Imperial Miasma Theory

A genre of books has emerged that claims Britain’s imperial past can explain everything about Britain’s present travails. As its latest offering confirms, it ends up explaining nothing.

QE2 leaves for the Falklands War.
QE2 leaves for the Falklands War. Credit: Homer Sykes / Alamy Stock Photo

Imperial Island: A History of Empire in Modern Britain, Charlotte Lydia Riley, Bodley Head, £25

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, Sathnam Sanghera, Penguin, £10.99

Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves, Peter Mitchell, Manchester University Press, £14.99

A genre is hardening. It is becoming easy to identify a type of non-fiction book currently in its ascendancy. It owes its existence to Nigel Farage, who killed the Britain of the 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, and Derek Chauvin, who killed George Floyd. A group of talented writers have looked behind 2016 and 2020 and found the ghost of empire; they have tried to expose it, if not exorcise it, but it haunts us still.

Their project is a worthy one, which is why it is a shame that they have generally diverted themselves with a frivolous parlour game. The game, as I see it, works something like this. You pick a phenomenon, any phenomenon, real or imagined; then you try to explain, as best you can, how it is ‘rooted in’ or ‘suffused by’ the British Empire. The game rewards the nimble-minded. The possibilities are endless.

One of this game’s grandmasters is the Times journalist Sathnam Sanghera. In his bestselling book Empireland (2021), a foundational text of the hardening genre, he describes attending his school reunion. ‘Was there a distinct imperial tone to proceedings?’ he asks, before being struck by a flash of self-awareness: ‘I was wary of the possibility of seeing legacies where there are none, becoming like social networker @cholenacree who tweeted: “Do I believe everything happens for a reason? Yes. And the reason is colonialism”.’. But, having nursed this speck of self-criticism for a short moment, he returns to his element. The ghost of empire was looming over the alumni of Wolverhampton Grammar School that evening, after all – because ‘the success of British public schools is another legacy of British empire’.

Sanghera’s mantra in Empireland is ‘empire explains’. Empire explains everything. Empire explains ‘why we have a diaspora of millions of Britons spread around the world’ – that one is fair enough. Empire explains ‘the global pretensions of our Foreign and Defence secretaries’ – more indirectly than directly, he says, since such ‘pretensions’ (if that is the right word) are kept afloat by Britain’s nuclear arsenal, its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and high GDP.

What else does the British Empire explain? A ‘propensity for jingoism’ and its close cousin, anti-intellectualism. To make this point stick, Sanghera adduces that hackneyed Michael Gove line about experts, whose connection to empire is obvious only to those who agree with Sanghera that Brexit was an exercise in ‘imperial nostalgia’. Getting even deeper into the historical weeds, Sanghera suggests that empire also explains Britain’s ‘distrust of cleverness’ because the Sudan Political Service ‘preferred their recruits to be reliable rather than bright’.

Now, perhaps this was true of Sudan, whose imperial bureaucracy was mocked in its own time for its disposition towards nice-but-dim jocks and rowers (Sudan was ‘the Land of the Blacks ruled by the Blues’). It certainly was not true of the Indian Civil Service (ICS), which was renowned for placing a high premium on intellect (incidentally, many of the outstanding historians of the British Empire and decolonisation, such as Sir Penderel Moon, were in the ICS). Unlike in Sudan, those who desired employment in the Raj were required to undertake rigorous and competitive examinations. It is unclear to me why the Sudan Political Service might have had a greater impact on modern British intellectual culture than the much larger Indian Civil Service: we must take it on trust not only that Britain is anti-intellectual now, but that the ‘empire’ as a rule was anti-intellectual then, and moreover that there is some tangible link between the two.

Sanghera acknowledges the lingering effects of empire on Britain’s former colonies; his focus in Empireland, and indeed the focus of the broader genre to which it belongs, is ‘how imperialism has shaped modern Britain’. But what precludes all serious reflection on this question, as the preceding examples make clear, is that he is always working backwards: he starts by observing disparate things about modern Britain, usually things he dislikes, and then tries to trace them back to the Empire, getting there any which way he can. For all his efforts to present himself in the book as a tabula rasa, his strategy forces him to have in mind what he wants to argue before consulting the evidence. What he is doing, in short, isn’t history; it’s word-association.

Perhaps, therefore, the question that Sanghera is asking, of how imperialism has shaped modern Britain, calls for a historian’s attention. The task thus falls to another of the great practitioners of the genre, Peter Mitchell. Sanghera’s endorsement is emblazoned, somewhat improbably, on the front cover of Mitchell’s Imperial Nostalgia (2021) I say ‘improbably’ because Mitchell is given to publicly attacking Sanghera’s employer for ‘making up’ stories and being an ‘absolute sewer’. The genre makes for unlikely bedfellows.

Like Empireland, Imperial Nostalgia is written with considerable flair, but one cannot help but feel as though Mitchell is trying to push Sanghera’s game of word-association to breaking point. It seems at times that he is testing the limit of how much he can get away with; perhaps he had lost a bet. Empire really does explain everything, including things that, perhaps for good reason, have never so much as entered your mind. When Boris Johnson took a ‘much younger partner into Downing Street’ and ‘had a baby with her as proof of his virility’ – this was really about Churchill and ‘imperial nostalgia’, you see, because ‘manhood was a favoured ideological tool of empire’. And why, Mitchell wonders, is Rory Stewart, ‘with his intense gaze and rubbery androgyny’, a focus of ‘queer desire and identification’? Apparently, because he is an ‘Imperial Wonder Boy’. The subtitle of Mitchell’s book is ‘How the British conquered themselves’. Did the Empire ever conquer anything as comprehensively as the depths of Mitchell’s own mind?

Sanghera plays his game with an anxious eye to theory and formula; Mitchell charges straight in and blunders. The pieces have now returned to more prudent hands. Charlotte Lydia Riley’s Imperial Island (2023), the latest contribution to the genre, is written with caution and poise. Her word-associations aren’t as asinine as in the other two books with confusingly similar names, and the ‘imperial hangovers’, such as they are, tend at least to be real and identifiable phenomena. Her book is subtler than the other two; as the more scholarly work, it would be surprising if it wasn’t. It is better at hiding its deficiencies, but still they linger.

Empire in the ‘imperial island’ is omnipresent, but unevenly so. Riley agrees with Mitchell and Sanghera that empire reared its head in the referendum of 2016, the great impetus of this genre: ‘empire was ever-present during the Brexit campaign’. It is at first unclear whether, by ‘Brexit campaign’, she means the campaign(s) to leave the EU, or the campaigns on both sides. Her examples make clear that it’s the former she has in mind. In the paragraph that follows, she refers exclusively to Leavers, such as Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage. When, for example, Farage unveiled the infamous ‘BREAKING POINT’ poster (which also features in the opening pages of Mitchell’s book when he makes a similar point), he was ‘drawing on’ an ‘imperial legacy’.

This genre must be understood as a subset of a much broader wave of post-Brexit literature, written by Remainers and for Remainers, attempting to pathologise the Leaver mind. The notion that the Leave vote was guided by national ‘imperial nostalgia’ is a popular one – a ‘cliché’, Sanghera admits – yet, as the historian Robert Saunders has shown, it is unsound for four main reasons. First, it is politically-charged. Some clichés ‘exist for a reason’, as Sanghera says, but others exist because they are expedient for those who use them. Scholars of a Remainer cast of mind ought perhaps to heed Saunders’ caution against ‘arguments that so directly suit their own political preferences’. Second, the ‘imperial nostalgia’ idea takes as given that ‘it is only Leave voters who are haunted by the ghosts of empire’. Third, ‘we should not conflate nostalgia for the Empire with enthusiasm for the Commonwealth’ – not least because ‘enthusiasm for the Commonwealth’ is fairly widespread among ethnic-minority Britons, for whom ‘empire’ carries different connotations. And fourth, ‘historians must be careful not to confuse nostalgia with amnesia’: a vital corrective not only to the ‘imperial nostalgia’ myth about Brexit specifically, but to the concept as a whole. All this seriously troubles the Sanghera-Mitchell-Riley thesis on Brexit. It seems to me, anyway, that the British Empire did not loom very large in 2016 save in a generic, watery sense of rhetoric about ‘Britain’s place in the world’ – rhetoric which could readily be found on either side of the debate.

After Brexit, probably the main fixation of this genre – one of the main fixations of post-Floydian political activism in general, at least in Britain – is ‘the curriculum’. Riley is typical of this when she praises efforts ‘campaigning for Britain’s national curriculum to be widened to include empire and migration histories’, despite the fact that the national curriculum for Key Stage 3 History already includes units called ‘Britain’s transatlantic slave trade’, ‘the development of the British Empire’, and ‘Indian independence and the end of empire’.

‘Education’ occupies a sacred space in this genre. It is a panacea: if only people were more educated about empire, Britain’s problems would be solved, its sins redeemed. Calls for ‘more education’ can also provide cover for ideas that strike me as ill-thought-out. One of Sanghera’s more bewildering flights of fancy is that race relations in Britain would be improved if we educated people to accept that ‘ultimately, multiculturalism is, in the words of the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett, just “colonizin’… in reverse”’. On the grounds that ‘colonising’ is a bad thing (with which I should think the authors agree), this would be a terrible idea – unless one wanted to give a boon to Great Replacement-style conspiracy theories.

Britain then, according to these authors, has an education problem: it doesn’t know enough about its imperial past. The solution, of course, is to supply more books in the genre: ‘there is a need’, as Riley puts it, ‘for more nuanced and critical histories of Britain’s imperial identity’ (‘nuanced’ is used here in its euphemistic sense). Knowledge of the British Empire has been lacking for a very long time: H.G. Wells wrote during the empire’s heyday that ‘nineteen people out of twenty’ in Britain, ‘the lower middle class and the middle class, knew no more of the empire than they did of the Argentine Republic or the Italian Renaissance’. This is, of course, not quite the same thing as knowledge of ‘Britain’s imperial identity’. Yet by and large, the best parts of Riley’s book are those which focus on lacunae further afield, plugging holes that perhaps, as that Wells quotation suggests, have always existed in our insular national consciousness. Riley writes powerfully on aspects of imperial history that perhaps ought to be more widely known than they are: British actions during the Malaya Emergency, for example, and Mau Mau. But her book is not about imperialism as ‘something that happened over there’; her subject is the same as Sanghera’s and Mitchell’s, namely how imperialism has affected society in Britain. It is on that terrain that her book should be judged.

Imperial Island covers a lot of ground. There are rewards to be reaped from telling the history of the metropole by way of reference to its colonies: sometimes it pays to perform Hamlet without the prince. I had not realised, for example, the extent to which imperial anxieties came into play in the tense eleven months between the Munich Agreement and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s eventual declaration of war against Germany. Riley shows how the British press cast Hitler as a threat to national interests not only in Europe but also in Africa, fearing that, having annexed the Sudetenland, he would soon turn his attention to Tanganyika. The book is peppered with intriguing morsels like these.

But Riley’s emphasis on empire can also lead her astray. There are moments when ‘imperialism’ simply does not provide a helpful or appropriate frame of reference. A passage from her discussion of the Falklands War illustrates this:

Politicians who felt morally repulsed by colonialism managed to elide the fact that this naval war fought to protect the right of white settlers far away was, in the words of left-wing political activist and academic Stuart Hall, ‘an imperial adventure that would have seemed out of date in 1882’.

Was this something that left-wing politicians, including Michael Foot, needed to ‘elide’? Or are those who feel ‘morally repulsed by colonialism’ generally repulsed by the effects of colonialism on its victims, rather than in some abstract sense? Of course one must understand Britain’s imperial history in order to understand the Falklands War – Britannia would hardly have extended her sovereignty to any patch of the South Atlantic had she never ruled the waves. But, as Bernard Porter put it, the charge of ‘imperialism’ with respect to the Falklands War ‘can’t easily be made to stick’: ‘imperialists seek to expand, grab, exploit, rule’, and Britain ‘wasn’t motivated by these things’ in 1982. It was not just politic but correct for Foot to argue that ‘there is no question in the Falkland Islands of any colonial dependence or anything of the sort’. Britain had to defend the Falklands for reasons that have more to do with liberal democracy, the principle of self-determination, and the international rule of law, than with rapacious, grasping imperialism.

To view the Falklands as an ‘imperialist’ war, with all the moral baggage that entails, is thus to get off on the wrong foot. It leads Riley to see Foot’s support for the war as a problem needing to be solved, rather than a state of affairs flowing naturally from the mind of the old anti-appeaser, the old Cato journalist. Indeed, for all her implicit objections to British ‘imperialism’ in 1982, it appears that Riley would not have been satisfied with a negotiated settlement, either. Secret negotiations between Britain and Argentina did take place in the 1960s and 1970s, and might, had they succeeded, have prevented this ‘last gasp of twentieth-century British imperialism’. But Riley is rightly critical that, in the course of these proceedings, Britain never ‘asked the Falklanders if they actually wanted to be turned over to Argentina’ (they emphatically did not).

Riley’s imperial obsessions also hamper her discussion of another of the great dramas of the 1980s, the Rushdie Affair. Riley clearly feels great admiration for Salman Rushdie as a novelist and postcolonial thinker: she praises his 1984 essay ‘Outside the Whale’, and cites him approvingly when his views dovetail with hers, such as when he declared that Britain had ‘never been cleansed of the filth of imperialism’. But then, when she comes to discussing the fatwa, she swerves to a disconcertingly equivocal position. ‘Khomeini and his followers were demonised as enemies not just of free speech, but of progress, civilisation and democracy’, values which apparently were ‘bound up with… Britain’s former imperial mission’. If they were – if Britain’s ‘imperial mission’ is what gives it the moral authority to say that Khomeini and his followers were enemies of free speech, progress, civilisation, and democracy – then I should declare myself in full support of it.

‘Muslim communities in Britain’, she continues, were ‘divided by the novel’. Perhaps they were, but bizarrely Riley provides us with no evidence of this ‘division’. Instead we read only of book burnings of The Satanic Verses, bonfires of effigies, and marches on Downing Street. The closest we come to ‘division’ is the journalist Yasmina Alibhai-Brown complaining about how the Affair exposed a harmful strain of ‘white liberalism’ (for which Rushdie is a peculiar poster-boy) and ‘British hand-wringing over “extremist” responses to the book’.

I am not convinced that the Rushdie Affair ‘highlighted the fact that migrant communities were tolerated only if they worked to “fit in”, to “integrate” and to adopt “British values”’. Not to threaten violence over artistic expression seems a rather low bar for ‘fitting in’, and I don’t think Riley means to imply that such ‘demands’ from the state are incompatible with British Muslims’ way of life. If this gives the lie to multiculturalism in Britain, then multiculturalism is doomed. I don’t think this is the right lesson to draw from the Rushdie Affair, and neither, it seems, does Sanghera, who – to his immense credit – takes as his epigraph for Empireland a quotation from The Satanic Verses.

Riley writes that the Affair proved the ‘resistance’ that British Muslims faced when they ‘rejected those demands and made demands of their own, valuing their own traditions equally or above the expectations of the British state’. But antisocial behaviour warrants state resistance. Is there any self-respecting country in the world, with or without an imperial past, that would tolerate the mob, or accede to its ‘demands’, as it bays at best for radical religious censorship, and at worst for the blood of one of its citizens? Was the reaction to the fatwa in some segments of British society – a fatwa which condemned Rushdie to years in hiding, and directly caused the murder of Hitoshi Igarashi – really rooted in imperialist racism, or in a merited moral revulsion?

On 12 August 2022, 34 years after the publication of The Satanic Verses, Rushdie was stabbed in New York. As I read this slippery section of Riley’s book, I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt. I hoped it had been sent off to the presses before Rushdie’s attack, which ought at the very least to have vindicated some of the liberal ‘hand-wringing’ that she readily dismisses, or subsumes into the ‘imperialist’ charge. My faith was misplaced. In her conclusion Riley refers to an event that postdates Rushdie’s stabbing, neatly bookending her period of study: the death of Queen Elizabeth II, in September last year. As with Rushdie, she takes the opportunity to twist the knife into someone whom she had previously implicitly praised. She endorses American news reports about how the Queen was not a ‘gentle figurehead for people in former colonies’; it is striking that the only other substantial appearance of the Queen in the book – a book, it is worth remembering, about imperialism in Britain under her reign – comes in 1961 when, to the disgust of the South African press, Her Majesty is dancing the night away with Kwame Nkrumah.

The Queen was not an imperialist, and her reign will be remembered chiefly for witnessing and accepting decolonisation. ‘To describe her as the benign architect’ of this transition, Riley contends, ‘is to ignore the very obvious fact that the main engines of this shift were the victories of decolonising movements across the colonies and the gradual defeat of Britain as an imperial power’. But this misses the point. Her Majesty’s Government could have dug its heels in everywhere – as momentarily it did in some places. This points to one of the more compelling arguments of Riley’s book: that ‘decolonisation’ was not always as passive or bloodless as we like to suppose. But the unalterable fact about modern British history is this: unlike in France, unlike in Portugal, the process of decolonisation, however bloody and painful, never brought the ‘imperial island’ to the brink of civil war. British society was simply too apathetic about empire for that. This is what makes Britain’s experience of decolonisation of exceptional historical interest; everything else is barking up the wrong tree.

In 2004, the historian Noel Malcolm complained that ‘there is now an entire academic industry devoted to tracing the all-pervading imperialism through every aspect of nineteenth-century life’. The industry has caught up to the twentieth century; then Brexit and BLM dragged it into the twenty-first. Malcolm traces this academic game of imperialism-spotting back to Edward Said. When Said ‘put forward his theory that the English novel was essentially the expression of an imperialist culture, his supporters were quite untroubled by the fact that there was scarcely a single major novel between Defoe and Kipling that had a contemporary colonial setting’. The failure to mention the Empire, as Said would have it, was itself an act of ‘imperialist “marginalising”’. ‘Heads he wins, tails his opponents lose’.

To succeed in the game, as we have seen, you must cast the net as wide as you can. If ever you are faced with, say, the 1951 Festival of Britain – which, as Riley admits, saw ‘very little discussion of the empire-commonwealth’ – you might feel tempted by the evidence to resign your game of empire-spotting there. Do not surrender! Simply say, as Riley does, that the Festival Ship Campania, showcasing ‘how closely our history, our achievement, and our destiny are linked with the sea’, proves that Britain was ‘still fundamentally construed and constructed through its empire’. It doesn’t matter that our ‘imperial island’ has island reasons, as well as imperial ones, for feeling a patriotic connection to the sea: all that matters is that you find the ‘imperialism’ you are hunting for, however you can.

A few days ago, while I was reading Riley’s book, Just Stop Oil vandalised the premises of the think tank Policy Exchange. Riley leapt onto Twitter to make a rather specious case in Just Stop Oil’s defence. ‘Either Policy Exchange is important – in which case it’s a legitimate target – or it’s not important – in which case it doesn’t deserve immunity’. Heads she wins, tails you lose.

This might as well be the motto of the genre that I have set out to describe here, and of Riley’s Imperial Island as its most sophisticated archetype. Unfair coins abound. If imperialism is there, call that ‘imperial nostalgia’; if not, call that ‘imperial amnesia’; either way, it proves that Britain needs more ‘education’, more empire on ‘the curriculum’, more books like these. Empire, in these books, is everything and nothing, everywhere and nowhere; point to anything you like, or anything you hate, and you will find your way back to it, one way or another. The bad air of empire, noxious and invisible, will always hover over our empire-land. It seeps into everything and pollutes all it touches. And empire and imperialism will cease to exist as meaningful historical concepts for as long as this Imperial Miasma Theory prevails.


Samuel Rubinstein