Legacy of the British Empire

This is my assignment as part of the University of Exeter’s FutureLearn course Empire: the Controversies of British Imperialism.

The effects of historical phenomena are contextual. Depending on who you are, you will experience or perceive the legacy of the British Empire in potentially different ways to another individual. If you are black, for example, the main legacy of the British Empire on you might be the continued inequalities and oppression experienced as a result of the development of pseudo-scientific racism by colonial scientists.1

Another important legacy of the British Empire is the power its memory still has on the British — especially white British — psyche. There have often been critics of British colonialism; for others, the Empire was something to be enthusiastic about.2 After “decolonisation”, this positive disposition has lingered in nostalgia (which, as nostalgia often does,3 whitewashes4 and ignores the negative elements of the thing it reminisce over5),6 resulting in both nationalistic pride (at the “glory” of being the little nation that ruled over the largest Empire in history, bringing civilization to others)7 and a sense of loss (that Britain no longer possesses that “glorious” Empire).8 The (white) British psyche is haunted by this phantom.

Arguably, this nostalgia has lead to and/or influenced a number of (negative) phenomena. For example, this legacy of the British Empire can be see in:

  • (Often botched9) international interventions.10 ‘There was a time when Britannia really did rule the waves. And it’s a memory which has never wholly faded. Once the navy … forced Britain’s will onto foreign governments. That heritage help Britain to believe she’s still entitled to a place at the top table in world affairs. […] The Empire may be over, but imperial habits linger on. In the last three decades, Britain has embarked on seven foreign wars[: Falklands 1982; Gulf 1991; Kosovo 1999; Sierra Leone 2000; Afghanistan 2001; Iraq 2003; Libya 2011] … [Y]ou can’t help wondering that if, without the memory of Empire, Britain would have plunged in quite so readily. It’s as if we can’t quite let go of who we once were’.11 (This neo-colonialism/imperialism has a popularist sibling in football hooliganism12 — and perhaps even in the “stereotypical” Brit abroad.)

  • Brexit.13 ‘Brexiters … have long romanticised the days of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by its racial and cultural superiority. … This referendum has not been about Europe, but about Britain and its imperial legacy. For Brexiters, turning their back on Europe and turfing out their neighbours is a step toward salvaging … the British Empire … The violence in the Brexit rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders”, of excluding others for self-interested goals … is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain’.14

  • Racism. (White) Brits haunted by the Ghost of Empire Past still see themselves (i.e., those of the conquering, civilizing people) as superior to others (i.e., those they once conquered and “civilized”).15 (Perhaps this can be intensified in its current context because Britain’s influence and role in the world has diminished16 so those possessed with this nostalgia attempt to reassert their own legitimacy by delegitimising others [cf. a typical bully insecurity17 and technique18].) This racism is acted upon.19



1. D. Olusoga, ‘The roots of European racism lie in the slave trade, colonialism – and Edward Long’ (08/09/15) in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/sep/08/european-racism-africa-slavery

2. J. M. MacKenzie, Imperialism and Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986), p. 5ff.; Y. Siddiqi, Anxieties of Empire and the Fiction of Intrigue (New York: Colombia University Press, 2008), p. 17-18; F. McDonough, The British Empire 1815-1914 (London: Hodder & Stoughton), p. 81-85

3. E. Stephan et al., ‘Mental travel into the past: differentiating recollections of nostalgic, ordinary, and positive events’ in European Journal of Social Psychology 42 (3): nostalgic memories ‘are preserved, if not idealized’.

4. D. Heath, ‘School curriculum continues to whitewash Britain’s imperial past’ (27/01/16) on The Conversation: https://theconversation.com/school-curriculum-continues-to-whitewash-britains-imperial-past-53577

5. K. Andrews, ‘Colonial nostalgia is back in fashion, blinding us to the horrors of empire’ (24/08/16) on The Guardia: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/24/colonial-nostalgia-horrors-of-empire-britain-olympic

6. C. Rojek, Brit-Myth: Who Do the British Think They Are? (London: Reaktion Books, 2007), digital edition, n.p.

7. W. DahlGreen, ‘The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’’ (26/07/14) on YouGov UK: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/07/26/britain-proud-its-empire; ‘Rhodes must not fall’ (18/01/16) on YouGov UK: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/01/18/rhodes-must-not-fall

8. ‘[T]here is a real loss to England if a part of Britain secedes. The retreat from Empire … left scars on the national psyche … which are still not fully healed’ and have lead to ‘nostalgic regrets’ (R. Harris, ‘The Rise of English Nationalism: And the Balkanization of Britain’ in The National Interest No. 54 [Winter 1998/99], p. 50).

9. E.g., J. Chilcot, ‘Sir John Chilcot’s public statement, 6 July 2016’: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20171123124608/http://www.iraqinquiry.org.uk/the-inquiry/sir-john-chilcots-public-statement; Foreign Affairs Committee, Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options (2016). Summary: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmfaff/119/11903.htm; N. El-Enany, ‘The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial Blowback’ (06/06/16) on Truthout: https://truthout.org/articles/the-iraq-war-brexit-and-imperial-blowback

10. P. Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), p. 95

11. Jeremy Paxman, Empire episode 1: ‘A Taste for Power’ (BBC, 2012), 01:30-02:14, 57:00-57:48

12. A. Warner, ‘For Honor and Country: Understanding the link between football hooliganism and nationalism’ (12/13), honours thesis at Texas State University-San Marcos, p. 19-20; D. Winner, ‘Empire and Entitlement’ (01/03/18) on The Blizzard: https://www.theblizzard.co.uk/article/empire-and-entitlement

13. N. El-Enany, ‘The Iraq War, Brexit and Imperial Blowback’ (06/06/16) on Truthout: https://truthout.org/articles/the-iraq-war-brexit-and-imperial-blowback; Things Fall Apart: From Empire to Brexit Britain’ (02/05/17) on IPR: http://blogs.bath.ac.uk/iprblog/2017/05/02/things-fall-apart-from-empire-to-brexit-britain

14. N. El-Enany, ‘Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire’ (19/06/16) on Critical Legal Thinking: http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/06/19/brexit-nostalgia-empire

15. A. Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging (Random House, 2018), digital edition, n.p.

16. In 1962, Former US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, remarked that “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role”. Jeremy Paxman comments that ‘the observation remains true all these years later’, and that that ‘reflects the continuing significance of the imperial experience’ on the British (Empire [London: Penguin, 2012], digital edition, n.p.).

17. M. O’Moore and C. Kirkham, ‘Self‐esteem and its relationship to bullying behaviour’ in Aggressive Behaviour Volume27, Issue 4 July 2001: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ab.1010

18. S. Einarsen et al. (eds), Bullying and Harassment in the Workplace 2nd edn (London: CRC Press, 2011), p. 182

19. C. Hall, ‘The racist ideas of slave owners are still with us today’ (26/09/16) in The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/26/racist-ideas-slavery-slave-owners-hate-crime-brexit-vote