Periphery: The myth of British exceptionalism

One of our greatest failures is our inability to confront our imperial past. Still celebrated in our media and by our right-wing press, it has left us with an inflated sense of our own exceptionalism, that has estranged us from our closest neighbours.

One of the more insidious myths that came to the fore during the Brexit campaign was that of British exceptionalism, the belief that our culture and national character pre-ordained our greatness, and that all the triumphs of our history from the British Empire to the Blitz Spirit are evidence of this uniqueness. It’s an attitude that has been propagated by the right-wing press for decades, with publications like The Sun and The Daily Express constantly invoking our imperial past to extol the virtues of the British way of life. If they are to be believed, our benevolent empire brought tea, railways and fair play to the world, and gave it all up to protect us from the evils of Nazism.

It’s not difficult to fall into this trap. Ignore the British Empire’s various crimes and the picture you see evokes a prelapsarian age of plucky adventurers and civilised, tea-drinking aristocrats bringing the gentle protection of mother Britannia to the undeveloped world. Indeed, much of the patriotic art, music and propaganda that creates this impression is genuinely pleasing. But it masks a grim reality. The British Empire was for the most part racist, oppressive and aggressive, using its economic and naval might to reap the rewards of cheap labour and abundant natural resources for the benefit of the imperial elite. As the motherland became enriched, millions upon millions of native peoples were left in poverty, squalor, and political marginalisation.

In its civilising mission, Britain was responsible for a raft of ghastly genocides and massacres. Even as recently as the 1950s, colonial forces murdered perhaps tens of thousands of Kenyans during the Mau Mau Uprising, and slaughtered, tortured and interned as many in the destructive and euphemistically named Malayan Emergency. One of the most famous incidents – depicted on film in 1982 by the inimitable Richard Attenborough in Gandhi – was the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, in which British soldiers fired on peaceful Indian protesters, killing 380 and wounding a thousand more. Britain can arguably also be credited with the invention of the concentration camp, used to imprison South Africa civilians during the Boer War. This strategy was later lauded and used to devastating effect by Nazi Germany.

How is it that we can continue to celebrate our imperial past on film and in print when many other nations have repudiated their own? Germany, though an extreme example of contrition, has not only made amends for the Nazi period, but also for an older time as colonial overlords in Namibia, Tanzania, Togo, and Cameroon. France, too, has been able to confront this past, although with greater difficulty. Just recently, French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron courted controversy by naming his country’s occupation of Algeria a ‘crime against humanity.’ In Britain, no such self reflection is in evidence. The statues of Cecil Rhodes – a man with an ocean of blood on his hands – still stand proudly in the courtyards of Oxford, while that horrendous racist (even for his own time) and imperial apologist Winston Churchill is lionised like no other man. An insult to the latter is nothing short of sacrilege to the right-wing press.

It is true that there were positives to the British Empire. The Royal Navy laudably spent the better part of a century – after ending its own grim involvement – trying to put an end to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. British sailors patrolled the ocean, waylaying ships carrying stolen Africans to destinations in Brazil, the United States and the Caribbean. This was part of a growing liberal sentiment aimed at helping the less fortunate members of humanity, although one that still relied on the racist view that non-whites needed uplifting from their state of primitive ignominy. However, the British abolition movement, led by figures like William Wilberforce and Olaudah Equiano, remains something worth celebrating.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom had been surpassed as an industrial power.

For good or ill, Britain helped to shape the modern world order: trains lance across India thanks to Victorian engineering; Hong Kong is a major port and financial centre due in large part to over a century of British rule; and Canada, New Zealand and Australia thrive today because their culture and politics derive from British and Irish settlers. But behind each of these successes, there is a story of cruelty and oppression. How many of these railways were built on the backs of Indian labourers, how many Chinese were slain to seize Hong Kong in the wasteful Opium Wars, and how many native Canadians, Maoris and Aboriginal Australians were killed by war, disease and famine in the conquest of their homes.

It is true, though, that between 1815 and 1914 Britain sat largely undisturbed at the pinnacle of its power. For a century it had the largest and most modern navy, a small but highly professional army, and near-unlimited reserves of manpower and resources to draw upon. However, by the end of the nineteenth century, the United Kingdom had been surpassed as an industrial power by the United States, and France, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia’s armies were all far larger. The First World War exposed the vast cost of maintaining Britain’s overseas territories, and by 1918, four years of war had left the country deeply indebted, and some of its most important colonies (namely: Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand) hankering for independence.

There’s no shame in enjoying the cultural output of the British Empire. The music of Edward Elgar, the fiction of Rudyard Kipling, and films like Zulu that celebrate our colonial past should not be discarded because of their association with this undesirable period of our history. But we must not let it fool us into thinking that the age of Empire was a positive one. We need to fundamentally re-evaluate our relationship with history by recognising the crimes and atrocities of our imperial past, and the legacy of civil war and ethnic strife it has left in Africa and Asia – surely a difficult task given the positive light in which the right-wing press continues to cast the British Empire.

Nonetheless, our imperial past, seen through the patriotic lens of the media and the right-wing press, has left us with an inflated sense of our own importance and of our place in the modern world. It is commonly suggested that Britain sees itself as a large island in the mid-Atlantic, as close to the United States and Canada as it is to Europe. This attitude is coloured not only by our historical and cultural relationship to North America, but also to our long history at the periphery of Europe – usually in cool indifference, but just as often in helplessness. In its ascendancy, Britain learned to take advantage of fractious continental relationships to maintain the balance of power, and ensure that no European rival grew to threaten its global hegemony. For this reason, the British fought with the Germans and Austrians against France in the Napoleonic Wars, and with France against the Germans and Austrians between 1914 and 1918.

For the longest part of their history, England and Scotland have been little more than bickering rivals.

This attitude towards Europe has led many to suggest, therefore, that Britain’s future lies in an EU-style arrangement with the Commonwealth (i.e. the white nations of Canada, Australia and New Zealand rather than Namibia or Guyana). It’s a somewhat myopic view that confuses our shared language and history with economic and political interest; the advocates of such a relationship forget that these countries have spent centuries developing their own unique cultures and societies defined by a completely different way of life. To suggest that we have more in common with a country like New Zealand, separated from us by thousands of miles of ocean than with France, to which it is literally possible to swim, is entirely anachronistic.

Is it the legacy of Empire that has helped to estrange us from Europe? In fact, it is arguably a much older phenomenon, helped in part by our position as an island on the edge of the continent. This has helped to shield Britain much of the wars and upheavals that have plagued Europe, but it has also helped to isolate us, and prevent us from stamping our authority on continental affairs. Indeed, for the longest part of their history, England and Scotland have been little more than bickering rivals – economic and cultural backwaters when compared to rich and powerful rulers in Rome, Paris and Constantinople. When English monarchs tried to cast the net of royal authority over France, it was often the futile action of a small and impoverished nation against a larger (but more divided) enemy.

Our Anglocentric education was have us believe that characters like Richard the Lionheart and Henry VIII were some of the great movers and shakers of history. The former was, in fact, a Francophone crusader who rarely set foot upon the country he ruled, and whose greatest achievement was to fritter away men, money and resources on frivolous expeditions to the Middle East. In fact, Richard saw England as little more than a source of soldiers and income, and spent the overwhelming majority of his reign in the Duchy of Aquitaine in southwest France. Henry VIII, meanwhile, spent much of his money on pompous tournaments (including one in which he wrestled with Francis I, the French king) and limp attempts to invade France, which acted as little more than a sideshow to the real conflict between Francis I and Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire. Even his break with Rome seems a pantomime compared to the Diet of Worms.

Henry VIII in particular has become a folkloric figure in English history. He has been cast in the popular imagination as a fat, boisterous ruler, leading the resistance against domination by a distant, foreign elite from their ivory tower in Rome. This kind of ‘us and them mentality has been fuelled by Britain’s post-colonial delusion that we have little in common with our European neighbours. Henry’s battle with the Pope, therefore, is a stand-in for Britain’s shared battle against Europe. The way we understand our past has shaped our relationship with the world around us; in the British imagination, ours has been a history of a plucky island nation struggling against European aggressors and invaders, emerging victorious and spreading the gift of civilisation to the world. It’s pure mythology.

Britain has spent the last sixty years since the end of Empire trying to reassert some of its old authority. The development of nuclear weapons – not unlike a man buying a flashy sports car to compensate for his anatomical deficiency – and repeated attempts to meddle in the Middle East (Suez, Iraq, etc.) are symptoms of this. Turning away from the EU is the latest chapter in a long history in which Britain has imagined itself as bigger, better, and more important than it really is. The reality is that our status in world affairs has declined dramatically: we are still a great power, but only just. It is our membership of NATO and the European Union that helps us maintain our position of influence, and we may soon find ourselves irrelevant in an increasingly multipolar world that has no room for an island nation in the middle of the Atlantic, alone on the periphery once again.

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6 thoughts on “Periphery: The myth of British exceptionalism

  1. I wouldn’t say the French have come to terms with their colonial past. Macron has been roundly criticized by the right, and many in France believe that their occupation of Algeria was a wonderful thing they did and that they brought development to Algeria in the form of infrastructure etc. Even Macron himself said a few weeks back that France had been able to bring “elements of civilisation” to Algeria. Similar comments from Brits about Britain in Africa can be found online.
    Jacques Chirac lauded colonialism as “cooperation”. François Fillon said France must not be ashamed of colonialism because it was just “sharing its great culture” with the people’s of Africa and the America’s. He said that and raised few eyebrows in France and won his party’s primary, but then plunged in opinion polls because of a job fraud scandal. You’re better off being proud of imperialism and genocide than being suspected of forging a job contract as a presidential candidate in France.

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      1. Yeah. I remember reading some jaw dropping comments on an article someone wrote in the Guardian a few years ago about the Mau Mau in Kenya. People really took exception to the events being painted in a negative light. I guess everything is open to interpretation.

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  2. Surely the Security Council veto, now idle for some years, gives Britain more influence than the EU, which lets face it is run by failed domestic politicians like many of the other international institutions (IMF, UN, World Bank) and to cite NATO ignores the fact that very few of its members, ever actually do any real fighting, whatever the cause. Can you imagine the EU defending itself militarily?

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  3. Very thought provoking. I wrestle w/ similar issues in yhe US. How does one portray the ugly realities of one’s culture? Yet, how do we avoid dismissing the good done by our culture? I believe we, as historians, share blame with bipolarized takes. If our nation were a family, why would we who remember, show a family photo album with only our worst days?

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