Was Imperialism Actually Popular in Britian?

In 1982 the historian John Julius Norwich wrote of his 1930s boyhood that ‘empire was all around us, celebrated on our biscuit tins, chronicled on our cigarette cards, part of the fabric of our lives. We were all imperialists then’ (MacKenzie 1986, 8). Despite a rich intellectual anti-imperialist tradition, political opposition to imperialism was limited to fringe groups and single-issue campaigns that did not critique the ideology as a whole. Claims that imperialism could not have been popular because the British were ‘absent minded imperialists’ ignore clear and substantive evidence to the contrary. In reality, imperialism had broad support, as illustrated by its electoral longevity, rooted in economic interests and ethno-supremacist ideology. Furthermore, its ubiquity in consumed material, popular, literary and artistic cultures shows that not only was imperialism popular, it pervaded every facet of British society.

Imperialism has never been monolithic in theory or in practice. The British Empire consisted of dominions, mandates, protectorates and colonies, each with their individual characteristics and respective perceptions in Britain. The early British Empire was mercantilist, whilst the New Imperialism of the post-1870 period was annexationist. The Suez Crisis, when Britain lost its Mediterranean naval dominance, symbolised the effective death of the British Empire. 1956 serves as a cut-off point for this essay’s analysis, and the imperialism in question is of the territorial, aggressive, New Imperialist variety. Public opinion is also heterogenous and generalisations can be dangerous. If imperialism was truly popular, then it should not only have had explicit political support, but a pervasive presence in all forms of British culture as to reflect both the public’s awareness and approval of the Empire.

For a century after 1815, Britain exercised global hegemonic power in what historians later labelled the Pax Britannica. Combined with the longevity of her Empire, it is unsurprising that Britain became home to a tradition of anti-imperialist thought. Critiques of imperialism came from many quarters but were generally confined to the intellectual fringes. Marx’s critique was based in the broader struggle against global capitalism, and was fleshed out by Lenin in his pamphlet, ‘Imperialism’. Lenin drew heavily on the work of Hobson who wrote in 1902 that imperialism ‘is motived, not by the interests of the nation…but by those of certain classes, who impose the policy upon the nation for their own advantage’ (356). Hobson was not only influential on the left. He was himself a liberal, and Long (197) argues that Hobson contributed to a ‘transformation…in liberal social, political, economic and international theory’. Though this suggests broad appeal, the anti-imperialist wing of the liberal party, like the far left, exercised limited influence during the early 20th century. Emily Hobhouse’s expose of British concentration camps during the Second Boer War provides an instance of humanitarian opposition to imperialism. Hobhouse exposed the ‘wholesale cruelty’ (4) of the camps and won the support of Liberal leader of the opposition, Campbell-Bannerman, who denounced what he called ‘methods of barbarism’ (Bernstein, 112). Though vindicated by the Fawcett Commission, Hobhouse endured a tabloid onslaught and was even deported from South Africa. Such backlash in the face of indisputable evidence of atrocities demonstrates how weak humanitarian opposition to imperialism was. Furthermore, Hobhouse’s findings were specific to the Boer War and did not critique the imperial ideology itself. Finally, classical economists criticised imperialism on free market grounds. Smith (476) saw ‘the sole end and purpose of the dominion which Great Britain assumes over her colonies’ as maintaining monopoly profits for merchants. Some, argued that, in the words of Disraeli, colonies were a ‘millstone around our necks’, not worth the financial burden they entailed. However, Smith’s economic critique is one of protectionism, and Britain only implemented Imperial Preference briefly in the wake of the Great Depression, whilst imperial wealth extraction kept other economic objections at bay. Clearly, fundamental critiques of imperialism remained peripheral, and when public opposition reared its head it was usually confined to a specific context.

In a 1945 BBC radio interview Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine described being met with a ‘blank wall of ignorance’ when he migrated to Lancashire (Webster, 4). ‘The working man in England has no idea what’s happening in the Colonies’, he said, and data from a 1948 Colonial Office survey corroborates his account. Evens (3) finds that only 49% of those interviewed could name one colony, and 3% though America was a British colony. The publication of Porter’s ‘Absent Minded Imperialists’ in 2004 formalised this case, and though it initiated an informative historiographical debate, it overlooks swathes of evidence contrary to its thesis. In education, Porter (80) argues that empire earned only ‘minor references in school textbooks’, almost always ‘overshadowed by other topics, and could well have been missed entirely by their young readers’. Here, Porter overlooks the implicit ways imperialism seeped into education. MacKenzie (2008, 662) points to ‘parallels drawn with Roman imperial history’ in textbooks. Yeandle (77) argues that, through the linear study of Anglo-Saxon settlement, Christianisation and naval expansion, teaching implied ‘empire was predestined – that the possession of the British Empire was the logical outcome of English history’. Porter (164) argues Said’s post-colonial deconstructions of Mansfield Park and Great Expectations are retrospective and self-serving, telling us ‘more about the literati themselves’ than the authors’ intentions. In reality, the presence of colonial themes in modern British literature is unquestionable. MacKenzie (2008, 665) points to Omissi’s research on Orientalist literature, suggesting ‘that there were at least 120 novels in this canon, all set wholly in India’. Finally, Porter (289) suggests that Empire did not affect perceptions of gender. Instead, the opportunity to ‘‘raise’ Indian women’ from oppression meant ‘the effect of the empire on women imperialists appears to have been the reverse: to have ‘unsexed’ them’. This ignores the detailed literature exploring how gender and empire interacted to create British identity. Webster (10) describes how ‘in empire, white women could represent…intrepidity, courage, moral strength, benevolent concern for the welfare of the colonised’, but also, in the context post-war migration, ‘weakness and vulnerability’. White women guarded sexual boundaries against ‘miscegenation’ and protected the home against immigrant ‘invasion’, demonstrating how essential gender was to imperialism. By failing to engage with the complexity of the debate around imperial culture, the publication of Porter’s book only served to reinforce the case against ‘absent minded imperialism’.

Imperialism may have been opposed on the political fringes, but its electoral longevity suggests that the vast majority were willing to accept its continuation. Not once did a major party run on a truly anti-imperialist platform, and politicians only surrendered the Empire when their hand was forced. The roots of this electoral longevity lay in the economic benefits empire brought the whole nation, and in imperialism’s role in pervasive ethno-nationalist narratives about race. The Khaki election of 1900, called in the midst of the Second Boer War, demonstrates imperialism’s electoral power. Liberal division on the issue allowed Joseph Chamberlain to declare that ‘a vote for the Liberal is a vote for the Boer’, and the Conservatives won a 130-seat majority. Even those on the left, like the Fabian Sidney Webb, were aware of the electoral oblivion that faced anti-imperialist parties. Webb, who was ‘more concerned with winning support…for the welfare state’ joined Liberal imperialists in criticising socialists for being ‘administrative nihilists’ (Schneider, 516-518). Anti-imperialism’s electoral futility was rooted firstly in economic interests. For the wealthy, Cain and Hopkins’ (39) theory of gentlemanly capitalism suggests that it was primarily ‘the ‘moneyed interest’’ of the City of London that fuelled and benefitted from imperialism as it established new markets and provided high returns on capital. Thompson (48) argues that, for the masses, colonisation was a ‘key factor in the provision of new drinks to the British consumer, in particular cocoa…and tea’. Luxuries previously reserved for the wealthy became ‘articles of mass consumption’. Secondly, as on the Continent, eugenicist ideas like the social darwinism of Herbert Spencer were commonplace, and went hand in hand with the rise of jingoistic penny press invasion literature. In ‘The White Man’s Burden’, Kipling compares the ‘half-devil half-child’ natives to the civilising white man, illustrating how many British defined themselves through the othering of supposedly inferior races. Webster (8) also illustrates how, even post-colonialism, the themes of masculinity, adventure and self-sacrifice, typically associated with the public school gentleman, were ‘transposed from an imperial to a Second World War setting’, continuing to define British identity even after the Empire disappeared. It is therefore unsurprising that the public, who relied on colonialism both for a sense of identity and rising living standards, continually perpetuated it at the ballot box.

John Julius Norwich spoke of invocations of empire on ‘biscuit tins’ and ‘cigarette cards’. These observations may seem frivolous, but they in fact point to the ubiquity of colonial imagery in material, popular, literary and artistic cultures. Not only was imperialism explicitly popular, it implicitly pervaded all aspects of British society. Said, in his magnum opus ‘Orientalism’, argued that, by depicting the Orient as primitive, despotic and irrational, western imperialists created a caricature to define themselves against. Said (1978, 35) points to constant allusions to Oriental backwardness in the speeches of Balfour and Cromer, and in works by ‘Chaucer and Mandeville, by Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Byron’, all still hugely influential in the 20th century (1978, 31). Long examines how the Orientalism shaped the popular legend of T. E. Lawrence. Journalist Lowell Thomas created a multi-media show ‘about the exploits of Lawrence for sellout audiences in Covent Garden and Royal Albert Hall, and other cities in Britain’. As marketing, Thomas even ‘asked Lawrence to pose…in his ‘Meccan’ clothing’ (25). Long places this within a broader ‘literary outburst that started in 1894 and continued…through the turn of the century’, including popular fiction based around General Gordon’s martyrdom (26). This reveals how imperialist discourses expanded beyond high culture and ‘became staples of popular culture as politics and culture combined in new mass formation’ (28). MacKenzie (1984, 16) describes how the 20th century’s ‘most aggressive and innovative advertisers’ were ‘dependent on the imperial economic nexus, in tea, chocolate, soaps and oils’ and so on. Increasingly branded as products of empire, advertisers successfully used marketing to create an imagined link to the ‘romance’ of empire, as Norwich alluded to. Exotic or comical representations of Africans and Asians were common, and were the public not complicit in imperialism, these strategies would have quickly been abandoned. Porter (161) claims that empire’s impact was limited to high-brow music and struggling museums, with ‘no musical influences…that touched the huge working-class majority’. Ghuman (220) points to the 1925 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley Stadium, an ‘elaborate pageant of empire’ visited by 27 million people. Photographs of Elgar conducting ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ were lapped up, media comparisons to the Roman Colosseum were rife and elephants were even shipped from India to be marvelled at. These examples of the mass consumption of imperialist culture suggest that its popularity was not limited to the political sphere, but permeated every facet of British society.

Imperialism was a fundamental part of British political, economic and cultural life at least until the Suez Crisis of 1956. Though detailed deconstructions of imperialism were common on the ideological fringes, and despite the occasional outburst against specific policies, imperialism remained in the political mainstream, propped up by rising living standards and the prevalence of ethno-suprematist ideology. It was also endemic to British culture, from marketing strategies to art and literature to mass pageantry. Demonstrating imperialism’s popularity can help inform debate over whether its popularity was utilised, as Hans-Ulrich Wehler argues in the German case, by the political establishment to distract from domestic issues and maintain support for the status quo. Perhaps imperialism’s popularity can help to explain Britain’s remarkable stability during the imperial period.


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