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Our closet imperialists.

A Fortnightly Review of

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain

John Darwin
Allen Lane | 496 pages | £25

By Michael Blackburn.

UnfEmpire150IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for reviewers to reveal something far more disagreeable about themselves than about the book at hand. Take for example the excuse for analysis occasioned by John Darwin’s new book, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain.

For many on the Left, the Empire has left an indelible residue which can only be erased by the application of shame. In that scouring spirit, a couple of the book’s PC critics have worked out why the British electorate has such a visceral dislike of the EU: it’s because they’re secret imperialists, hankering for the days of the Empire.

Linda Colley, reviewing Darwin’s book in the Guardian, makes the following claim:

Empire’s complex and long-drawn out impact on identities here – on the sense of who we are – helps to explain why adjustment to the EU has proved so hard. At some level, varieties of Britons still kick against being confined to Europe only, to a single continent. Consciously or not, many of them still yearn to be a global people, to be actors on a bigger stage.

John Naughton, a propos of Cameron’s proposals for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU, comes to much the same conclusion on his blog:

I suspect that what really underpins British dislike of the Union is a kind of imperial afterglow. The British have never been wholeheartedly European for the simple reason that being so would be tantamount to acknowledging that Britain is ‘just’ another country — the same as states like France, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark: countries which were conquered by invaders and which Britain helped to liberate in the Second World War.

It seems we have a new meme in action here. It’s a useful one, combining two progressive obsessions: the guilt-inducing awfulness of the British Empire and the unimpeachable righteousness of the European Union. That makes another great stick with which to bash Britain.

For Colley, our past has affected our national DNA so much it has made us into an incorrigibly imperialist nation, fretting at the civilizing constraints of the great European project. We need cutting down to size and should forget about those things that made us global actors in the past.

Naughton confesses that “as an Irishman” he finds the British attitude to the EU “slightly comical”:

[M]y countrymen saw Europe in exactly the opposite light: it enabled us to escape from the shadow of our former coloniser and become just another country. So — at least until the bailout after the banking meltdown — we gloried in being part of the Union.

Yes, Ireland escaped one empire only to jump back into another one less than a century later, one in which it has less say than in its predecessor as to its own fate. During the whole time of its independence from Britain it was governed by gombeens and crooks. Now it’s governed by gombeens and crooks who take their orders from the EU and its bankers. And the EU is an empire they can never get out of.

SO, TO FOLLOW Colley’s logic, if Britain’s DNA has been altered by Empire to make the British resentful of being dominated, then Ireland’s, unfortunately, has suffered the opposite and produced a nation of forelock-tugging serfs. That’s what you get for wanting to be “just another country”. Naughton may find the British resentment of the legalistic tyranny of the EU comical, but we may be entitled to view his countrymen’s eagerness to surrender their sovereignty as ignominious and sad.

It’s telling, of course, that neither Colley nor Naughton admit the imperial dimension of the EU itself, a dimension openly acknowledged by the Commission’s oily president, Mr Barroso. That would rather spoil their argument. Fortunately, that argument leaves this book untouched – and perhaps unopened.


Michael Blackburn is the Fortnightly’s Currente Calamo columnist as well as a poet, an occasional publisher (founding editor of Sunk Island Publishing) and a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Lincoln (UK).

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