Cherry-picking the past: empire through a public lens

By Liam Grieve @LiamGrieve4

For all academia’s ‘independence’, historians remain tied to one immortal axiom: the past serves at the pleasure of the present. In this sense, history is underpinned by an informal social contract. Yet what happens when the terms of this contract are rewritten without the historian’s consent? Spike Lister recently did a commendable job at examining the current ‘crisis’ which historians face: the fight to resist history’s appropriation by political elites. This represents a trend, he rightly cautions, which is not unique to recent populist movements.[1] Yet beyond the upper echelons of ‘Western’ political discourse lies an even greater challenge.

The creeping hostility towards globalisation is a phenomenon that the current cohort of nationalist leaders are ill-equipped to control. It was not the patricians but the populace that provided the impetus for Trump’s ascendancy and Johnson’s coup d’état. The perspectives of the public, and how histories are positioned within them, should be of far greater concern to the historian than the rhetoric of their figureheads. Never was this more apparent than in June 2016, when a majority in Britain voted for a resurgent Britannia to ‘take back control’. The optics of putting the ‘Great back in Britain’ were not lost on scholars.[2] Nostalgia for empire is often sensationalised within public discourse, but Brexit proved that the imperial spectre still wields enormous influence over the idea of Britain and ‘Britishness’.

In March 2020, a YouGov poll confirmed the correlation between attitudes towards Brexit and Britain’s imperial past.[3] Initially, it found that 49% of the ‘general public’ held an apathetic position towards the former empire. However, when the question was framed in terms of current affairs, the results were quite different. Over 50% of both ‘Leave’ and Conservative voters were proud of the British Empire. Near identical majorities viewed the former colonies as being ‘better off’ for having been under British rule.[4] Furthermore, nearly 40% of both political groups wished that Britain still retained its empire.

Yet Pandora’s Box was opened long ago. The alignment of party politics, Brexit, and imperial nostalgia does not form our chief focus here. Nevertheless, the warping of history through this chosen lens implies a dangerous desire to repeat the past. This is a prospect that should have galvanised the historical community far more than it has hitherto.

As the poll illustrates, the shadow of empire was a vital factor in the outcome of Brexit. The economic ‘Golden Age’ of post-war Britain coincided with the twilight of the British Empire. For Britain’s ageing – and now politically significant – population, imperial decline anchored the period before the 1970s to a specific cultural memory of past ‘achievement’. Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson have shown how the dissolution of empire precipitated the unprecedented domestic income inequality Britons experience today. Without colonies to exploit, Britain’s economic elites turned inward.[5] The pattern of divide and rule that brought the princely states of ‘India’ to heel has proven adaptable to diverting the urban rage of the ‘Home Counties’ and Northern England. While inflation continues its upward march, wages have plateaued; generating the siege mentality that can so readily ostracise the ‘other’. Deindustrialisation, increased competition with migrant labour, the movement of manufactures overseas, and the closer integration of markets, economies and cultures have all generated a sense of loss.[6]

Seen through this lens, the antipathy towards globalism is not without cause – but it is misinformed. Empire is not the answer to globalisation; globalisation is the consequence of empire. Britain’s imperial framework was the greatest contributor to the economic, cultural and political interdependence which exists today. No other force in history stimulated such a movement of goods, peoples and ideas.[7] According to John Darwin, this is the empire’s true legacy: creating a world-system that integrated the local and the global, and whose cultural and commercial networks were the basis for our own.[8]

Public usages of ‘empire’ inevitably fail to acknowledge this aspect of its past. This is the wider challenge facing historians today. Brexit revealed the limits of the control which historians exercise over the cultural role played by history. Once histories exist, their agency is subject to the whims of the present, where neither elites nor scholars hold a monopoly on their utilisation. The primacy of populism within western political discourse has confirmed the cost of ignoring that reality. The rose-tinted view of empire certainly has a generational shelf-life, but complacency is no solution. If history is a political football match, then historians need to start refereeing. Passivism cannot be the response to populism, but activism can be, and it can be done through mediums as simple as this.


[1] Spike Lister, ‘How to abuse and misuse history: a guide from twentieth-century politics’, in: Doing History in Public (2019), see:, retrieved: 20/05/2020.

[2] Benjamin Martill, Brexit and UK Foreign Policy: ‘Keeping Britain Great’ or ‘Putting the Great back into Great Britain’?, UCL Europe Blog (2017), see:, retrieved: 20/05/2020 – 1201hrs.

[3] YouGov’s poll carried out a synoptic survey of European and Japanese public attitudes towards their imperial past, finding that the Netherlands and Britain compete for the top spot of those nations whose populace retain a ‘rose-tinted’ view of empire and its historical impact. Matthew Smith. How unique are British attitudes to empire?, YouGov (2020), see:, retrieved: 21/05/2020 – 1415hrs.

[4] On the question of pride in empire just 20% of ‘Remainers’ and 21% of Labour voters were proud of the British Empire, mirroring their position on the former colonies being better off, with only 22% of Remainer and 21% of Labour voters believing they were. Ibid.

[5] Danny Dorling and Sally Tomilson, Brexit: how the end of Britain’s empire led to rising inequality that helped Leave to victory, The Conversation (2019), see:, retrieved: 22/05/2020 – 1505hrs.

[6] Mathew Goodwin & Oliver Heath, Brexit and the left behind: a tale of two countries, London School of Economics & Political Science Brexit Blog (2016), see:, retrieved: 21/05/2020 – 1600hrs.

[7] Stan Neal, The Commonwealth and Britain: the trouble with ‘Empire 2.0’, The Conversation (2017), see:, retrieved: 21/05/2020 – 1834hrs.

[8] John Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830–1970 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2009), pp. 2-5.

Image: Walter Crane, ‘Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886’, 24 July 1886, supplement to The Graphic. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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