The Empire Strikes Back

There’s an anti-imperial aspect to British imperialism which is not often taken into account. It should be remembered that most Britons and Irish who emigrated to ‘settlement’ colonies like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and before that to the thirteen eastern states of the USA, did so not in order to extend the British Empire, but to escape from it. They were motivated by poverty and oppression, and wanted to get away from the ‘Empire’ as it impacted on them at home. Once there, thousands of miles away from their oppressors, they built more ‘democratic’ lives for themselves; which is why the true ‘imperialists’ in Britain – keen on ruling other peoples – were never as enthusiastic about this kind of colonist – dangerous working-class radicals and Irish secessionists – as they were about the pith-helmeted proconsuls who were ruling their genuine ‘imperium’. (The indigènes of all these settler colonies muddy the picture; but they never provided the motive for those who colonised them from Britain.)

New Zealand, of course, was one of the ‘radical settler’ sort. This may help explain its present-day progressivism, culminating in a woman prime minister – NZ was ahead of the UK in giving votes to women, too – whose response to the covid-19 pandemic has elicited admiration world-wide. 

Which makes it ironic – is that the right word? – that New Zealand is currently the latest country to be struck by the ‘UK variant’ of the disease. (See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/australasia/new-zealand-covid-auckland-ardern-b1802259.html.) Lesson: you can never get away from the British Empire, however anti-imperial you may think you are.

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4 Responses to The Empire Strikes Back

  1. Yet, in 1914, and egged on by their war-hungry elders, tens of thousands of young Australians rushed to enlist: not to advance the interests of their own country, but to assist Mother England and advance its Empire. Negative experiences with British Army martinets and the idiocy of the Gallipoli Campaign took the shine of this enthusiasm for many of the troops; nevertheless love of the Empire on the part of the Anglo-Australians – who just happened to be residing in the former colonies – was a powerful force 125 years after the arrival of the First Fleet. The Irish Catholics were a different case and they fit the bill of the counter-imperialists you describe.

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    • Yes, I’ve written before about the apparent strength of ‘imperial’ feeling in the dominions, by contrast with the ‘mother country’. For example, Canada and Australia both officially embraced ‘Empire Day’ before Britain. Whether that was their people’s doing, or their elites’, I’m not sure. I must think about it. Thanks.

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  2. Marie Clausén says:

    You should come to Canada to lecture on this topic. The mainstream view here seems to be that the English arrived in Canada with the specific intent of subjecting aboriginal populations.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tony says:

    The Irish were of course escaping from oppression in a country the British regarded effectively as a colony , mainly to the USA (and Australia), and their descendents have pushed against British imperialism in the North during the Troubles which included internment, torture, and murder (Derry 30 Jan 1972), so reminiscent of the Kenyan and Malayan ’emergencies’ in the 50’s and like them still not properly investigated. And I’m sure Biden, of Irish descent, is watching carefully British duplicity over the NI border issue, and its effects on the Republic.

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