In 2004, Bernard Porter published The Absent-Minded Imperialists: Empire, Society and Culture in Britain. It immediately became a controversial work. Porter later reflected that the book:
was mainly a response to certain scholars (and some others) who, I felt, had hitherto simplified and exaggerated the impact of ‘imperialism’ on Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, after years in which, except by empire specialists like myself, it had been rather ignored and underplayed. […] the main argument of the book was this: that the ordinary Briton’s relationship to the Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was complex and ambivalent, less soaked in or affected by imperialism than these other scholars claimed – to the extent that many English people, at any rate, possibly even a majority, were almost entirely ignorant of it for most of the nineteenth century.
John Mackenzie was the foremost of the scholars to whom Porter referred. Both through his own writings, and as the longstanding editor of Manchester University Press Studies in Imperialism series, Mackenzie had made a crucial contribution to the study of Empire culture. In his review of Absent-Minded Imperialists, Mackenzie stated: ‘some reviewers may be taken in by this, but I am not’. Another review, by Antoinette Burton, was even more excoriating:
This is by turns an astonishing, puzzling, and disappointing book. […] Rich in evidence but weak in interpretive power, Porter does little to advance the debate about what role empire had in shaping metropolitan culture, even as he materializes a wide-ranging empirical base for students genuinely interested in pursuing the kinds of questions raised by that debate.… While this is a book that is worth reading, it is, regrettably, not a book that is worth arguing either with or about. The Absent-Minded Imperialists is trapped in a cul-de-sac, unable to challenge the new imperial history to enter those methodologically innovative paths that would allow it to continue to produce critical knowledges about the imperial past.
Porter’s book is undoubtedly problematic from a variety of perspectives. For example, he searches for evidence of a ‘dominating’ imperialist mind-set amongst the British people, and does not find much of it. But this is hardly surprising given that the imperialist world-view was one which often went to great lengths to present itself as benign. The Victorians rarely if ever conquered new territories in the name of self-aggrandisement and the will to dominate; sometimes they did so in the name of prestige and the balance of power, but also very often in the name of humanitarianism, order, civilization, and ‘progress’. This in turn was reflected in the imperial culture at home in Britain.
Nonetheless, as Dr. Justin Jones and I discuss in this new podcast, Porter certainly raised valuable questions about the reach of that culture, and by so doing breathed new life into the debate. A decade on, the book still repays careful reading. Pace Antoinette Burton, it most certainly remains worth arguing with…and about.