Edgerton & Empire: Nationalism, Imperialism and Decolonisation

Liam Liburd

One of the indirect and unintended side-effects of the tragic murder of George Floyd by an officer of the Minneapolis Police Department in late May has been a renewed effort to confront Britain’s own history of racism, especially that in the form of colonialism. Activists have taken aim at the symbols of this legacy, dumping the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol Harbour, defacing the statue of Sir Winston Churchill in Parliament Square, and succeeding in getting the statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College, Oxford. However, this is not just about statues; many worry that the ideological architecture of imperialism remains intact too, fuelling racism in the present.

Last week, in response to these concerns, David Edgerton wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian. Edgerton – author of The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth-Century History (2018) – argued that we should focus on the national dimensions of Britain’s record of elitism, exploitation and discrimination rather than just on the Empire if we really want to understand the nation’s history and its grip on the present. While not wishing to entirely contradict Edgerton’s argument that imperialism alone does not explain everything, I was struck by some of the piece’s inaccuracies and omissions.

Initially, one line in particular caught my eye: ‘The racism of Oswald Mosley and Enoch Powell, for all its roots in the past, was a self-consciously post-imperial nationalist one.’ To make this claim about Mosley ignores the noisily imperialist streak that marked not only his ideas on race but also his political thinking in general throughout his political career. To make the same claims regarding Powell is to ignore much of the best writing on the topic (much of which, incidentally, is written by black British academics) from Stuart Hall and Paul Gilroy to more recent works by Bill Schwarz and Camilla Schofield.

Oswald Mosley,
Photographs Collection, NPG x18938

Sir Oswald Mosley is perhaps best known as the leader of the inter-war British Union of Fascists (BUF). While the BUF managed to secure the backing of newspaper proprietor Lord Rothermere for a short time in the mid-1930s and gained notoriety for its activists’ street-fighting, their political successes were few. What is less often noted about Mosley is his obsession with imperialism. Mosley described his grand fascist vision as ‘Greater Britain’, a term used since the late Victorian era to describe the racial and geographic union between Britons in the British Isles and Britons throughout the Empire (in particular, the ‘Old’ Dominions).[1] Fascism, for Mosley, meant reviving Britain by suffusing the metropole with the masculine energy of imperial pioneers and returning to ‘the old spirit… the spirit of Drake and Raleigh, the spirit of Clive and Warren Hastings’.[2] Some of his recruits even referred to Mosley’s plans for economic and political transformation of Britain along fascist lines as ‘the re-colonisation of Britain’.[3] In many ways, Mosley’s plans for imperial economic autarky were an authoritarian rehashing of the Edwardian social imperialism of figures like Joseph Chamberlain and Lord Alfred Milner.[4]

Mosley returned to politics following his wartime internment, founding the Union Movement (UM) in 1948. As leader of the UM, Mosley now promoted a European economic and political union, but based on a wholesale re-colonisation of European colonies in Africa and combined with a continental extension of apartheid. Their slogan was: ‘Europe A Nation, Africa: Empire of Europe’. Upon the remains of old colonial regimes, UM activists sought to build a new ‘European Empire’. Even when Mosley and his supporters dealt with domestic affairs, such as Commonwealth immigration in the 1950s and 1960s, they did so in imperial terms. Mosley described to his plans to forcibly repatriate black Britons as a British variant of ‘apartheid’. He was, then, not so much a self-consciously post-imperial nationalist as he was an ultra-imperialist.

Classifying Powell’s views is a little more complex. While he does seem to fit the label of post-imperial nationalist more closely than Mosley, his ideas were closely bound up with the end of the British Empire. As T. E. Utley once noted, ʻThe premise of Powellism is quite simply that the Indian Empire has been lostʼ.[5] During the Second World War, Powell served as a soldier in the colonial Indian Army, and even harboured dreams of one day becoming Viceroy. When he returned from India and took up a position in the Secretariat of the Conservative Party after the war, he audaciously recommended reconquering India. On the night India’s independence was declared, it is rumoured that Powell wandered the streets of London in despair.

Portrait Photograph of Enoch Powell by Allan Warren, 1987.

Moreover, Camilla Schofield has argued that Powell’s later views about ‘New’ Commonwealth migrants were tied up with his own feelings about imperial decline.[6] To Powell, the ‘black immigrant’ symbolised Britain’s loss of imperial power and identity; decline racially personified. He was not only a sign of decline, but supposedly also a mortal danger to white Britons. Powell warned in his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech that in a Britain of the future, ‘the black man will have the whip hand over the white man’; a nation, in short, turned upside down by decolonisation. The history of the Empire, but especially of its end, is key to understanding Powell’s racism.

Edgerton’s remarks about Mosley and Powell therefore betray the greater deficiencies in his argument and analysis in general. Throughout the piece, Edgerton assumes that nationalism and imperialism are unrelated. In the first instance, this ignores the fact that many British imperialists (Mosley included) looked to the Empire ‘as the antidote to the collapse of the centre, England itself’; in other words, they passionately believed that, by drawing on the Empire’s spiritual and material resources, they could make Britain or, to be more specific, England great again.[7] In an effort to separate nationalism and imperialism, Edgerton argues that the Windrush Scandal, Brexit, and the popularity of a ‘decidedly nationalist’ historical account of the Second World War demonstrate the overriding influence of nationalism and the diminished relevance of the legacy of empire in modern Britain.

First of all, it is worth asking why it was so indecently easy to strip so many black Britons of their right to live in Britain. Doing so entails looking back further than May’s ‘hostile environment’ policy, into the history of debates over imperial citizenship, Britishness, race and immigration in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.[8]

Nor is Brexit unrelated to the legacy of empire. While it is true that voters likely did not vote ‘Leave’ in order to re-establish the Empire, Edgerton claims that they were motivated by nostalgia for ‘a national Britain’. But for ‘a national Britain’ when, exactly? Edgerton suggests that the history of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War matters most to Brexiteers. But the history of the Second World War and the legacy of the Empire are not so easily disentangled. Back in 2004, Paul Gilroy explored Britain’s obsession with its finest hour in After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? and found ‘something neurotic about Britain’s continued citation of the anti-Nazi war’.[9] Gilroy argued that, on the one hand, it provided an escape to a simpler time, when their enemies were ‘simply, tidily and uncomplicatedly evil’ and Britain was white or, at least, ‘whiter’ than it later became. On the other, it displaced more recent memories Britain’s role in brutal ‘dirty wars’ to maintain colonial rule in the 1950s and 1960s.

Figure 3. ‘Colonies Exhibition: Britain’s Partnership With 60 Million
People In 58 Lands’, c. 1939-1945 (Art.IWM PST 15773)

Indeed, Brexit may have more to do with the history of the later years and eventual end of the Empire, rather than with its earlier existence. In the recent edited collection Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain (2019), Bill Schwarz argued that an often violently racist and authoritarian ideal of white racial solidarity – which he terms ‘ethnic populism’ – has exerted a ‘discontinuous’ and disfiguring influence on British history.[10] In political terms, Schwarz noted, ‘ethnic populism’ belongs ‘to the political right outside (or largely outside) the bounds of the Conservative Party’.[11] During the Empire’s heyday, ethnic populism fuelled ideals of trans-imperial racial unity – such as that of ‘Greater Britain’.

With the end of the Empire, however, manifestations of ethnic populism became more inward-looking and aggressively defensive. Schwarz detected ‘ethnic populist’ themes and rhetoric both among British defenders of unilaterally independent Rhodesia in the mid-1960s, and in Powellism. Both imagined white Britons, in the British Isles and in southern Africa, as victims of an imminent onslaught by racial ‘others’ as the result of the actions of ethnic traitors within the state. It is not hard to see the similarities here between earlier ethnic populists and later Brexiteer xenophobia and raging against a ‘metropolitan elite’ or ‘enemies of the people’.

None of this is to say that Brexit or modern British racism can be entirely explained by the legacy of empire and decolonisation. Few historical phenomena can be easily explained by one or two factors. But, it is to argue that just because historical actors (including contemporary voters and politicians, for that matter) do not speak in the precise language of high imperialism, does not mean that the legacy of the Empire has no bearing on current events. Nor is it possible to neatly disentangle the national from the imperial. Edgerton is right in some ways; it is becoming a cliché to uncritically blame the Empire for modern ills. However, rather than simplistically dismissing this legacy as irrelevant, this is cause for a more rigorous critical examination of the Empire’s life and afterlives, as well as a return to the work of the many scholars Edgerton overlooks.

Liam Liburd most recently worked as a Teaching Associate in Modern International History at the University of Sheffield and is currently seeking a subsequent academic appointment. He completed his PhD entitled “The Eternal Imperialists: Empire, Race and Gender on the British Radical Right, 1918-1968” in February 2020. His broader research interests are in British political and cultural history, and the history and afterlives of the British Empire. You can find him on Twitter @LiamJLiburd.

[1] James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).

[2] ‘“Alien Yiddish Finance Is Ruining British Industry”’, Blackshirt, 76 (5 October 1934), p. 2.

[3] Roger Gould, ‘Re-Colonisation of Britain’, Fascist Week, 11 (19-25 January 1934), p. 1, 7.

[4] Bernard Semmel, Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960).

[5] Enoch Powell: The Man and his Thinking, ed. T. E. Utley (London: William Kimber, 1968), p. 50.

[6] Camilla Schofield, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 77.

[7] Bill Schwarz, Memories of Empire, Volume 1 – The White Man’s World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 103.

[8] Kennetta Hammond Perry, London Is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[9] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (Abingdon: Routledge, 2004), p. 97.

[10] Bill Schwarz, ‘Forgetfulness: England’s Discontinuous Histories’, in Embers of Empire in Brexit Britain, eds Stuart Ward & Astrid Rasch (London; New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 55.

[11] Schwarz, ‘Forgetfulness’, p. 56.

Figure 1. Oswald Mosley, by Bassano Ltd.Whole-plate glass negative, 28 October 1922. Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974. National Portrait Gallery Photographs Collection (NPG x18938). Reproduced under a Creative Commons licence.

Figure 2. Portrait photograph of Enoch Powell by Allan Warren. Reproduced unchanged under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike unported licence.

Figure 3. Poster: ‘Colonies Exhibition: Britain’s Partnership With 60 Million People In 58 Lands’, c. 1939-1945, held by the Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 15773). The image is in the public domain and reproduced for fair non-commercial use.

Banner image. Poster: ‘The British Commonwealth And Its Allies Will Destroy The Nazi Tyranny’, held by the Imperial War Museum (Art.IWM PST 8134). The image is in the public domain and reproduced for fair non-commercial use.

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One Comment on “Edgerton & Empire: Nationalism, Imperialism and Decolonisation

  1. Excellent article. So refreshing to see a public respond which is polite, recognises positives in the article being critiqued and is based on solid evidence and argument. Wishing the author good luck in his search for a teaching post


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