Hanley on Lester’s Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars (2022)

Alan Lester. Deny & Disavow: Distancing the Imperial Past in the Culture Wars. London: SunRise Publishing, 2022. ISBN 978-1-9144891-4-3. Softcover. 203pp. £7.99.

Reviewed by Ryan Hanley (University of Exeter)

I was cornered at a party recently by someone who had overheard that I was an historian of slavery and the British Empire. People like me, they had been warned, were teaching students about how uniquely evil the British were, how we should all be ashamed of our history. They were no cheerleader for Empire, but they also had no patience for the ‘woke’ activists rampaging across the country tearing down statues, cancelling people they didn’t agree with, and generally trying to erase the bits of the past they didn’t like. Above all, they wanted to impress upon me the importance of balance in historical analyses of Empire. Slavery was obviously A Bad Thing, but had I considered that we were the ones who abolished it, and also (here they hesitated for a moment, but pressed on), why don’t we ever hear about the African side of the slave trade? Perhaps I should teach that in my ‘course’. As I tried to respond to some of these points, wearily reproducing rebuttals that are by now so familiar to me that I’m never sure if I’ve already said them in any given conversation, the dialogue pivoted without me. Now we were talking about Hong Kong. Surely even I would admit that British imperialism in Hong Kong was largely benign? That’s the Empire, isn’t it? Some of it was good, some of it was bad. Why can’t people handle complexity nowadays?

Perhaps I am attending the wrong parties. But to be fair to my cross-examiner, they could hardly be blamed for their alarm. As Alan Lester skilfully vivisects in this forthright, illuminating, and hugely readable primer, a culture war over Empire is being assiduously propagated by a small but tenacious group of British politicians, academics, and journalists. Billed as ‘boldly confront[ing] apologists for the British Empire (including the Prime Minister and Cabinet Secretaries)’, Deny and Disavow tackles the deliberate misrepresentations of recent calls for recognition and reform made by Black Lives Matter and other campaigning organisations, as well as the clear majority of historians working in the field. Lester intersperses an admirably dispassionate anatomy of the culture warriors’ various strategies to distance Britain from its own history with punchy ‘snapshot’ accounts of some of the key events and figures that are now, apparently, controversial.

We should be clear about what this book is, and what it is not. Though it draws on insights gleaned from Lester’s distinguished thirty-year university career as an historical geographer, this is not intended to be read as a research monograph, but rather a research-informed intervention in a public debate. Professional scholars are unlikely to find a lot of ‘new’ interpretation here (though there is some interesting material culled from the research for the 2021 CUP book Ruling the World, which Lester co-authored with Kate Boehme and Peter Mitchell). And while he is keen to point out that he is neither a ‘Marxist’ nor considers himself ‘woke’, and that he ‘did not write this book to “trash Britain”’ (13), no-one could accuse Lester of pursuing an overly-cautious or indeed ‘enlightened centrist’ approach, either. This book explicitly challenges the divisive rhetoric, favoured by much of the current Tory government (such as it is) and cheered on in the right-wing press, that decries any attempt to enhance our understanding of Britain’s imperial past and its legacies today as an attack on British identity itself. These groups and individuals, Lester argues, are engaged in a deliberate attempt to shut down legitimate historical debate and divorce contemporary Britain from its imperial past. His response in this book is to interleave his analysis of the various strategies of denial and disavowal with highly-readable overviews of the historical events themselves. This, then, is a history primer both about, and for, the culture wars.

The key argument linking the snapshots of Empire here is that ‘modern European rule was, at its very heart, an exercise in White supremacy, and that Britons were its key exponents.’ (162) To me, as it is to Lester, this is entirely self-evident from even a rudimentary foray into the Empire’s own archives. This isn’t the same thing as toeing ‘the line that the British Empire was uniformly evil’, as The Daily Mail, inspired by theologian Nigel Biggar’s recent ‘balance-sheet’ project,claims we all do at universities nowadays. The foundational assumption of the whole Imperial project – that white people were superior ‘culturally if not biologically’ – was frequently the basis for genuinely humanitarian as well as nakedly exploitative interventions in the affairs of other peoples around the world. Lester explicitly recognises this point several times here, including in his short accounts of sincerely well-meaning imperialists Charles Lennox Stretch, Anna Gurney, and George Arthur. Indeed, Lester even goes so far as to explain that he has ‘come to empathise’ (145) with these individuals, despite obviously rejecting their belief in Britons’ moral obligation to ‘improve’ indigenous peoples’ lives whether they liked it or not. Recognising that even these ‘good’ colonialists were operating from a position that was profoundly influenced by taken-for-granted, ‘common-sense’ forms of racial prejudice does not imply that they were acting exclusively in bad faith, much less that we should want to dismiss British Imperialism as a deranged expression of moral ‘evil’. Indeed, Lester is really arguing for a very basic grasp of historical nuance when he drily notes that an ‘historian would not be taken very seriously if the extent of their analysis was to declare complex phenomena that affected people differentially across the globe over some three hundred years, as simply ‘good’ or ‘evil’. Even at primary school we teach history in a more sophisticated manner than that’ (105). (He exercises more restraint than I would by not explicating the obvious corollary that declaring Empire ‘a bit good and a bit evil’ is a scarcely refined version of the same childish logic.)

Lester’s book is most convincing and (depending on who you are, I suppose), gratifying in confronting these outrageous straw-man arguments. The structure of the book itself is wide ranging, which at times feels uneven and choppy – at least for someone used to reading books for the academic market. Part I opens with a walking tour of Westminster, with chapters dedicated to the histories behind the prominent statues of Robert Clive (Chapter 1), Garnet Wolseley (Chapter 2), and then continuing with Wolseley for a bit, before detouring to Oxford to talk about Cecil Rhodes, and then a short concluding section about the overall ‘Retain and Explain’ policy towards controversial statues currently being pursued by the Conservative government (all Chapter 3). There follow four chapters which really could have used their own section: one on denialism and disavowal of Empire in Parliament (Chapter 4); an analysis of the widely-criticised 2021 Report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Chapter 5); debates in the Heritage sector including the National Trust (Chapter 6); and finally ongoing debates within academia, notably promulgated through the History Reclaimed group (Chapter 7). Part II opens with a chapter which fills in some of the ‘glaring omissions’ in the current state of public knowledge and education about the British Empire, albeit with a scale of analysis that is not always consistent or easy to follow. Lester starts with a month-by-month account of 1838 as ‘a year in the life’ of the British Empire, before pivoting to a short section on nineteenth-century British imperialism in India, and then onto a section on settler colonialism, then one on ‘cultural genocide’ and colonial schools in Canada and Australia; and then finally onto the three mini-biographical analyses of humanitarian imperialists mentioned above – all in one chapter. The ninth and final chapter deals somewhat with histories of decolonisation and the destruction of colonial archives, but also acts as a concluding argument against the ‘balance sheet’ approach and for recognising the racism inherent in Empire. This chapter also includes the overall conclusion for the book as a subheading, in which Lester responds, very convincingly, to six of the most commonly-cited arguments made by apologists for Empire.

I would recommend this book to all general readers interested in the current culture wars and the imperial history behind them. As I write this review, the race to succeed Boris Johnson as the next leader of the Conservative Party, and the next Prime Minister, is gathering pace. Several of the candidates have signalled that the culture war will be a key component in their next electoral strategy. It is incumbent on those of us who are interested in serious discussion of the British Empire and its legacies to be prepared to respond reasonably and convincingly when we are challenged. This book could be just thing.