British Identity and the Legacy of Empire

The extent to which the British Empire influences contemporary politics and society has been overlooked by political parties in the UK

Andy Mycock
25 April 2010

The ‘politics of Britishness’ and related constitutional matters have not – as yet - played strongly in the general election either in manifestos or during campaigning, though all the main parties of the Union agree that further powers be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This would not be surprising but for considerable time and effort invested by Gordon Brown, David Cameron and others in engaging in such debates over recent years. The term ‘Britishness’ is absent from all UK party manifestos except for the Democratic Unionist Party. Although the Liberal Democrats identified fairness as ‘an essential British value’, identity politics is generally not considered to be a vote winner.

Responses to the ‘English Questions’ have also proven muted and vague, with Labour failing to engage at all with constitutional dilemmas largely created by its own radical reform agenda. Moreover, though the Conservative manifesto promises to ‘introduce new rules so that legislation referring specifically to England, or to England and Wales’ and the Liberal Democrats seeking to ‘address the status of England’, scant details are given about how this will be achieved. Although Timothy Garton-Ash claimed the first TV debate woke us up to devolution, Simon Lee rightly noted in an earlier OD post that the absence of England in the election is striking.

Similarly, the extent to which the legacy of the British Empire continues to influence contemporary politics and society has also been overlooked by most parties. Only the Conservatives have acknowledged it as a policy aspiration, promising in their manifesto that they will ‘strengthen the Commonwealth as a focus for promoting democratic values and development’. However, their intention to establish annual limits on non-EU migrants suggest that Conservative views towards the former empire continue to be infused with elements of colonialism – a confused message that encourages stronger Commonwealth bonds through the promotion of British values and aid whilst restricting of historic patterns of population exchange.

The lack of relevance of Commonwealth issues in this election sidesteps the fact that many of British citizens voting have vested interests in the UK’s relations with its former empire and that the outcome has important transnational implications. This, in part, reflects a British post-empire experience that has encouraged the nationalising of the parameters of UK citizenship and British national identity. Commonwealth citizenship rights have been increasingly restricted during this period and politicians and others have consistently overlooked the former empire or the Commonwealth in the re-articulation of Britishness or other sub-state national identities. Whilst Gordon Brown suggested this year’s Commonwealth Day on March 8th provided ‘an occasion which brings together all members of the Commonwealth to reflect on our shared heritage and promote our shared values’, it passed largely unmarked again in the UK, suggesting that, for many Britons, its resonance is increasingly peripheral.

Although since 1997 Labour has followed an established post-war governmental narrative in alluding to the potential of the Commonwealth in maintaining a post-empire community, it has provided no substantive plans on how its role could be strengthened. Moreover, the Commonwealth has proven largely absent in the re-imagining of ‘new’ Britishness. The Commonwealth provides stark evidence that imperial withdrawal in some former colonies was not controlled or bloodless and that the post-colonial legacy of the British Empire is far from entirely positive. Sustained efforts to re-evaluate the legacy of empire have proven slight, suggesting a post-empire myopia that can be somewhat attributed to the contentious nature of empire and its inheritance.

There has been little attempt to reform the institutions and symbols of UK state in the wake of empire. For those attempting to project positive constructions of state and nation- be it British, Scottish, Welsh, English or Irish - empire raises difficult questions as to its historical inheritance and implications when articulating contemporary political and cultural institutions and values.

Gordon Brown has been more prepared than most British politicians to acknowledge the enduring legacy of the British Empire. He has asserted Britons have a confused and apologetic sense of identity shaped by the legacy of empire. But his determination to project a wholly positive construction of Britishness has led him to encourage his fellow Britons to ‘celebrate much of our [imperial] past rather than apologize for it’. This has however provoked strong reactions, with some questioning the historical legitimacy and appropriateness of imperial British values and their relevance to modern democratic, multicultural post-empire states. Former South African president, Thabo Mbeki, suggested the British treated Africans like ‘savages’, motivated by an alternative framework of imperial values such as racial hierarchy, slavery, exploitation, ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The extent to which the UK can be seen as a post-empire state must be questioned. For some, such as Robert Cooper, British foreign policy continues to be shaped by an ascription to ‘liberal imperialism’. Moreover, transnational constitutional ties endure, with the Monarch continuing as Head of State of sixteen states - of which the UK is but one – and fourteen British Overseas Territories. The Crown is represented in a number of differing ways within the political systems of the Commonwealth realms, providing a key constitutional role with significant—though often theoretical—powers which reflect the enduring legacy of the British parliamentary model of government. The presence of the Monarch on coins and stamps in various Commonwealth realms, and the continued prominence of other ‘banal’ symbols such as the Union Flag on some national flags, suggest the persistence of a more generous transnational Britishness.

The nationalising of UK citizenship has been in many ways necessary, both in providing a clearer understanding of the relationship between UK citizens and their state and to also address the many constitutional anomalies which typify British post-imperialism. But the articulation of a British nationality which is congruent with UK citizenship conveniently overlooks the fact that debates about Britishness are not confined to the UK and are key to post-colonial debates about citizenship and identity across the Commonwealth and beyond, particularly in the former Dominions. Politicians promoting Britishness or other separatist nationalist identities continue to avoid engaging with the complex and unfinished nature of British imperial withdrawal which has left a patchwork of overseas territories and constitutional ties.

However, acknowledgement of the legacy of empire and on-going membership of the Commonwealth in this general election are important in projecting more plural and inclusive understanding of Britishness which reflects multi- and transnational realities in the UK and beyond. This would require a more balanced, open and critical analysis of the British imperial past could encourage re-evaluation of the political and cultural legacies of empire which continue to influence UK citizenship and British and other national identities. Moreover, it would require British political parties to recognise that our general elections have transnational implications for many UK citizens and British subjects as well as across the Commonwealth.

The above post is drawn from a chapter by the author from the special ‘Politics of Britishness’ edition of the refereed journal, Parliamentary Affairs. The volume, co-edited by Dr Catherine McGlynn and Dr Andy Mycock, provides a ground-breaking study of the ‘politics of Britishness’ across the four nations of the United Kingdom, Europe and Commonwealth. More details on the volume are available here.

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