British Anti-Imperialism

Although she’s getting the brunt of the criticism just now for her imperialism – see – Britain was obviously not the first nation to go in for this kind of thing, nor even the latest. I don’t want to get into the argument that has been going on for years now over whether the British Empire was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, mainly because I don’t see this as a useful way of looking at it, and because my own researches have persuaded me that British imperialism was a far more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than seems to be assumed on both – or all – sides of the debate. For what it’s worth, my more sophisticated angle on this is spelled out in my books, and especially the latest, British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2016), which was intended for a ‘lay’ or popular readership. I’m not writing letters to the Guardian on this now because I don’t think my argument can be spelled out in the couple of hundred words I’d be allowed there, or even in a 2,000-word article. For a start, all kinds of deep assumptions would need to be unravelled before I could start. It needed a book or two for that.

One thing needs to be said, however, which can be put fairly simply, and should have a bearing on the larger question. This is that, although the British didn’t invent imperialism, they could be said to have invented anti-imperialism, which has arguably been just as significant a phenomenon in recent times. By anti-imperialism, I mean opposition to imperial expansion in principle. Many people, of course, have opposed the particular imperialisms they have been subjected to themselves. Boudicca and Caractacus are two of our (British) own. The Americans were anti-imperialists in this sense in the eighteenth century. The difference between this, however, and principled anti-imperialism is that the latter opposes imperialism in all its forms. The American revolutionaries didn’t, but only the British kind, insofar as it was felt to shackle them, and to prevent them from embarking on colonial adventures – to the west, south and north of the Thirteen States – of their own. (I don’t know what colonial ambitions Boudicca would have had if she’d won.) It was left to others to begin to criticise imperialism per se, after a couple of millennia in which ‘expansion’ of one kind or another was regarded as normal.

The most important of these was John Atkinson Hobson, who – drawing on the ideas of liberals and socialists before him – first came up with a theory that could be applied generally, to condemn his own country’s subjugation of others, rather than others’ subjugation of his. Imperialism. A Study (1902), which I based my PhD thesis on, was the first cogent exposition of what is now called the ‘capitalist theory of imperialism’, which underpins most critical interpretations of ‘imperialism’ today. (See my Critics of Empire, 1968, republished 2008.) This kind of anti-imperialism had a significant following in twentieth-century Britain; as great, probably, as the more positive ‘imperialism’ that is supposed – wrongly – to have permeated British society then.

Perhaps retrospective credit should be given to the British for this, to set against the discredit that their imperial record continues to heap upon them. If Britain was the leading imperial power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and my British Imperial casts some doubt on that), she was also – and at one and the same time – the leading anti-imperialist country in the world. So you see what I mean about imperial history being ‘complex and ambivalent’! This is just one example. I wish modern critics would take more notice of it; not in order to be fair to us, the British – I don’t care at all about that – but in the interests of historical accuracy. That’s something I do care about.

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‘How You Play the Game’

Sport is there to be enjoyed. It’s not war. So why do so many Australian cricketers behave as though it were? And as though they can’t win matches simply through their skills, but need to demoralise their opponents first? First there was ‘sledging’ – Australia’s sole original contribution to the game. Close fielders try to rile the English batsmen with reflections on their appearance or their masculinity or their paternity or their wives and mothers as the bowler runs up. Of course there are ways of coping with this. (I like the story of – was it the Indian batsman Tendulkar? – who when asked by an Australian slip fielder why he was so fat, replied: ‘because every time I sleep with your wife she gives me a biscuit.’) And it’s no longer confined to the Aussies. But it’s pretty unpleasant in any case, and demeaning, in my view, to the modern Australian team.

Now it’s getting worse. First we had Australian vice-captain David Warner writing about how he needs to work up a real ‘hate’ against the English players to get him going in a match. He actually described the England-Australia rivalry as a ‘war’. And he has form: on the last Australian tour he punched Joe Root in the face. Now we have spin bowler Nathan Lyon claiming that the England team are running scared of the Aussie fast bowlers, and hoping that they can ‘end a few careers’. ‘It’s an unbelievable feeling’, he said, ‘knowing that they are broken’. Really? Better than winning? And than winning fair and square?

So, why do they present themselves as such bastards? There are reasons for it in cricketing history, but they are getting rather ancient now. (The infamous ‘bodyline tour’, when the English fast bowlers were instructed to bowl at the batsmen’s bodies rather than their wickets, was in 1932-3, for goodness’ sake.) It may be a result of colonial resentment against their old masters, despite the fact that most white Australians in colonial times were far better off and much more ‘free’ than the Britons who stayed at home. (I could understand it if they represented the Australian Aborigines; but even then it was the white settlers who were responsible for oppressing them, not – directly – the Brits.) Or is it resentment against their perception that we – the British – are looking ‘down’ on them; an attitude I came across again and again when I lived and taught in Australia, and which of course is quite unnecessary. (I had to work hard to persuade them that I wasn’t a sneering privileged Pom just because I went to Cambridge.) I’d hate to think it arose from an inferiority complex; but isn’t that what is supposed to motivate most bullies? I love Australia, more than any other country I’ve lived in, especially its natural social democracy. But this particular after-effect of Empire sometimes got me down.

I was looking forward to the upcoming Test series. Ben will be at the Melbourne game. But, back in England, I may not follow it as closely as I used to. If Australia win it will constitute a victory for a kind of cheating, which may make me feel better about it. (It won’t really count.) If England win, which apparently is unlikely without Ben Stokes, I imagine I’ll feel triumphant, but in an unpleasant – unsporting – way. ‘There, that’s taught them!’ Both reactions are unworthy. Neither is the kind that sport is supposed to give rise to. And all because of these Aussie war-mongers; who have ruined this particular series, even before it starts, for me.

‘It matters not who won or lost, but how you played the game.’ Ah, those were the days!

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The Sexual Harassment Thing

There are some good sides to getting old. One is that one’s libido diminishes. That’s a great liberation. I’ve spent most of my adult life lusting after women, purely biologically and quite undiscriminatingly, as ‘sex objects’ if you like, and in most cases frustratingly. I was never proud of it, partly because I never generally thought of women in this way; and indeed I have never spoken of it until now. Is this degree of sexual feeling normal? Do women get it? It felt ‘natural’ to me at the time, something burning and stirring in my nether regions; and in any event it certainly wasn’t influenced by pornography, of which there was none – absolutely none, I insist – available to boys in my situation in the 1950s. It’s this that has convinced me that it’s ‘natural’, and not learned.

It has gone now. But my memory of it has, I confess, given me a soupçon of sympathy with some of the men being currently ‘outed’ as harassers and molesters by the ‘Me-too’ movement; which is, I acknowledge, doing great work in revealing – to us men – the daily problems in this area that girls, women and some young men have to face. (I, for one, had no idea that they were so ubiquitous.) But I now thank God that I was able to keep my own urges, while I still had them, under control. Otherwise I might have been Me-too’d, too.

If I’m honest, however, I have to admit that this wasn’t out of any superior virtue or self-discipline on my part. These might have restrained me, if it had ever come to that; but it never did, basically because of my shyness. The reason I never ‘tried it on’ with women was because I was terrified of being rejected, or scorned, and of the painful embarrassment this would cause me. That, or a slap round the face, would have stopped me in my tracks if I had ever fondled a woman’s breast, or clutched her knee, or pressed myself up too closely against her: three of the actions, usually performed long ago, which are now being cited as reasons why certain men should lose their jobs, no less. (Al Franken may be one.)

It’s these men I feel just a little bit sorry for. Obviously I have no time for serial harassers, sex-pests, grotesque gropers, and those who use their charisma or power over women to secure sexual favours; let alone – it should go without saying – rapists in any shape or form or circumstances. (That includes most of the big names that have been outed in the last month.) Domination – mental or physical – is the crucial factor here. But that someone should be asked to give up his livelihood because he once, in a drunken moment, or perhaps even inadvertently, touched a girl’s breast, or knee, or sent a mildly suggestive text, and then apologised for it, many years ago, seems to me to be an absurd overreaction. ‘Inappropriate conduct’ should not be a hanging offence. A slap would do. Again, burdened with my ‘urges’, and if my nervousness had not held me back, I could well have been one of those standing on the scaffold today. I can just see the headline: ‘Professor shamed for risqué joke in the 1970s’. (If any of my old students is reading this, and remembers my jokes, please don’t let on.)

‘MeToo’ is an excellent and amazingly effective movement – and about time too. But you can see why it makes some of us men feel uncomfortable. Obviously not nearly as uncomfortable as harassed women are made to feel; and our discomfort may be a small price to pay for our enlightenment and their protection. But – women – try to be charitable towards lesser offenders. Men can be sensitive creatures, too. It’s what we have in common with you.

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Keep Clear of Zimbabwe

Britain should not try to intervene, even to ‘help’, in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe, remember, used to be a British colony, founded by a wealthy rogue – Cecil Rhodes, hence Southern Rhodesia – and neglected by the British for the whole of its colonial history. This is crucial to understanding the country. The neglect was because it was cheaper for Britain to devolve, or ‘outsource’, its ruling function to ‘white settlers’ – as in South Africa and Australia too; and the Rhodesian white settlers were basically agricultural capitalists, with none of the paternalistic instincts (at least in theory) of Colonial Office men, but only interested in using their authority, and even their own soldiers, to seize African lands and labour for their own profit. In the end Britain was desperate to get rid of Southern Rhodesia, but without any civil servants of her own there found she couldn’t; short of sending in British troops, who might have mutinied, against the white minority rulers. So strictly speaking it wasn’t the British state, or the ‘Empire’, which ruled and oppressed the Rhodesian Rhodesians directly; which is not however to dispute Britain’s ultimate responsibility, and her shameful conduct in not living up to it.

Nonetheless, one of the ways Mugabe has cemented his surprising popularity among Zimbabweans up to now is by claiming that the ‘British imperialists’ were all the time plotting to get ‘Rhodesia’ back. Boris blundering in would only confirm those suspicions. So, leave it to Zimbabwe’s African neighbours to ‘help’; or else to someone like the Swedes, whom everyone seems to trust, and don’t have – or don’t think they have – Britain’s colonialist baggage.

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Trahison des Clercs

I’m not surprised at this – Ever since British universities became a ‘market’, they’ve adopted market ethics; especially – but not exclusively – the lower-status, and so more vulnerable, ones. I first noticed this when I was directing my own university department’s submission for the ‘Teaching Quality Assurance’ and ‘Research Assessment’ Exercises in the 1990s, the outcome of which partly determined how much money we would get. Other universities were cheating on a considerable scale: literally hiding away poor lecturers when the assessors came, for example; ‘sexing up’ their research dossiers; and so on. It’s what happens when competition, of this material kind, comes into conflict – and it is a conflict – with academia. One of an academic’s main functions should be to determine the truth of things, insofar as that is possible. The conduct of Falmouth (of which I’d never heard) and all these other institutions, named by the Guardian, is nothing but a trahison des clercs. Strictly, they should be closed down.

But of course it’s not only the clercs who indulge in this sort of conduct now, in this age of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. The rule seems to be, for some politicians (I’m thinking here of course of Boris) and others, that what you say doesn’t have to be true, but only what you can get away with. Isn’t this another example of late capitalist values spreading throughout society?

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Parliament’s Brexit Vote

Everyone now seems to agree with me ( – though I’m sure they didn’t get it from me: it’s pretty bloody obvious, and scarcely anyone reads this blog) that the great EU Referendum last year wasn’t about Europe at all, except for a few fanatics, but about other issues, chief among them the effects of ‘austerity’. (For example, in today’s Guardian: As well as that, a good slice of opinion – shall we call it ‘educated opinion’? – also shares my view that basing such a huge national decision on the narrow result of a foolishly-called one-off referendum goes against the Constitution (such as it is) of the UK, as well as against all common sense. Why that result should still stand when we can be pretty sure that a crucial proportion of the original ‘Brexit’ voters are now dead (see, rather than testing – again – the opinion of the still living, also appears self-evidently ridiculous, and surely not ‘democratic’. A second referendum would have the advantage of determining the opinion of the people now, and with the repercussions of Brexit – in other words, what we’re asked to vote for – more clearly spelled out. But of course the Daily Mail regards any suggestion of that as ‘treason’. (Isn’t it interesting, and rather shocking, by the way, that Theresa May should have decided to attend a dinner the other day to celebrate Dacre’s 25 years as Editor?)

Last night, returning from a performance of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Hull New Theatre in a rather low mood (it’s a depressing play), I was cheered to hear that the Government had given in to pressure for a final Commons vote on the terms of its Brexit deal; which would restore the constitutional supremacy of Parliament. I slept well. Waking up, however, I was cruelly disabused. The vote will be a ‘take it or leave it’ one: either accept the deal, or reject it and still be cast off from Europe into the inky blackness. It’s going to be ‘Brexit’ whichever way they vote. That’s no sort of ‘choice’.

And what are we to think, incidentally, of the arch-Brexiteer Redwood (previously known as the ‘Vulcan’) advising people to move their money abroad before Brexit strikes? (See

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On the Other Hand….

….could it be a diplomatic ruse by Boris to lead the Iranians to think that he believes them, so making them more amenable to the idea of releasing her? Is Boris as clever as that? (I imagine his FO advisers are.)

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Of course Corbyn is right about Boris Johnson: Everywhere you go abroad he’s regarded as a joke. If he remains much longer as Foreign Secretary he’s likely to be a disaster, for his compatriots as well as for him.

It puzzles me why anyone ever thought he was ‘bright’. It must be because he went to Oxford, where he learned to spout ancient Greek. In the nineteenth century it was assumed that anyone with a good Classics degree could do anything – run the country, rule a colony, even organise a piss-up in a brewery. What the ancients taught about politics was carved in stone, applicable in every conceivable situation. And their politics never got beyond the idea of ‘aristocracy’. (That figures.) You could always dredge up a Latin tag about any political situation, which seemed to fit. In fact my experience of those who excelled in Latin and Greek at my own school, and won Oxbridge scholarships, was that it proved they had good memories, and nothing more. None of them, to my knowledge, went on to achieve what was expected of them. That’s because their study of the ancients didn’t teach them to think. Not like modern History. Am I doing the study of Classics an injustice here?

Here’s an (edited) version of Boris’s biography in Wikipedia. It really shows him up, I feel.

Johnson was awarded a King’s Scholarship to study at Eton College, the elite independent boarding school… At Eton, Johnson began using the given name “Boris” rather than “Alex” and developed “the eccentric English persona” for which he later became known…. Although school reports complained about his idleness, complacency, and lateness, he established himself as a popular and well-known figure within the school. His friends were largely from the wealthy upper middle-classes…. Johnson won a scholarship to read Literae Humaniores, a four-year course based in the study of Classics, at Balliol College, Oxford.

Arriving at the university in late 1983, he was part of a generation of Oxford undergraduates who later dominated British politics and media in the early 21st century, among them senior Conservative Party members David Cameron, William Hague, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt, and Nick Boles. At the university, he… associated primarily with Old Etonians, joining the Old Etonian-dominated Bullingdon Club, an upper-class drinking society known for its acts of local vandalism. Johnson entered into a relationship with the aristocrat Allegra Mostyn-Owen and they became engaged while at university.

Johnson became a popular and well-known public figure at Oxford…. In 1984, Johnson was elected secretary of the Oxford Union. In 1986, he ran for president…; his campaign focused on reaching out from his established upper-class support base by emphasising his persona and downplaying his connections to the Conservatives…..  Johnson won the election and was appointed president, although his presidency was not seen as particularly distinguished or memorable, and questions were raised regarding his competency and seriousness. Having specialised in the study of ancient literature and classical philosophy, Johnson graduated from Balliol College with an upper second-class degree, but was deeply unhappy that he did not receive a first.

So he wasn’t even the best at Classics. (And my experience at Cambridge was that Classics gave out an awful lot of Firsts.)

As an imperial historian I agree, too, with Corbyn’s references to the ‘imperial’ flavour of his ideas. It permeates everything he says, and imagines, deludedly, about Britain’s ‘place in the world’. It’s interesting that his Oxford College was Balliol, which was known as the ‘seminary of Empire’ in British imperial times. Johnson’s background, education and former career (as a mere journalist!), as well as his clownishness, and his appalling judgment (over the Zaghari-Ratcliffe case, for example), should rule him out of contention for any responsible job. He needs to resign, and then get fundamentally re-educated, if he ever wants to get back, into any higher position than the jokey blimpish panelist in that famous episode of Have I Got News For You. That was probably the high point of his career.

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Wear Your Poppy with Pride

Poppies are not patriotic. They are worn to remember the terrible slaughter of war, irrespective of the poor victims’ nationalities. For this reason it’s wrong for the International Football Association to ban players’ wearing them for international matches; but equally wrong for this decision to be objected to on patriotic grounds. Unfortunately that was the argument of one Tory minister six years ago; to which I responded with this letter to the Guardian:

‘“Wearing a poppy,” writes our sports minister to Fifa, “is a display of national pride, like wearing your country’s football shirt” (Report, Sport, 9 November). I have worn a poppy at this time of year for as long as I can remember. For me it has always been in sad remembrance of the slain of two world wars, with no shred of nationalism attaching to it. Talk of “national pride” and “football shirts” cheapens the gesture. If this is what it really signifies, I shall not wear one again.’

I am wearing one this year, believing that most people share my interpretation. But in sorrow and sympathy; not with any particular ‘pride’.

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True Allegiance to Her Maj

On my way to London to give moral support to my daughter-in-law at her ‘citizenship ceremony’ in Chelsea Old Town Hall tomorrow. She needs it, otherwise she might not be allowed back in after she’s spent this Christmas with her folks in Australia. We had a scare two or three years ago, when she was laid up in hospital in Melbourne while her visa expired; lawyers and her local MP came to her defence, but we didn’t know until the plane landed at Heathrow whether or not she – and her new baby – would be let off. I think the Home Office (under the dreadful Theresa May) was wanting to make an example of her: firstly to demonstrate to Brexiteers that it was ‘serious’ about cutting immigration; and secondly to reassure liberals that it wasn’t only darkies it was trying to keep out. After tomorrow, she’ll have dual nationality, and so be (relatively) free.

Dual nationality may become the norm quite soon. My children can all claim dual Irish citizenship whenever they want – their mother has an Irish passport. I’m in the process of applying for joint Swedish (no word yet). In my case and, as I understand it, thousands of others, it’s in order to remain a citizen of Europe, once Britain has cast herself adrift.

That was the cruellest aspect of Brexit for people like me, though I sense that others will be affected worse and more materially. Why do Brexiteers believe that one essential part of being a British ‘patriot’ lies is keeping yourself apart from other nations? That’s not my understanding of the history of our ‘national identity’; about which I’m presently writing – or, rather, compiling, from old papers and unpublished lectures – a new book. It will be a kind of democratic history of the relations between Brits and Continental Europeans over the past two centuries, at the level of ‘the people’ rather than of governments. The working title is ‘Cosmopolis’.

I’ve been to one of these ‘citizenship ceremonies’ before: for my son-in-law, an American (now Anglo-). It was rather low-key: a tiny room, two flags (one for Hertfordshire County), a civil servant administering the oath – not Queenie: that was a disappointment – and the national anthem played on a portable CD player. The oath itself is a bit tame – ‘I, [name], [swear by Almighty God] [do solemnly, sincerely and truly affirm and declare] that, on becoming a British citizen, I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs, and successors, according to law’; there’s nothing there about having your head chopped off if you don’t. Doesn’t becoming British deserve a bit more pomp? Tomorrow’s is a group affair (several new citizens), which might make it jollier.

I’ve nothing to add on the great issues of the day – the Cabinet falling apart, Boris’s clowning, dirty old Conservative MPs clutching women’s bottoms, increasing poverty, Donald’s idiocies, imminent war with ‘Little Rocket Man’, famous people (including Queenie) cheating the taxman; West Ham sacking Slaven… It’s all been said already. Weird enough, i’d have thought, to make Kellie think twice before becoming one of us. Can you apply for more than two nationalities? It could be a good escape route for all of us. And express our multiple ‘identities’ more meaningfully.


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