Empires of the Mind


Professor Robert Gildea, University of Oxford


‘When the history books come to be written’ is a favourite trope used by politicians anxious that the verdict of history may not be as kind to them as they would like. ‘When the history books are written’ said Theresa May on 14 January, ‘people will look at the decision of the House tomorrow and ask: did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union?’

As it happens, many books have already been written on Britain’s decision to leave the EU, by the likes of Anthony Barnett, Anand Menon, Tim Shipman and Fintan O’Toole.  They don’t yet know whether parliament will deliver on the referendum result, and when that is known, I don’t imagine that it will be their main question. That questions are and will be: how did we get into this mess in the first place and what does it all mean?

Empires of the mind did not begin as a book on Brexit. The original question of lectures I gave in Belfast in 2013 was: how did France, liberated by resistance movements in 1944, so quickly descend into the morass of colonial wars that drove a permanent wedge between the ‘native’ French and those of colonial origin, both ‘out there’ in the colonies and ‘back here’ in the metropolis? This exploration of what has been called the ‘colonial fracture’ came two years the Islamist attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Bataclan music venue in January and November 2015. As I progressed, I decided that I had to explore whether the French case was exceptional or not and widened my lens to study a subject that was new to me: the ambitions and anguish of British colonialism.

Put very briefly, the book concludes three things. First, that the ‘decolonisation’ of the 1960s was not the end of the colonial story. Both Britain and France have constantly reinvented colonialism, as neo-colonialism, global financial imperialism, and the New Imperialism that was concealed behind the War on Terror. Although France did not take part in the Iraq invasion of 2003, she pursued imperial policies in Africa and alongside the British and Americans in Libya and Syria. These brutal interventions alienated Muslim populations worldwide and went a long way to provoking the ‘blowback’ of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and jihadist attacks in Paris, London and Manchester.

Second, the withdrawl from empire coincided with the immigration to the metropolis of former colonial peoples, often in order to take part in postwar economic reconstruction. This, however, was often experienced as a painful reminder of the loss of empire, and as an ‘invasion’ by people of colour, infamously highlighted by Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood speech. Immigration was dealt with by the homegrown population by imposing ‘colour bars’ in housing, education and jobs and by resort to racial violence. These, in effect, re-established colonial hierarchies in the metropolis. Although there were initiatives to develop multicultural societies, the perceived threat of Islamism from the 1990s powered a retreat to monocultural nationalism. In France this was achieved by an insistence of secularism in public places and in the UK by the rhetoric of ‘British values’, implicitly targeted at Muslim communities. Meanwhile the ‘hostile environment’ immigration announced by Theresa May in 2013 led directly to the Windrush scandal in 2018.

Thirdly, attitudes to empire and immigration impacted on attitudes to Europe. Here, though, France and Britain diverged. France never saw a contradiction  between her neo-colonial ambitions in Africa, in what became known as Françafrique, and her commitment to Europe. For Britain, the choice was always ‘either, or’. Joining the Common Market widely felt as a defeat, intensifying the pain of the loss of formal empire. Whereas France put herself at the heart of the European project, Britain remained on the periphery, and resented what it saw as the domination of Europe, first by France through Jacques Delors, then, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, by Germany. ‘This is all a German racket designed to take over Europe’, Thatcher’s Trade and Industry Secretary said of monetary union in 1990. ‘I’m not against giving up sovereignty in principle, but not to this lot. You may as well give it to Adolf Hitler’. Ridley lost his job then for comments that are now commonplace. During the referendum campaign of 2016 fantasies were concocted that a ‘global Britain’ would break Europe’s chains to re-establish ‘swashbuckling’ trade relations, the ‘Anglosphere’ or ‘Empire 2.0’.

The debate on Europe is, of course, about much more than that. Britain is undergoing a crisis of identity, torn between embracing multiculturalism and defending a monocultural fortress. It is undergoing convulsions that Germany and France went through after the Second World War which Britain, because it ‘won’, did not have to face. It is a former great power that has not yet come to terms with the fact that it is now at best a medium-sized power. The more it feels power slip away, the more it thinks it can, by sheer force of will, ‘make Britain great again’.

All this brings us back to the question: can history books have any influence on public consciousness? We never liked public intellectuals and have now had enough of experts too. The recourse to a referendum has set popular opinion against the ‘establishment’ and the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’. Warnings about the hit the economy and society would take as a consequence of no deal are dismissed as Project Fear. Myth has always been more seductive than history.

And so, probably, we will just have to let events take their course. It is possible that out of this end-of-empire convulsion will rise a new feeling that Britain should embrace a less fanciful, more cooperative view of itself in the world. Or it could be that this really is the end, the moment that Britain vanishes down the U-bend of historical oblivion.


Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present
is available from Cambridge University Press

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About the Author: Robert Gildea is Professor of Modern History at Worcester College, University of Oxford. He is the author of numerous books on everyday life and resistance, collective memory and political culture in French history, including Marianne in Chains: In Search of the German Occupation, 1940-45 (Macmillan, 2002), Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914 (Allen Lane, 2008) and Fighters in the Shadows: A New History of the French Resistance (Harvard University Press, 2015). His latest book is Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

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