies seven arguments that right-wing revisionists use in attempting to excuse, apologise or make the case for the British Empire. As they surround current discussions, these views are worth exploring further:

FIRST: ‘To highlight racism in the past is self-flagellating’, and anti-British’ making ‘Britons today feel ashamed and guilty.’

Raising awareness of Empire and its associated racism is, in the words of Boris Johnson, a sign of ‘cringing embarrassment about our history, about our traditions and about our culture’ informed by ‘self-recrimination and wetness’ when it is nothing of the kind.

SECOND: ‘You shouldn’t project today’s values onto the past. You can’t expect the Victorians to have had the same attitudes as us today.’

This argument is not about projecting onto the past, but about interpretations and debates today and dismisses the reality of historical experience. 

THIRD: ‘You criticise the British people when they were no more flawed than any other people.’

David Olusoga has observed that, ‘Whenever I mention the British Empire in Africa, people will say “but what about the Belgians in Congo?”’. He notes that ‘these aren’t actual forms of dialogue … they are ways of silencing people.’

FOURTH: ‘You must not appreciate the benefits of being British/living in Britain if you criticise your country like this.’

This suggests that criticising any aspect of contemporary or past Britain is not just knocking Britain and talking it down, it is in effect being ‘anti-British’. This tactic is one of the most age-old attempts to control and neuter debate by negatively labelling the characteristics of critics – such as being ‘anti-American’ during the Vietnam War.

FIFTH: ‘Your account is not balanced because you look only at the negative aspects of British imperialism and not the positive.’

Thus, any critical take on Empire ignores the humanitarian, liberal, developmental aspect of colonialism which imbued the zenith of 19th century British imperialism. These facets were deeply superficial at the time, as indeed they were in the UK itself, and camouflaged extraction and exploitation.

SIXTH: ‘All lives should matter in history, not just black lives.’

This is a tautology as clearly all lives matter. But at the same time the experience of white supremacy, racism and Empire cannot be ignored.

SEVENTH: ‘You are driven by Critical Race Theory (CRT) – a militant, Marxist-inspired, ‘woke’ doctrine that plagues current academia.’ 

This is a deliberate red herring. CRT now widely cited on the ultra-right as part of a global conspiracy of ‘cultural Marxism’ is grounded in the experience of Black Americans and why when formal civil rights were achieved any real sense of equality has remained elusive. Understanding the forces of Empire and colonialism does not draw from, or need to root itself in, CRT.

Apologists for British imperialism can be found across media and public life, but not surprisingly lengthy, scholarly accounts are now rare. An exception is the recent Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar, who tries to dispute that the British Empire was an explicitly avowed project of white supremacy, racism and brutal exploitation.

This takes point three of Lester to the level of caricature, writing that the British Empire ‘was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent’. He concedes that the Empire ‘did contain some appalling racial prejudice’, but that this was at the margins, stressing implausibly that ‘the Empire’s policies … were driven by the conviction of the basic human equality of all races.’ In this he ignores a welter of politicians at the height of imperialism such as Liberal Prime Minister the 5th Early of Rosebury saying ‘What is Empire but the predominance of race?’; or Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour addressing the idea of a League of Nations endorse a resolution on equality in 1919, saying he found it unimaginable ‘that a man from central Africa could be regarded as the equal of a European or an American.’

The debate about this in Scotland is centred upon two strands. Firstly our involvement in Empire, and secondly the experience of Scots in being suppressed and exploited in such periods of brutality as the Highland Clearances and the nature of that oppression. There are plans to develop a Scottish Museum of Empire and Slavery which gathered recent attention after former Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie’s public support – after the Lib Dems did not do so in the Scottish Parliament. Although his logic was the spurious one that it was needed to break the myth that ‘colonialism was a uniquely English project.’ And there is also a Glasgow Life post entitled Curator of Legacies of Slavery and Empire with a remit to advance awareness and knowledge in this area.

The fault lines and fissures of this debate came to the fore in the past week when Kenny MacAskill got into hot water with some of the Nationalist community for writing in The Scotsman: ‘Scots were not victims of the slave trade, but they did help perpetrate it.’ This brought forth a welter of invective from people who had seemingly on the evidence learnt their history from social media.

Empire State Britain is alive and with us today

The heated debate about the British Empire may be mystifying for some, but should not be. The British Empire never really went away and is still with us in many forms. The British state is still at its core an Empire State created for dominance, asserting its authority and militarism and military intervention. The British Empire as a legal concept only ended on 1 January 1983 – its 40th anniversary passing unmarked and unmourned by anyone (the afore-mentioned date being when the concept of a ‘British colony’ was removed from British law).

Add to this how the Empire came home to the UK with waves of post-war immigration as decolonisation kicked in and the UK needed fresh inputs of labour. This resulted in ‘the Windrush generation’, the decades long scandal of how they are still being treated, and the racist discriminatory policies of the Home Office and successive Home Secretaries. The shadow and remnants of Empire still hang over and shape much of present-day Britain.

The politics of both left and right are imbued with the language of Empire and relationships defined by dominance and servitude. How could it be any other way when, for decades, this is how the British have understood and practiced power and its dynamics? On the left Tony Benn regularly asserted that ‘Britain is a colony’ – meaning of the EU, IMF and NATO. Only a few days ago the former Greek Chancellor Yanis Varoufakis invoked those words saying: ‘The great Tony Benn had made that point decades ago: Not having any more colonies to run, Whitehall is running Britain as its last colony.’ On the right a widespread way of describing the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit from the likes of Tory Jacob Rees-Mogg has been to talk of the UK reduced to the status of ‘a vassal state’. Such is the prevalence of such language and how it saturates UK politics that it is little commented upon.

Underlying all this is a contested discussion – not just about the past and history, but about the very character and nature of Britain, its stories, values and future. It is no accident that the past has become so prevalent in recent times. There is a link to how the forces of reaction and populism want to assert themselves against what they see as the inexorable tide of progressive historical studies and ideas. 

On one extreme there is denial and deception on the right about the nature of Empire. Elsewhere there is an even commonplace cultural and political amnesia which can be seen in one person telling me at a Burns’ Supper earlier this year: ‘No one can say anything to persuade me that the British Empire was not a good thing.’

Talking of which, the book I then recommended was the meticulously researched Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins published last year. This is a devasting work of scholarship which lays bare case-by-case country-by-country the mass violence, murder and genocide regularly used by British authorities to maintain rule. Even more so, Elkins shows that Empire was based on ‘legalised lawlessness’ and the limits of positivism: law which derives its validity from authority, and from this the shortcomings of much of Western liberal thought.

The last defence of Empire is to argue inaccurately that all this was a long time ago and nearly everyone was up to it, or at least the Western European coastal nation-states. In an age where British exceptionalism and delusion is ever-present, this last ditch emphasises that on this the British were just like the French, Spanish, Portuguese and Danish. This is then undercut by the still evident pride British imperialist apologists get from reflecting on how successful the British Empire was, and its size and reach at its peak. It is impossible in any coherent way to hold both views at the same time.

Beyond this the threadbare nature of any good stories about present-day Britain has heightened the acute way in which the past and Empire has come back with a vengeance. Many will no doubt wish for a quiet life and an end to ‘culture wars’, but this is not going to happen anytime soon. The British Empire is alive and kicking, and not been completely killed off. 

Not only are there apologists for the Empire project – and racist, xenophobic politicians prepared to play to the worst aspects of Britishness – two implications flow from this, First, this defence of imperial Britain sits in the global context of the neo-con critique of ‘the war on the West’ (Heritage Foundation, Henry Jackson Society, etc) which paradoxically makes its case on the grounds of defending illiberalism and illiberal democracy (today: Douglas Murray; previously Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek).

Second, this has contributed to the maintenance of the UK which at its core remains an Empire State. We never became a properly functioning democracy and modern country; people are still not citizens but subjects and strangers in their own land, and we have no fundamental rights because governments can do what they like and make and unmake whatever laws they want.

This myopic world of Britain can only be ended by breaking through the deception, deceit and political and cultural amnesia which so define and make up historical and contemporary Britishness. But that will require a kind of revolutionary transformation that makes the UK into a ‘normal country’ that is prepared to face up to its part in global and national exploitation and inequality. Who in mainstream politics is going to champion that?


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  1. John Wood says:

    Very well said! However the Empire is over, thank goodness. We are moving on from ‘Victorian values’ at last, regardless of Rees-Mogg’s caricature of himself.

    Fascism is founded on Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power’ and related 19th c ideas that are best left in the dustbin of history rather than endlessly recycled. It always looks back nostalgically to a supposed golden age of wealth and power and domination, that we are expected to glory in. The current neo-fascism is no different.

    But the hardest thing for the neo-Imperialists to bear is – whisper it – the recognition that the British Empire itself was bought out by the US in 1945. Since then, it’s just been an empty brand.

    1. 230927 says:

      Nietzsche’s Will to Power wasn’t Nietzsche’s. It was his sister’s remix of the notes he used in the drafting of work he had previously published and work that he had finished, but hadn’t yet published, at the time of his final illness and incapacitation.

      Nietzsche scholars generally agree that this remix subverts his own work for his sister’s own political ends and those of the community of proto-Nazis to which she belonged. Even the most cursory reading of his own finished work (and his correspondence with his sister) reveals that it is deeply antagonistic to the 19th century ground from which Nazism sprang. Knowing this, his sister suppressed the publication of his later works and refused to authorise the reprinting of his earlier works.

      The fabrication of the ‘Nietzsche Legend’ in the service of Nazism was one of the great intellectual scandals of the 20th century.

  2. 230927 says:

    ‘This myopic world of Britain can only be ended by breaking through the deception, deceit and political and cultural amnesia which so define and make up historical and contemporary Britishness. But that will require a kind of revolutionary transformation that makes the UK into a ‘normal country’ that is prepared to face up to its part in global and national exploitation and inequality. Who in mainstream politics is going to champion that?’

    I don’t think it’s a task for mainstream politics to break through ‘the deception, deceit and political and cultural amnesia which so define and make up historical and contemporary Britishness’; it’s rather a task for civil society, for society considered as a community of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity, over which mainstream politics hovers like a kind of miasma.

    That civil society is already currently undergoing that revolutionary transformation of Britishness. The very cosmopolitanism of contemporary Britain, which is itself a legacy of Britain’s imperial past that simultaneously overcomes it in a deliciously dialectical sublation, is already decolonising British identity in the sphere of our collective activity at the very same time that the ‘cultural Marxism’ of critical theory is deconstructing it in the academic sphere.

    There is still, undoubtedly, a strongly atavastic streak of nativism in our concepts of nationality, but it’s now only one ‘voice’ in the plurality of contemporary Britishness that’s gradually but inexorably breaking the hegemony which that nativism once exercised over our conceptions of ourselves. This is increasingly true of contemporary Scottishness as well.

    What we’re experiencing isn’t so much ‘culture wars’ than a ‘culture revolution’, and that revolution is quietly going on beneath and perhaps even despite the spectacle of mainstream politics.

    1. SteveH says:

      The cultural revolution has been underway for decades, but since the George Floyd riots and Trans madness has shown its true Neo-Marxist colours. The graduate elites who have established this ideology had become so arrogant that they couldn’t be bothered to bring the majority of British people with them.

      Populism, Brexit, and the anti-woke rebellion are clear signs of of the push back. It is also growing across Europe.

      Like traditional Marxism, Neo-marxism is bound to fail.

      Trying to rewrite or undermine British heritage and history is of course, what Orwell warned us about. Good try.

      The same British character and values that ended slavery and fought against the fascists are the same qualities that will push this graduate elite nonsense back.

      A sleeping giant is waking! Enjoy!

      1. 230929 says:

        Indeed, the revolution that’s undermining white male privilege (the process of ‘decolonisation’) has been underway for decades, and it has provoked reactions from those who want to defend that privilege. But I don’t think that revolution is about to fail; multiculturalism has long since exceeded the critical mass required to secure its venture.

        But that doesn’t mean we should be complacent; white male supremacists can still whip up populist violence among the poor, white trash – the the chronically unemployed, the homeless, and career criminals of the lumpenproletariat, who lack awareness of their collective interest as an oppressed class – in assertion of their own cultural and economic supremacy, just like the Nazis did in Germany between the Wars. We do still have to consolidate the democratic ideals of legitimate diversity, restrained dissonance, acquiescence in difference, and respect for the autonomy of others that inform our pluralistic, multicultural society. We do still have to bring to realisation and bake into our public lives frameworks of social interaction or ‘institutions’ that make collaboration possible despite our diversity and facilitate social cooperation despite our differences.

        I know that white male supremacists will remain terrified of losing the former supremacy in the world. But they’ve long since been marginalised by history. We’re already seeing the future, and it’s not white and male but rainbow-coloured and gender-neutral.

  3. Bruce MacDougall says:

    Amritsar being a classic case of colonialism and the colonised mind. Indian and Ghurka troops under the command of a British officer, firing volley after volley into a peaceful crowd of men, women and children, who were listening to a speech by an Indian politician. They kept firing on their own people, until no one was left standing. A mind that wasn’t colonised would have fired one bullet at the officer, who gave the order to open fire. That’s how colonialism worked and continues to work, employ and use the local population, empower useful Quislings, who put money and position before their own people, to carry out your wishes, and when no longer useful, abandon them. Concentration camps for Boer women and children in South Africa on a starvation diet. The practice of genocide by starvation, while exporting food in both Ireland in the 1800’s and Bengal in the 1940’s by Churchill, all show colonialist contempt, for those “other’s” who don’t count.

    1. 230928 says:

      Colonialism works by supplanting one culture by another, whether through the exercise of ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ power. Britain (and Europe more generally) extended a hegemony of its Enlightenment culture across the globe (colonised the world) during the period of its modernity through the exercise of both. ‘Cultural Marxism’ (against which Suella Braverman and the alt-right inveighs in Britain and America respectively) seeks to break that hegemony through the exercise of immanent critique or ‘negative dialectics’.

      Negative dialectics is a restless form of thinking, which doesn’t proceed from or expect to arrive at any transcendental ‘truth’ or transcendent ground or principle. It was an innovative form of dialectical thinking, developed by the devil incarnate of cultural Marxism, Theodor Adorno, in Negative Dialektik (1966).

      Written with the explicit aim of radicalising western philosophy as a whole by generating a mode of what he termed non-identity thinking, Negative Dialectics offers a bold programme for an immanent and self-reflexive critique of Western culture and its ‘totalitarianism’ or global hegemony in general rather than of any specific Enlightenment ideology like communism, fascism, or liberalism, work which Adorno himself began (in collaboration with Max Horkheimer) in Dialektik der Aufklärung (Dialectic of Enlightenment) in 1944.

      Along with The Authoritarian Personality (on which Adorno also collaborated) and Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man, Nagative Dialektik and Dialektik der Aufklärung were inspirations for the so-called ‘New Left’ during its emergence in the 1960s and 70s.

  4. Jake Solo says:

    The “revolutionary transformation” that might just convert the U.K. into a normal country is Scottish independence.

    Why any Indy supporter gives half a shit about fixing the UK completely escapes me. It cannot be fixed. It would have happened by now. It can only be smashed and re-made.

    But professional Indy supporters and the NuSNP have no appreciation of or interest in this truism. They don’t have the guts or character to face it. And therefore bogus, personal professional and economic imperatives pull them the other way constantly.

    1. 230928 says:

      But the Scottish government’s prospectus for independence doesn’t offer any decolonisation (that is, any revolutionary transformation of the prevailing culture); it just offers us our own wee Westminster in Edinburgh.

      I know that some fringe parties imagine that, in the smaller pond of an independent Scotland, they’ll be able to seize more power and influence than they’re currently capable fo doing and use that power and influence in the state to impose their values on civil society generally, but that’s just delusional. As my old history teacher used to say, Scotland will only get the Independence the Edinburgh bourgeoisie wants it to get; there’s no progressive value in it at all; it’s not worth the candle.

      The prevailing culture of capitalism – modernity – will be transformed only when it collapses in the polycrisis that’s structurally immanent in that culture itself.

  5. SFTB says:

    What is “spurious” about raising Scotland’s involvement in colonialism. We weren’t conscripted or compelled; we were willing participants. We showed our intentions with the Darien Project and we embraced the “White Man’s Burden” more enthusiastically than most.

    The idea that Scottish Independence does squat to affect colonialist and post-colonialist attitudes is delusional. All that changes is a flag and a border and some temporary period of impoverishment. It’s up there with claiming that Independence would cure diarrhoea, verbal or the other kind.

    1. 230928 says:

      Not only did Scotland use the British Empire to colonise the globe culturally with the ideology of the Scottish Enlightenment, it also colonised it physically with its celebrated diaspora.

      1. John Learmonth says:

        So if the world hadn’t been ‘colonised” by the ideas of the Scottish enlightenment it would have been ‘colonised’ by some other belief system or remained in the indigenous belief systems and Hindus in India (not that India would exist without the British) would still be throwing living widows on to the funeral pyres of their dead husbands.
        This article reminds me of the classic scene from Life of Brian, what have the Romans ever done for us?
        For better or worse the British Empire existed but nobody knows if the world would be a better or worse place if it hadn’t.

        1. 230928 says:

          Indeed, John. And your post is a prime example of how colonisation works.

          While the historical practice of Suti, in which a wife immolates herself either on the funeral pyre of her dead husband or in some other fashion soon after his death, is a vice according to our Western value-systems, according to the value-systems of certain Brahman and royal castes, it’s the virtuous ideal of womanly devotion. By what transcendent, non-culture-relative value system is our Western morality superior to that of that Eastern morality? Basically, Suti only became ‘wrong’ in India when we colonised the practice with our own moral sensibilities. It’s only ‘the curst conceit o’ bein’ richt’ that elevates our own particular value-systems to an absolute authority over all other alternative value-systems in our minds and in the minds of those we’ve colonised.

          Yes, for you, me, and everyone else whose mind is constructed by our shared cultural heritage (and anyone whose culture has been colonised by our own), Suti is morally abhorrent, and I share your disapproval. But, for anyone else, it’s not necessarily so. And, in the absence of ‘God’, there’s no way of telling who’s ‘right’ at the meta-ethical level.

          1. John Learmonth says:

            So all value systems are the same?
            Good and evil don’t exist, its all ‘relative’ to time and place.
            The moral emptiness of Marxism.
            Incidentally I think you’ll find that widows didn’t ‘choose’ to immolate themselves, they tended to be thrown on under duress by men.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @John Learmonth, according to Wikipedia (which accords with other sources I’ve read) sati fire sacrifice emerged in medieval times, and:
            “During the early-modern Mughal period of 1526–1857, it was notably associated with elite Hindu Rajput clans in western India, marking one of the points of divergence between Hindu Rajputs and the Muslim Mughals, who banned the practice. In the early 19th century, the British East India Company, in the process of extending its rule to most of India, initially tolerated the practice; William Carey, a British Christian evangelist, noted 438 incidents within a 30-mile (48-km) radius of the capital, Calcutta, in 1803, despite its ban within Calcutta. Between 1815 and 1818 the number of incidents of sati in Bengal doubled from 378 to 839. Opposition to the practice of sati by evangelists like Carey, and by Hindu reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy ultimately led the British Governor-General of India Lord William Bentinck to enact the Bengal Sati Regulation, 1829, declaring the practice of burning or burying alive of Hindu widows to be punishable by the criminal courts.”

            Of course, during that period, Christians were burning each other in Europe for heresy; England and Wales and Ireland had their Bloody Code imposed which included executions for minor crimes (a worship of the God of Property, perhaps); Scotland was burning ‘witches’ well into the modern period, and hanging blasphemers; the British led the world in the abominations of radicalised chattel slavery and the atrocities of Empire. Thank goodness the Muslims banned sati, but all these cultures harboured seriously bad attitudes to women, children, lower classes/castes, foreigners, dissenters etc.

            You also struggle to understand the basics of Marx’s political thought if you fail to understand it has a fairly clear and coherent value system, which is kind of the point of social struggles to achieve justice and the good life for all humans. Of course, you may believe someone like Lord Parakeet the Cacophonist who tells you they’re a Marxist, but you should be aware that Bella has been calling out these fake Marxists (who smear collective actions by their posturings) for years. Cognitive impairment, gullibility, inability to see the incoherence in one’s own views… what’s the air quality like in your locality? Dangerous levels of air pollution across Europe coinciding with a rise of right-wing populism *could* just be a coincidence, but there’s surely a conspiracy theory or two following that line.

          3. 230929 says:

            No, value-systems are not all the same; they’re many and varied. But there’s no ‘super-system’ by which we can adjudicate between them and determine which of them is ‘right’. All we can do is operate within our own system of values in the sure and certain knowledge that it has no transcendent authority; it’s not ‘natural’ or ‘God-given’ but just a product of our history, and so is everyone else’s.

            ‘Good’ and ‘evil’ do exist, but only as judgements that we make within the historical context of own culture’s value-systems. They’re not written on ‘tablets of stone’.

            Marxism isn’t ‘morally empty’. Marxism is a system of values within the context of which ‘good’ and ‘evil’ are defined in a way that’s peculiar to that system.

            And, yes; forced immolation is ‘wrong’ by Hindu as well as European standards (though clearly not by the moral standards of those who did the forcing).

  6. SleepingDog says:

    A bit uneven but I’ll go along with most of this. The British Empire still exists. The United Nations tries every year to embarrass it out of its remaining colonies, and prior to Brexit the EU seemed to be on collision course regarding British tax havens. British military bases continue to get upgrades far from the shores of Blighty. The Royal prerogative provides the imperial muscle on the royalist-theocratic-militarist institutional skeleton. The running of the Empire usually bypasses Parliament, channeled through the Privy Council (see Diego Garcia, for example), covert wars using special forces, and royalist coups (see Australia). Changes of terminology are just window dressing.

    I’ve started reading Priyamvada Gopal’s book Insurgent Empire: Anticolonial Resistance and British Dissent (it gets a lot better after an overly-academique Introduction). Gopal wrote the book after a radio disagreement with Empire cheerleader Niall Ferguson (why are these apologists such lightweights? where are the heavyweight defenders of Empire?). Gopal makes a number of interesting points in the first two chapters (on Indian 1857 Uprising and Jamaica’s Morant Bay/Governor Eyre events of 1865 and aftermath). For example, on the ability of people everywhere to detect hypocrisy, call out injustice, resist oppression, although black Jamaican peasants speaking English apparently had a greater impact in the British press than India’s millions, something we still see unbalanced in news coverage today.

    Gopal also remarks on how common in imperial discussions ‘England’ was used instead of ‘Britain’ to denote the metropole, which must signify something of a hierarchy and power concentration (which also applies to London within England, and parts of London to the whole). Gopal also names a lot of names on the racist-imperialist side of those raging culture wars, which could be embarrassing to those trying to spin a ‘Great Man (Occasionally Woman)’ yarn: just look up the supporters of Governor Eyre (Gopal also includes some interesting self-descriptions from anonymous subscriber’s to Eyre’s defence fund. Apparently the governor’s kangaroo Court which lynched his coloured opponent in the Kingston Assembly, George William Gordon, hadn’t reckoned on the words of Gordon and his constituents making such a favourable impression back in Britain, at least amongst the working classes and some influencers.

    I think the history shows that there was never an apology for slavery nor the other manifold crimes of the British Empire from its ruling classes either as a whole or through a spokesperson. And more are dug up (literally, in the case of tiny graves surrounding Canadian indigenous residential schools) every year. British official secrecy has an imperial character, timespan and psychosis than shows a determined opposition to reflection for the purposes of improvement in any ethical sense. But there was also considerable dissent within the Empire, as some historians have brought to light, puncturing the fake narrative of general acceptance (odd when the whole point of a system of hereditary monarchy is to prevent public opinion from having a say in governance).

    1. SteveH says:

      More twaddle.

      Britain moved on a long time ago.

      Excusing modern day slavery in and current corruption of former colonies by focusing on the past is a Neo-Marxist scam.

      Why is it so many people want to come and live in Britain? They know it us a free, democratic and tolerant nation. Far more so than virtually all 3rd world countries.

      People vote with their feet!

      1. 230929 says:

        ‘Why is it so many people want to come and live in Britain? They know it us a free, democratic and tolerant nation.’

        Is that why you want to make Britain less free, democratic, and tolerant (i.e. less pluralistic and multicultural)? To deter people from coming to live in Britain?

      2. SleepingDog says:

        @SteveH, here’s a better question. Why won’t the royals turn Elizabeth Windsor’s notes and correspondence over to the National Archive even though they’d be locked up for 100 years?
        Oh, crimes of Empire.

        1. 230929 says:

          I know the answer to that question. It’s because the Royal Family (rather than the Judeobolsheviks of the Frankfurt School of critical theorists) is part of a plutocratic conspiracy of international elites to control governments, industry, and media organisations, with the goal of establishing the global hegemony of a new world order.

  7. florian albert says:

    Although Gerry Hassan may believe that there is an urgent need to talk about the British Empire, there is very little evidence that the ordinary people in the UK, or Scotland, agree; any more than they feel the need to talk about the Industrial Revolution, the Irish potato famine or two world wars.
    It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, on the Left, talking about the past is preferable to talking about the future. This, in turn, may be linked to the fact that so much of the Left has given up on electoral politics. When you do that, it is easy to lose contact with ordinary people.

    ‘We (the UK) never became a properly functioning democracy and modern country.’

    Tom Nairn and the New Left Review have been promoting this view for the past four decades, with almost no success. Voters in the UK see the country as an imperfect democracy.
    It makes a change from Gerry Hassan’s previous description of the UK as a ‘failed state’, but it is no more accurate.

    1. 230928 says:

      Gerry isn’t talking about the past, though. He’s talking about a heritage that, in the present, is blocking our progress towards a more just and prosperous future.

      It’s a popular misconception about history that it’s about discovering the truth about the past. It’s not; it’s about critically evaluating and ‘overcoming’ the historical narratives by which we construct our present identities. It’s about our evolving future, understanding who we are and what we want to be. It’s what we in the trade call a ‘hermeneutical’ rather than a ‘scientific’ endeavour. That’s why history (as distinct from antiquarianism) is an important pursuit.

      Just saying!

    2. John says:

      To say that British Empire and WW2 have no resonance with what is happening today is wilful nonsense.
      A large part of debate about Brexit was related to British identity and like it or not for many people British identity is still intertwined with Empire and WW2.
      The Empire gave us the Commonwealth which is still a live subject for debate and a cultural and sporting institution (although diminishing).
      WW2 is still the historical backdrop for a lot of popular culture – recent blockbuster films about Dunkirk and Churchill are evidence of this. There is still a distrust/dislike of Germany in many parts of media.
      which can be traced back to WW1 through WW2.
      Recent political discourse about UK opting out of human rights bodies set up after WW2 shows that what happened between 39-45 and in its aftermath is still of great relevance to today’s society.
      I could go on with examples but will spare you from boredom.
      I would have agreed that the potato famine in Ireland was now history but some of the rhetoric around Ireland from UK government ministers (eg Pritti Patel) and the unfortunate adoption of the ‘Famine Song’ by a section of Rangers support have made me think I may have been a bit optimistic on this front.
      Lastly history is not just about dates and people it is about researching events from all sources and understanding events and is therefore never fixed in stone. Understanding history is very important in making sense of the present.

      1. 230929 says:

        And don’t forget that a large part of debate about Scexit is related to Scottish identity; and, like it or not, for many people, Scottish identity is still intertwined with the imperialist tropes of 19th century Scottish nationalism, counter-revolutionary Jacobitism in the late 17th/early 18th century, and the dynastic Wars of Independence in the late 13th/early 14th century. It’s a sair fecht!

        1. John says:

          A couple of general comments:
          1.Many Scots were proponents off, actively involved with and benefited from British Empire. To suggest otherwise is nativist and historically wrong.
          2.Scotland was an original signatory and member of UK as well as being 2nd biggest member. From a historical perspective were Scotland to become independent it would effectively end the UK. So I would use term UKendo to describe Scotland becoming independent but like Scexit it is a meaningless term. Basic and essential difference is if Scotland had voted Yes it would now be regarded as in independent nation by international community. UK was regarded as an independent nation both before and after leaving EU.
          Lastly on identity the 2011 census showed a variety of identities from only Scottish to only British with largest group being Scottish first and then British. I don’t think it is unreasonable to say there will be a correlation between how British someone identifies as with how positively they view the impact of the British empire.
          It should be noted that if Scotland were independent now people living in Scotland would still be Scottish citizens and British they just would not be UK citizens. It would be up to individuals how they wished to identify themselves.

          1. 230929 says:

            1. Scotland was indeed part of the British imperialist project. As I’ve said elsewhere, a good case could be made for saying that Scotland colonised England with its Enlightenment culture following the Union, and a third of the world thereafter through the British Empire. ‘Victims’ we were not.

            2. Scexit would indeed end the UK in a way the EU didn’t end with Brexit.

            3. ‘[I]f Scotland had voted Yes it would now be regarded as in independent nation by international community.’ True, but so what? What difference would being so regarded have made to our practical day-to-day lives?

            4. Yep, according to the 2011 Census, around 60% of us identify ourselves as ‘Scottish only’ in terms of nationality. In my ‘civic’ view of nationality, the other 40% were wrong. If you live and work in Scotland, you’re ‘Scottish’ irrespective of your ethnicity or how you self-identify; if you don’t, you’re not. LIkewise, if you live and work anywhere in the UK, you’re ‘British’. The two identitifications are not mutually exclusive.

            Interestingly, looking at the ‘English’ figures in the Census for England and Wales, 58% identified as ‘English only’. Again, the other 42% were wrong if you take a ‘civic’ rather than an ‘ethnic’ view of nationality.

            5. While it’s not unreasonable to postulate a correlation between identifying as ‘British’ and viewing the British Empire in a positive light, it’s not necessarily true. Many British citizens from ethnic groups who recognise the negative impact that the Empire had on their ancestors still identify as ‘British’ (while adding their ethnic identity as a qualifier to that civic designation).

            6. And, yes; as I’ve said many times before, if Scotland were independent now, people living in Scotland would still be Scottish citizens (i.e. subject to the jurisdiction of the Scottish government) and British (i.e. inhabitants of the British Isles), they just wouldn’t be UK citizens any longer. Likewise, existing the EU didn’t make us any less European (i.e. inhabitants of the westernmost peninsulas of Eurasia); we’re just not citizens of the EU any longer.

            7. It’s always up to people themselves how they self-identify. But for the legal purposes of political identification, the objective measure of citizenship is more ‘scientific’.

      2. florian albert says:

        WWII had a huge resonance in the two decades after 1945. It no longer does. A war in which 450,000 people died had, by 1968, become the basis for Dad’s Army, a cosy sit-com. In the 55 years since then, the resonance has diminished further. It can be argued that this is a very welcome development.

        ‘The Commonwealth is still a live subject for debate’.
        For the general public, it is not. Even the elites, who claim to care about it, can not get a city to host the Commonwealth Games.

        I agree with your last point, about the importance of history.

        1. 230930 says:

          450,000? FFS!!

          85 million people died in the Second World War, 3% of the world population in 1940. (Chinese and Soviet casualties make up half the number.)

          If our defeat Fascism, National Socialism, and Shōwa Statism (the nationalist ideology associated with the Empire of Japan) at such a cost in human lives doesn’t resonate now as it did in the 20 years following bombing of Hiroshima, then hell mend us.

  8. SteveH says:

    What a lot of Neo-Marxist twaddle.

    Firstly, he trashes anyone who disagrees with his viewpoint as far-right or extreme-right.

    He criticizes anyone who refers to Critical Race Theory (CRT) yet clearly basis his whole anti-British rhetoric on that ideology. An ideology that starts on the premise that British people are guilty of racism by virtue of their ethnicity, and British society is guilty of systemic racism.

    The whole of British society is waking up to the importation of this Marcuse and Gramsci nonsense from the American academy.

    This is a narrow and divisive narrative, designed to assign the status of oppressor to British White people and that of oppressed to non-white people.

    It is a white saviour scam that Michael X warned black people to watch out for.

    Unsurprising, more and more non-white Britons are realising what a scam Marxist academics like him are playing on all British people.

    Perhaps Gerry should tell us about the blatant racism of Karl Marx. About the death and destruction that Marxism wrought in Africa and South America.

    There is an important reason why the British working classes rejected Marxist. Name, it doesn’t work.

    Using minority identity politics to sneak it into our society is an act of desperation by followers of a failed philosophy, or should I say religion.

    Give it rest Gerry, you’ve been sussed.

    1. 230929 says:

      Ah, the alt-right conspiracy theory raises its head again.

      ‘Cultural Marxism’ doesn’t actually exist. Originally an American contribution to the phantasmagoria of the alt-right, the fear of ‘cultural Marxism’ has been percolating for years through global sewers of hatred.

      According it foes, ‘cultural Marxism’ is an unholy alliance of abortionists, feminists, globalists, homosexuals, intellectuals, and socialists who have translated the far left’s old campaign against privilege from ‘class struggle’ to ‘identity politics’ and ‘multiculturalism’. Where ‘classical Marxists, where they obtained power, expropriated the bourgeoisie and gave their property to the state, ‘cultural Marxists’ seek power and influence the rights of white men and give special privileges to feminists, blacks, gays, and the like. It is on the basis of this parallel that alt-right terrorists in America and Europe justify carnage against the ‘enemies of Christendom’ as an act through which ‘Western culture’ is ‘recovering its will’ and ‘natural superiority’ over other cultures. They see themselves as engaged in a ‘culture war’.

      Some Western Marxists, like the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, and his intellectual heirs, tried to understand how the class rule they criticised worked through cultural domination and hegemony. And today, it’s true that many people in our multicultural society are directing their anger and resentment at the privilege that white males have historically enjoyed and, to a greater of lesser extent, continue to enjoy in that society. But neither the emancipation of labour nor the just distribution of power among the various communities that constitute our civil society is a plot of conspiracy to ‘cancel’ the rights of white men. The rumour that it is such a conspiracy is intended only to whip up agitated frenzy or inspire visions of revenge.

      And while increasingly popular worries about ‘cosmopolitan elites’ vs ‘native dispossessed’ and ‘economic globalisation’ vs ‘nationalism’ can sometimes transcend the most noxious antisemitism, talk of ‘cultural Marxism’ is inseparable from it. It’s no accident that the intellectuals at the heart of ‘cultural Marxism’ – those of the Frankfurt School of Social Research, who exiled themselve from Germany during the Nazi era and founded the University of Exile in New York, which came to form the intellectual heart of the New School for Social Research, were Jewish. The legend of ‘cultural Marxism’ recycles the same old anti-Semitic tropes to give those who feel threatened by the loss of their white privilege a scapegoat.

      The wider discourse around ‘cultural Marxism’ today resembles nothing so much as a version of the Judeobolshevik myth updated for a new age. In the years after the Russian Revolution, fantasists took advantage of the fact that many of its instigators were Jewish to suggest that people could save time by equating Judaism and communism and kill both birds with the one stone. As the historian, Paul Hanebrink, recounts, according to the Judeobolshevik myth, the instigators of communism were the Jews as a whole, conniving as a people to bring communist irreligion and revolution worldwide.

      According to Hanebrink, many aspects of the Judeobolshevik fantasy survived the Holocaust it helped bring about, only with the role imputed to the Jews implied more euphemistically or replaced by new adversaries. As in ‘Judeobolshevism’, ‘cultural Marxism’ homogenises vast groups of shadowy enemies and assigns them a common secret mission to end white male supremacy. As in Judeobolshevism, those white males who feel themselves under threat are invited to identify themselves with ‘the Christian West’ and rise in self-defence and send the Others homeward to think again before it’s too late.

      In short, ‘cultural Marxism’ is a crude slander, referring to something that does not exist. Unfortunately, the fact that it refers to a chimaera doesn’t mean actual people aren’t set up (like Gerry is here) as scapegoats to appease a rising sense of anger and resentment. And for that reason, ‘cultural Marxism’ isn’t only a sad diversion from framing legitimate grievances, but also a dangerous lure in an increasingly unhinged world.

    2. Gerry Hassan says:

      I suppose it is always a backhanded compliment to get such a tirade. I have clearly annoyed and unsettled you. That could be the first step into you thinking about the prejudices and misconceptions that you cling to.

      First, the study of the British Empire and the UK as an Empire State – which are two different, but complementary areas – are not shaped by the ideas of Critical Race Theory; they are driven primarily by British and global historians doing hard and often painstaking research.

      A good example of this and it having major impact is Caroline Etkins book ‘Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire’ which charts how she found the documentation the British authorities kept on their systematic violence and killing in Kenya which forced the UK to make financial recompense.

      Second, on Critical Race Theory and floating this as a red herring. CRT is a set of perspectives created around the black American perspective post-civil rights. It has no major impact on the perspectives listed above on the British Empire and the UK as an Empire State. I wonder if you could name a single text of CRT rather than just it as a spurious point? And more so could you name one text of CRT which has had a major impact on studies of the British Empire.

      Third, as for labelling things ‘far right’. I think following George Orwell that language matters and describing political perspectives matters and has consequences. In the week of Suella Braverman trashing the UK asylum system she is responsible for there clearly is a far right influence and shifting of Tory and UK politics.

      The rise of a far right across the Western world making waves challenging the mainstream has to be located in a global context. Braverman’s speech was in the US at the American Enterprise Institute; she was playing at least to three audiences: Tory voters, the UK public and the global neo-conservative audience. Across the West this tendency associated with numerous far right think tanks and groupings (the recent National Conservative gathering in London for example) is engaged in shifting traditional Conservatism rightwards and defending illiberal democracy, nativism, nationalism and authoritarianism (Trump, Poland, Hungary, Turkey). And in its critique of ‘the war on west’ leaves this assault on democracy unchallenged (an example being Douglas Murray’s book of the name).

      On a wider front this contestment of the past is not really for the alt-right or indeed a large part of the debate about history in the past sense. It is about the UK now and how we understand who we are and how we place ourselves in the global order. And in this we need to understand what was done in our name so that we have more fruitful, less fanciful discussions about the future of the UK. Ones not filled by collective cultural and political amnesia; or not understanding the nature of Empire and endurance of the Empire State.

      1. Duncan Sutherland says:

        As tirades go, your anti-British invective takes some beating.

        1. John says:

          Not as big a beating as some of the ‘beneficiaries’ of British Empire got?

  9. John McLeod says:

    When Scotland becomes independent then somebody like Gerry Hassan will become our version of Michael D. Higgins (President of Ireland) and open a national conversation about colonialism.


    This is not a joke, or a trivial thing. Our cultural life at the moment is stifled by the financial clout and institutional power of London-based media and cultural organisations. if you look at our neighbour countries of about the same population – Ireland, Norway and Denmark – each of them has its flourishing local cultural tradition. When you read the newspaper or watch the TV in any of these countries, what you get is mainly about that country.

    1. 230930 says:

      ‘Our cultural life at the moment is stifled by the financial clout and institutional power of London-based media and cultural organisations.’

      No it’s not, John. Our cultural life is flourishing despite the institutions that seek to control and administer (i.e. stifle) it. Arguably, Scottish culture has never been so vibrantly diverse and richly cosmopolitan as it is today, especially at its grassroots level.

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