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Artillery Row

Rhodes still stands

Blaming the British Empire for Brexit is not only ignorant — it’s total rubbish

The throwaway line — “Rhodes still stands” — in a TLS book review on 18 June 2021 helped capture the confusion surrounding much of the critique of Britain past and present. Two establishment figures were at stake, not mute and much-to-be-misquoted Rhodes of course, but Priya Satia, a Stanford bigwig, whose Time’s Monster: History, Conscience and Britain’s Empire was very favourably reviewed by an even bigger fish, Robert Gildea, recently retired Professor of Modern History at Oxford.

A distinguished historian of modern France, Gildea has recently been making silly forays into modern British history, notably Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present (2019). Apparently there is also a book on the Miners’ Strike coming, so standby for a reiteration of the standard tendency to underplay divisions among the miners or the violence of the strikers, including the destruction of open-cast mining sites. He is also a passionate critic of the Rhodes statue.

Under the title “Imperial Blether”, Gildea was clear throughout, closing: “Satia does not mince her conclusion: ‘the Brexit movement … is the very opposite of coming to terms with the imperial past.’” Gildea added: “Indeed … if Brexit instead turns out to be Britain’s Waterloo, only such a fall from grace, perhaps, will induce the British to reckon fully with their imperial past.”

Both authors are reductionists: they do not deal in complexity but explain by assertion, and the assertion is both clear and foolish: Empire is to be judged by Brexit, and vice versa.

The sophistication involved might be gauged by the following. Oxford has Rhodes, London has prominent statues of Clive and Nelson, Exeter one of Redvers Buller, all of which have been castigated. Presumably these are part of the instilling of false consciousness that leads people to have a misleading view of both heritage and interests. But wait, did not Oxford, Exeter and London all cast majority votes for Remain in the 2016 referendum, while most Brexit-voting areas lacked such talismen of imperial evil? Do not worry. Satia, Gildea et al can return to the conspiratorial drawing-board and find yet more monotone layers of paint to thicken their daub of deception.

Satia and Gildea are offering a new orthodoxy that is convenient and readily accessible, if deeply flawed

Orthodoxies of course like neither complexity nor context. Brexit is the easiest to address. There were a number of reasons why people voted (or did not vote) in 2016, and to simplify them is just ignorant. The range for Brexit doubtless included the factors in Satia and Gildea’s sights, but others that appeared to have been more consequential included a dislike and/or distrust of David Cameron, concern about Turkey joining the EU, hostility to immigration, and worry about the direction of change. The aftermath of the Syrian refugee crisis was clearly an issue, but so were other aspects of the wider world including the economic and social impacts of Chinese entry into the world free-trade system and Eastern Europe’s accession to the EU. As a result, the global context was the very reverse to that outlined by Satia and Gildea.

Both also clearly dislike their construction of British imperialism, but, ironically (or not: discuss, do not assert), the major protagonists for staying in the EU were all figures (Cameron, Blair, Major) who had taken part in “wars-of-choice” that had been castigated (fairly or otherwise, discuss) as neo-imperial. Empire itself meant very different contexts, practices, and chronologies, across a wide range of places and circumstances. Whether for criticism or praise, a singularity of phenomenon represents a reification that is inaccurate and misleading.

We can readily go on, but is there much point? Satia and Gildea will of course be read by far more, and they are offering a new orthodoxy that is convenient and readily accessible. That it is deeply flawed (academic speech for total rubbish) will make no difference.

Professor Jeremy Black, Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, is author of Imperial Legacies and Britain from 1851 to 2021.

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