Review: Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves

Gargi Bhattacharyya explores the post-imperial anxieties behind the rise of new folk-devils and manufactured controversies

December 19, 2021 · 8 min read

It is hard to live in Britain and not notice the heavy presence of nostalgia at every turn. Everything was better before. Nothing is as good nowadays. But, you know, keep calm and carry on. Or don’t, and turn your blustering anger on the nearest likely scapegoat for the decline in national culture, national telly, national biscuits, national morale.

Peter Mitchell takes this national fixation with an imagined past as a lens through which to understand some current political battles. With good reason, this is a work that has been greeted with widespread praise – and also some slightly unhinged rage. We might understand this Marmite-like reaction as another symptom of the syndrome under discussion.

Anxieties of replacement

The heart of the book is a series of pieces reflecting on the strange heat that has arisen over perceived attacks on national history and particular icons of national sensibility. Some are, of course, all too predictable and Mitchell does a good job of dissecting the role of Winston Churchill in this imaginary universe. He also explains why Churchill is an important reference point for more recent incarnations of the imperial wonder-boy, and the strangely British mixture of entitlement, unkemptness and physically undisciplined masculinity of these performances.

Apparently, Britain stumbled upon its empire through the meanderings, philosophical and physical, of an assembly of eccentric child-men. All mishaps (death, destruction, famine), therefore, should be understood as the unfortunate costs of such genius exuberance. Imperial nostalgia, we are led to understand, forms a core element of the culture of non-accountability structuring British state failure today. You want adventure and charisma? Well, you must accept some chaos, including chaos that leads to death.

Other elements of the traditions deemed to be under attack have a smaller reach. Both the Proms and the National Trust are highly classed cultural markers. My guess is the majority of the British population does not know much of either one. However, in an echo of the alarming and dangerous spread of anti-trans propaganda across British public life, the invocation of existential threat leads to more odd defences. As if people ever spoke about the importance of the Last Night of the Proms or the National Trust before these imagined attacks.

A lot of this book is very funny, and the attempts of newly awakened defenders of empire to ward off the armies of wokeness threatening scouting, Whig abolitionists and George Eliot (!) did make me giggle. The point here is that imperial nostalgia can be mobilised in the most baggy and random of ways to persuade those living with collapsing infrastructure and falling living standards that tradition is being dismantled and replaced.

And although I don’t like the suggestion that this is white men’s angst (because I prefer to think of political consciousness as more situated and multiple than this categorisation allows), it is hard not to agree that these gut-level defences of empire stem from an anxiety around loss of status. Maybe white people truly do believe that we now have the Powellian whip-hand, and what we will do with it is spoil perfectly harmless weekend trips and cream teas in country houses.

It seems clear that the manufactured controversies around imperial histories are designed not as mass campaigns but as symbolic wedges, in another echo of ‘great replacement’ theories. This is a helpful frame to understand the insistent targeting of the young, and in particular the concoction of the new folk-devil of snowflake student activist. Mitchell points to the collapsing together of anxieties in this monstering: ‘At bottom, there is the sense of betrayal and the anxiety of replacement – generational, cultural, gendered and racial.’

Imperial masculinity

Instead of being linked to any particular historical content, nostalgia serves as the central glue of popular nationalism – in all of its pacifying and unctuous squelch. This perhaps is the trickiest thing about this cultural formation – it represents a deep-seated love of a particular elite, the elite of posh schools and universities, lovable buffoonery and derring-do.

Folded into this irrational love – more than affection, because it is a sensibility that has led to electoral choices where people accept personal hardship rather than disrupt the fantasy of a national family led by those appointed by destiny – is a sketchily outlined belief that empire is what the British elite do, and must do for the world to keep chuntering along.

Core to this account is the imperial wonder-boy as iconic figure of expansionary projects – linking the need for leadership at home and abroad and suggesting that it is this particular performance of a classed masculinity that demonstrates the aptitude to rule. (Also a raced masculinity – although we might wonder if some of the new generation of Tory politicians might reach into the wonder-boy genre and resurrect the excitingly liminal figure who straddles or crosses ‘racial’ lines while retaining the trappings of the English gentleman.)

It is an imperial mindset – of exploration, of duty, of unshakeable belief in your innate superiority – that has the confidence to walk among the lower classes/races and, through this close contact, rule effectively. This discussion takes the unfortunate pronouncements of Rory Stewart (yes, I had forgotten too) as the structuring thread, but the varieties of wonderboyness are traced both back and across performances of imperial entitlement.

The final chapter revisits the question of class and imperial fantasies, revealing connections between ideas of lesser races requiring rule and conceptualisations of ‘the working class’ as another unruly other, looking for someone to govern it.

Britain in freefall

Reading this work in 2021, I felt again how quickly things seem to be moving these days, or how quickly the noise of ‘public debate’ has been moving. Rushing from one feigned scandalisation to another. Restlessly shifting around for a new folk-devil, a new bogeyman, someone recognisable enough to nail down the widespread anxiety and despair into a more manageable and familiar hatred.

Britain is in a kind of freefall. Failing infrastructure. Collapsing public services. An absence of any pretence of political accountability as we pump (even more) raw sewage into rivers and seas. What I thought, while reading this very engaging book, is that perhaps things have already moved on.

As Thatcherism sought to remake ‘hearts and minds’ across society, key elements of the new right agenda became embedded in the worldviews of younger people. In contrast, our period is characterised by a turn away from any attempt at hegemonic reach. The volume of imperial nostalgia champions is high, but their exclamations are targeted at only some of the population.

Is this book a dissection of the preoccupations of the other side? If yes, I have a great deal of sympathy with the project but also feel a slight anxiety. Laughing at toffs is so practised a habit here. On a bad day I think acknowledging the ridiculousness of the elite and their fan-base has in some roundabout way become part of consolidating their power.

Just as anti-clerical sentiment in another time could be folded into consolidating power as it is – laugh at the imagined spectacle of the bishop’s arse but return to drudgery and hardship once the holiday is over – I wonder if the entertaining spectacle of red-faced old men blowing hard over attacks on imperial heritage also works to sew us back into a workaday acceptance of reasonableness, with all the many horrors that British reasonableness entails.

Gargi Bhattacharyya is professor of sociology at the University of East London. Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves is out now from MUP

This article first appeared in issue #234, ‘Technocapitalism’. Subscribe today to get your copy and support fearless, independent media.

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