May and the New Imperialism

At the end of the nineteenth century many far-seeing British imperialists, realizing that the Empire couldn’t survive in its present form for very much longer, placed their hopes in what they called a new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Empire to succeed it, ruled now by Britain and America, with the USA taking the lead. This for example was one of Cecil Rhodes’s fond wishes, and why many of his ‘Rhodes Scholarships’ (to Oxford) were reserved for Americans. It’s also the idea lying behind Kipling’s ‘Take up the White Man’s Burden,’ which was directed to an American President, urging him to join in Britain’s great imperial enterprise.

During the twentieth century several efforts were made to implement this plan in one way or another, some of them through a secret society which later became the ‘Round Table’ group. There are some American conspiracy theorists who believe that this group did in fact covertly dominate Anglo-American foreign policy for much of the last century, in particular America’s entry into World War II. This general idea may also have lain behind successive British governments’ rather fawning emphasis on their so-called ‘special relationship’ with America, especially under Churchill-Roosevelt, Macmillan-Kennedy, Thatcher-Reagan, and Blair-Bush.

Watching Theresa May’s speech to US Republicans in Philadelphia this evening, however, I was struck by the overtly imperialist tone to it, which I don’t remember from previous ‘special relationship’ utterances; despite her disavowal of direct overseas interventionism. It lay in her references to Britain’s ‘great’ global history, and her appeal to Britain and the USA to give the world leadership together: which for me has an imperial ring to it. This may be the beginning of a new – third? fourth? fifth? – stage of British imperial history, with Britain sneaking back under America’s skirts. I’m embarrassed by this, as a Leftie, as a proud if not particularly patriotic Briton, and also as an imperial historian. But it will have been a tonic to those old-school (and even new-school: Niall Ferguson?) British imperialists who still, remarkably, cling on to their illusions from the past.

It was clearly done mainly to pander to President Trump, in order to get the bi-lateral trade agreement between them that May needs so desperately, after Britain’s likely loss of the single European market. Which is an alarming prospect; if only because Trump will demand, in the interests of ‘America First’, all kinds of concessions – like Britain’s opening up her market to genetically modified crops, American health care companies and the like – which Britain on her own will find it difficult to swallow, but will probably now have to. This was my major reason for voting ‘Remain’ in the EU Referendum:; my belief that Europe together was more likely to be able to resist this kind of thing – TTIP, for example, which the EU has resisted – than a solitary off-shore island beholden to America could.

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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1 Response to May and the New Imperialism

  1. TJ says:

    Myths about empire are powerful, persist and are utilised on the right and left to justify current policies. The US is the predominant land of myths utilised for political purposes, and which people cling to – the ‘American dream,’exceptionalism, God’s own country etc. Trump though seems more interested in a building a fortress America behind which he wants to ‘make America great again’ (myth) within which these other ‘myths’ can be pursued, and would hardly seem to echo May’s absurd cliches about Britains’s imperial past.


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