The Absent-Minded Imperialists by Bernard Porter

THE ABSENT-MINDED IMPERIALISTS: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain
by Bernard Porter
OUP £25 pp497

In 1883, Sir John Seeley published The Expansion of England, in which he famously observed that the English (or did he mean the British?) seemed to have acquired their far-flung empire in what he called “a fit of absence of mind”. By this he did not mean that the imperial conquerors and proconsuls did not know what they were doing, but rather that the majority of their fellow citizens showed not the slightest interest in, or often knowledge of, these overseas ventures and expanding dominions. Indeed, he deliberately published the book to alert them to these very things. But he did not succeed. For, half a century later, Seeley’s views were ironically corroborated, as the British Empire came to an end, and few people in this country seem to have noticed or cared. By the time Thatcher sought to get back one of Britain’s last remaining colonies, most people, including many in the Foreign Office, had no idea where “the Falklands” actually were.

As the British Empire has receded into history, historians in both Britain and America have become much more interested in it than they were in its heyday; and not only historians, but also literary scholars, cultural critics and self-styled post-colonialist writers. Many of them do not accept Seeley’s view. On the contrary, they insist that, as the metropolis of the greatest imperial power, Britain itself was “steeped”, “saturated”, “drenched” or (this is their favourite word) “imbricated” with what they term “imperial culture”. So while books such as Mansfield Park or Jane Eyre might contain relatively few allusions to the British Empire, they carried (so this argument goes) an altogether disproportionate weight, because they resonated and were understood in a society where the signs and signifiers of imperial possession and dominion were all around.

Not so, insists Bernard Porter, in this spirited and argumentative book, which takes on some of the biggest beasts in the post-colonial jungle, especially the late Edward Said, whose works, Orientalism, and Culture and Imperialism, have done so much to determine recent approaches to Britain's imperial past. In the first place, Porter insists, Britain itself was a complex and fissured society, divided by religion, politics, region and above all class, which makes it difficult to sustain the notion that there was a monolithic national culture steeped, saturated, etc, etc in empire. But in addition, Porter argues, that empire itself was so vast, varied, distant and protean a thing that it is hard to see how there could ever have been such a thing as a single, unitary "imperial culture" impacting back on Britain.

This is the case which Porter seeks to sustain, by trying to assess in detail just how visible and significant a phenomenon the British Empire was in British life during the 19th and 20th centuries. Before the 1880s, he insists, only a tiny fraction of the nation's population had any first-hand experience of empire, and they were mainly
middle-class families with a dynastic commitment to service overseas who largely kept themselves to themselves and when they retired congregated in such places as Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. But the majority of the population, Porter argues, knew little of empire: it rarely made the political headlines, or featured prominently in art or novels or music, and most history textbooks just ignored it. Most Britons did not know where Gibraltar was, let alone Ceylon — or the Falklands.

To be sure, there was, Porter admits, a raising of imperial consciousness during the late 19th century, culminating in the Boer war. But even at the zenith of empire, he asserts, its impact on Britain has too often been overrated. Elgar's music was only occasionally suffused by the imperial ethos, and the jingoism of the music hall was both ephemeral and superficial. From public schools to elementary schools, the history of the empire was still little taught, while for most young people Empire Day meant an extra holiday rather than a commitment to dominion over palm and pine. And when Joseph Chamberlain sought to enlist the nation to join him in his great imperial crusade of Tariff Reform, the Conservative party was roundly defeated in the general election of 1906.

For much of their lives, Chamberlain and his small group of co-imperial zealots — among them Lords Curzon and Milner, Rudyard Kipling and Leopold Amery — despaired of rousing the British to a full appreciation of their imperial reach and global responsibilities. Neither the Diamond Jubilee of 1897 nor the Imperial Exhibition at Wembley in 1924 made any lasting impact. "I've brought you here to see the wonders of Empire," observes one of No‘l Coward's characters, visiting the latter, "and all you want to do is go on the dodgems." Not surprisingly, then, during the 50 years from Indian independence in 1947 to the Hong Kong handover in 1997, the end of empire caused scarcely a ripple in British politics. The Marquess of Salisbury resigned, and Enoch Powell got very upset. But they were both marginal men, and as such the exceptions who proved the rule.

Porter's conclusion is clear and unequivocal: for much of recent history, Britain may have possessed the largest empire the world had ever known, but most Britons were largely ignorant of it or indifferent to it, and there was no such thing as a pervasive or monolithic "imperial culture" by which the nation was suffused, let alone enthralled. All too often, he argues, many recent writers about the British Empire have easily and lazily assumed the existence of such an "imperial culture"; but as he painstakingly demonstrates, with a wealth of historical detail, there is little evidence in support of such a presumption. If he is right, then many cultural critics and post-colonialists will need to do some serious rethinking.

But is he right? One of the hardest things for a historian to do is to try to demonstrate that something was not important. And unimportant compared to what? It may be true that most 19th- and 20th-century Britons did not know much about their empire; but it is not clear that they knew much about anything else. Where does that get us? Despite the book's subtitle, there is little discussion of Scotland or Ireland, and, as the author coyly admits, his conclusions might be very different if he had extended his discussion to encompass those two nations where empire did bulk larger in the popular consciousness. And even if his argument is correct, it might still be the case that there was more "imperial culture" in Britain than in, say, imperial France or Spain or Russia or Austria-Hungary.

All of which is simply to say that this book is bound to provoke considerable debate and, in certain quarters, acrimonious disagreement. Not everyone will be impressed by Porter's rather laboured distinctions between "imperialism" and "imperialistic", or between "influence" and "impact". The cultural critics and post-colonialists will almost certainly dislike the book in its entirety. The author disarmingly admits that he anticipates "combative" reviews. He may be disappointed with mine. But others will be happy (or unhappy) to oblige.

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