The Undigested Empire


We British haven’t digested our recent past history, and this still contributes to our confused national sense of identity. And by history, I’m talking about the British Empire. We’ve never dealt with the reality of the drastic change Britain went through in only a couple of decades in the mid 20th century. The largest Empire that there had ever been in human history just disappeared, without fanfare and for the most part without much bloodshed. Embarrassedly, we quietly dismantled it.

 Jeremy Paxman in his Empire points to the effect that our disconnection from the past has on our own psyches.

‘Instead of trying to grapple with the implications of the story of empire, the British seem to have decided just to ignore it. It is perhaps possible that this collective amnesia has nothing whatever to do with the country’s lamentable failure to find a comfortable role for itself in the world. But it is unlikely. The most corrosive part of this amnesia is a sense that because the nation is not what it was, it can never be anything again. If only the British would bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world.’

Owning our past, finding belonging, can do much in my opinion to open the sluice gates of our national psyche and spirit, letting it flow and connecting with a new story of our times. We will then more easily discover our organic and effective role in the world as well a more sane relationship with the rest of Europe, the continent we are actually a part of.

Incidentally, as well as the effect on our national psyche, the legacy of the Empire is not at all distant or academic. I experience it every day in Britain. We all do. Sitting on the tube I am endlessly fascinated by the sheer extraordinary diversity of people, nationalities and languages in every carriage. More in one single tube carriage on the Victoria line than a great Victorian explorer of the past would be likely to meet in a lifetime of travel. Sixty countries worth of former Empire plus (at least for now) another twenty seven countries worth of the EU all mixing in London and all over the country today. This is one very real and tangible consequence of the Empire.

Being British: Our Once & Future Selves available:

One thought on “The Undigested Empire

  1. Chapeau!

    “It’s a shame that we don’t have a serviceable living story as a country any more. Although people might think of the British as being wedded to tradition and ceremony, this isn’t really true for the majority of us any more. History for most of us is a disconnected his-story: a few fragments of Henry VIII and Hitler. It’s not our story. Historian Simon Schama has said that modern history teaching is threatening “to cut the cord of our national memory”. Our historical psyche went into a kind of amnesia as a reaction to the aftermath of The Empire and never really recovered; and in the process, severing the connecting thread. We don’t have much sense of how we got here and what happened to help form our values, culture and identity. And we’re impoverished as a result, with effects on our view and judgement about national decisions. Having a living story has value. ”

    Same is true for Germany in 21st century!


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