Ruling the Waves – Episode 6 – ‘An Imperial People?’

imperial biscuits

Stefan Piotrowski
Against the Current Productions

These six chapters were originally parts of a single film which sought to explore whether, during the nineteenth century, the Empire allowed Britons to transcend their other differences and embrace a shared sense of national identity. (The title of this three part series is Britishness: In Search of a National Identity – you can find part one Fragile Beginnings online) The preceding five chapters have laid the groundwork for the argument advanced in this final section, featuring Bernard Porter, John Mackenzie, Andrew Thompson, and Duncan Bell.

The subject of the film and the position I have taken in it have brought me into the middle of what has been an often quite heated debate. Rather than present a simple introduction here I have tried to sketch out the contours of this disagreement and my response to it. In very reductive terms, on one side of the argument there are historians who say that imperialism was a core ideology providing Britons with a shared worldview and sense of unique mission, and on the other side historians who say that it wasn’t.

John MacKenzie, an advocate of the ‘core ideology’ view, sets out what he sees as the fault line in this debate in the opening pages of Propaganda And Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880-1960, originally published in 1984:

The British, it has often been said, were indifferent to imperialism. Apart from a brief, aberrant (and indeed disputed) burst of jingoism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they concentrated on more hard-headed domestic affairs. By the 1920s all residual imperial sentiment had been destroyed by the First World War. Imperialism as a sophisticated concept had been, and remained, the preserve of an elite, and a fractured elite at that. The public’s lack of ideological commitment was matched by almost complete ignorance of the territories of Empire, the principles of its government, or the economic dimensions of the imperial connection. It was this combination of indifference and ignorance which ensured that the Empire was never a significant electoral issue and that decolonisation was accomplished without any of the national trauma experienced in France. Indeed, by the time decolonisation had been achieved, Empire was already forgotten, surviving in the national consciousness as little more than a source of nostalgic philately.

Imperialism failed to make an impact, the argument continues, because of the diffuse nature of the British imperial experience, and because the Empire was never given a powerful constitutional or cultural expression. The Empire was at least four separate entities. It was the colonies of settlement, which by the era of ‘popular imperialism’ were beginning to emerge as semi-independent political units. It was India, its central significance masked by the romantic aura Disraeli created around it in the 1870s on the eve of the ‘new imperialism’. It was a string of islands and staging posts, a combination of seventeenth century sugar colonies and the spoils of wars with European rivals, China and other non-European cultures. And finally, Empire was the ‘dependent’ territories acquired largely in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The Empire’s diverse character ensured that imperialism meant different things to different people at different times. Such attempts as there were to develop a grander design were bedevilled by this problem of definition. And so was any effort at national comprehension. Such is, perhaps conventional historical wisdom. The purpose of this book is not to assault the essentials of this view. In some respects, indeed, they are unassailable. (J. Mackenzie, Propaganda pp.1-2)

However, despite this somewhat strange remark at the end, Prof Mackenzie continues:

Even if they knew little or cared less about imperial philosophies or colonial territories, nonetheless imperial status set them apart, and united a set of national ideas which coalesced in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. […] It is possible to identify an ideological cluster which formed out of the intellectual, national and world-wide conditions of the later Victorian era, and which came to infuse and be propagated by every organ of British life in the period. It was made up of a renewed militarism, a devotion to royalty, an identification and worship of national heroes, together with a contemporary cult of personality, and racial ideas associated with Social Darwinism. [… This] imperialism and its related reverence for royalty and other elements of established authority, its racial ideas, its national complacency and conceit, [was] a core ideology in British society between the 1880s and the 1950s.’ (J. Mackenzie, Propaganda pp.2-11)

This is a big claim, and Prof MacKenzie draws on an impressive range of evidence in support of his thesis from theatrical productions, films, school textbooks, postcards, packaging and boys’ adventure stories. However, in more recent years Bernard Porter – in The Absent-Minded Imperialists – has questioned the transition made from historical evidence to wider generalisation. Stephen Howe observes how Porter ‘uses an extended archaeological metaphor: there are thousands of imperial shards to be found when we excavate nineteenth- or early twentieth-century British society. Dug out and piled up at the side, they might look overwhelming. Studied in situ, however, you get a quite different impression. They’re concentrated only in a few scattered spots.’ (S. Howe, ‘Empire and Ideology’, in The British Empire ed. Stockwell, p161) So whilst there are certainly plenty of artefacts either about the Empire or very deliberately promoting an imperial mentalité, if one wants to infer conclusions about their place in society then they need to be seen in their wider historical context.


My main objection to the ‘core ideology’ view is its assumption of a homogeneous British culture. As Stephen Howe writes, ‘[something] described as “the national culture” could never become profoundly imperialised, because there was no such thing. Class above all, but also religion, gender, region, language, and more meant that so disparate a population had almost no shared beliefs or ideals – about imperial matters, or anything much else.’ (S. Howe, ‘Empire and Ideology’, in The British Empire ed. Stockwell, p161)

This is not the same thing however, as saying that working-class people couldn’t have an interest in or attachment to empire, or be enthusiastic about military victories and the expansion of British power – there is plenty of evidence to suggest that many were – but individual attitudes were often formed in local contexts, or were responses to a particular situation, or were just an individual’s opinion, they weren’t simply dictated by the ‘organs of public life’.

Inspired by French post-structuralists, discussions of imperial ideology have in more recent years mutated into discussions of colonial discourse. Like the study of ideology, the study of discourse tends to concerns itself with the establishment of power relations and their entrenchment through systems of thought. But what the theoretical assumptions of both ‘schools’ seem to allow for is an all too easy shift between the analysis of a particular text/image/discourse to generalisations about wider society. In an ironic twist, the voiceless – in this case the British masses – have opinions and attitudes thrust upon them by academics, themselves disavowing ‘cultural/historical differences […] through the production of knowledges.’ (H.Bhabha, The Location of Culture p.70)

To be clear – this is not to suggest that much of this work, be that the work of MacKenzie or historians inspired by post-colonial theory, is not of huge value. It most certainly is. British imperial history is richer for it. What the film takes issue with are some of the broader conclusions that have been drawn from it.