British imperialism forgotten?

Young Owen Jones, who seems to be everywhere these days, and whose books and journalism I greatly admire, recently published on the Guardian website – and possibly in the print version too, though I couldn’t find it there – an interesting piece about the recent student campaigns to have public statues of Cecil Rhodes and Queen Victoria removed, as symbols of British imperialism. His main point was not that these memorials ought to be demolished – he didn’t pronounce on that – but that the campaign had been valuable in stimulating a debate about the British Empire which he, Jones, felt had been missing hitherto. ‘We don’t debate the British Empire’, ran the headline; ‘so applaud ‪#‎RhodesMustFall for making us remember our history.’ I actually added a BTL comment, despite my self-denying ordinance (below, Feb 22), asking him what planet he had been living on over the past few years. I imagine  Jones’s piece says more about his own previous neglect of the subject than about ours. There have been over 3000 other comments added since, which I don’t have time to trawl through to see if he replied.

There was a time when British imperial history was neglected – directly after the Empire’s fall; but also, as it happens, for most of the time it was on the go (see my The Absent-Minded Imperialists) – but assuredly not recently. There have been at least three major TV documentary series aired about it over the past 10-20 years, as well as programmes on specific colonial events (usually atrocities), dramas featuring it, and a host of both serious and popular books (and popular-serious, like mine), fiercely and widely debated in the press: Niall Ferguson’s are the most famous, or notorious, examples; and taken up, as I understand it, in school history syllabuses. Universities are full of it, not only in History departments, but also as an important part, now, of English and other ‘Cultural Studies’. These represent almost every possible viewpoint, with the majority being critical of imperialism: ‘Critics of Empire’ (the title of my first book) having always been common in the UK as well as abroad. Indeed, there’s a sense in which the Brits could be said to have invented ‘anti-imperialism’.

I have to admit that my objection to this bland statement by Owen Jones was tinged with just a little personal resentment, at the implication that I had been wasting my own time all these years. I’ve been working my socks off to present a sophisticated and nuanced view of British imperialism, warts and all, for nearly half a century. British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t (2015) is just the latest. My Lion’s Share (1975) has been staple fare in educational institutions since it first appeared. Surely some of this will have rubbed off?

Fortunately, and to my surprise, I have to say, in view of my earlier criticism of ‘BTL’ comments, a good proportion of his 3000 commentators clearly agree with me. Most of them are silly; one says merely ‘FART!’; but I must say that the general discussion – or the small part of it I had time to plough through – was a valuable one. It also goes to disprove Owen Jones’s initial statement: ‘We don’t debate the British Empire’. Unless, of course, all these 3000+ bloggers only came to the subject after ‪#‎RhodesMustFall.

Jones’s original piece is here:

My views on the substantial question are summarized below:

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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