14 July 2013

The White Man's Burden, decolonisation and modern Britishness

The White Man’s World by Bill Schwarz was published by Oxford University Press last year, but it doesn’t seemed to have arrived in our bookshops yet. So I will take some of the review written by the judges of this year’s Longman-History Today book awards, Juliet Gardiner and Jeremy Black, then add some thoughts of my own.

In his ambitious and provocative and accessible book, The White Man’s World, the first instalment of a trilogy, Memories of Empire, Bill Schwarz examined what the Empire meant to Britain’s idea of itself. He suggested that the loss of that Empire has inverted and reconfigured that meaning with profound social and cultural cons­equences which persist today. During the colonial period, the white man at the apogee of Empire represented the effortless superiority of the born-to-rule, of the authority implicit in muscular mas­cul­inity, subduing nature and natives. But after the colonial period, post-WW2 decolonisation produced confusion, a lack of confidence, a sense of a lost identity, a compass no longer set true. In this period it was the unappeased memories of Britain’s past that drove Britain’s new racial policies.

Enoch Powell (in and out of Parliament between 1950-1987) made his most vicious and racist Rivers of Blood speech in Birmingham in April 1968, in which he warned “real British citizens” of what he believed would be the consequences of continued unchecked immigration of “sham British citizens” from Commonwealth countries. And he practically wet his panties over the introduction of the Race Relations Act 1968, legislation prohibiting discrim­ination on the grounds of race, particularly in housing.

Schwarz was convinced that a perception of disorder and the high level of popular support for Enoch Powell following his big speech owed a considerable debt to the political-cultural effects of the end of Empire “at home” in the domestic society itself. He charted the deep-rooted construction of the understanding of Empire and its governance in order to comp­r­ehend the cultural and social effects of its loss on British society.

Schwarz’s project was to establish the link between an imperial past and the metropolitan present. And key to this was whiteness, best­ow­ing an iconic status on the coloniser carrying the White Man’s Burden, of ruling and thus civilising the non-white natives. As it turned out, this authority would be inverted in the years of decolonisation back home.

Schwarz built his rich and detailed argument by devoting chapters to the so-called white man’s countries, the new colonies of South Africa, Rhodesia and Australia, set up at the start of the C20th. The whole was a story carried by a compelling range of individuals, colonial administrators, politicians, writers as varied as Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, Henry James and Nadine Gordimer; and fin­ishing with Rhodesians Roy Welensky and Ian Smith, last-ditch resis­ters both against black majority rule.

However despite the fact that there was a Raj-like photograph of a slain Indian tiger on the jacket, India – which was probably what most people thought of when they thought of Empire until the winds of change blew through Africa, figured marginally. Focus was placed instead on Australia, South Africa and Rhodesia.

The White Man’s World is an important book; a major contribution to interrogating the view that in general Empire had little impact on the British public – other than for trading and emigration opportunities – by showing how deeply formative its often imagined memory, symbols and myths are for our world today.


In my opinion, it was perfectly consistent for the British to mourn de-col­onisation, a loss that produced a sense of a confused identity and a truly weakened power base. And it did not calm the sense of unease when historians indicated that the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire and every other power base in history had risen and risen, before falling off the face of the earth.

What was not consistent or rational were the newly emerging ideas about race. Consider how the colonial authorities converted the Empire into little versions of the motherland. The British rulers in India and every other British colony had changed almost every important aspect of life to suit British needs, viz:
the local legislation,
military command,
education system,
the economy
criminal and civil courts
civic and domestic architecture
imports and exports
health care
and every other thing.

The consequences were clear. Of course citizens in the colonies were going to have to become British, to survive and flourish. To respond that citizens in these colonies were of a different race and therefore not truly British smacks of late-found hypocrisy.

If the coloniser’s role was a] carrying the White Man’s Burden, b] ruling and c] civilising the non-white natives, then Britain was very succ­ess­ful. Yet one of the main themes both in Powell's speech, and in reactions to it, was the idea that post-WW2 the British nation was under threat of destruction: stabbed in the back by a treacherous ruling elite - Macmillan, Wilson, Heath, Major - betraying race and nation.

How could the coloniser’s role be both very successful and moral in the colonies before 1950 and yet viciously destructive of Britain and immoral after 1950? It was a malign fantasy, but one with a powerful collective ap­p­eal.

So modern ideas of race DID shape the collective imaginings, pol­it­ical rhetoric and cultural workings of national life, of Britishness. Instead of ideas about race dying with decolonisation as they should have done, they perversely came alive again, recalling the Empire as some sort of lost racial Utopia. Powellism was largely about the reworking of these experiences within Britain.

I would probably have noted how unlikely this post-colonial view sounded … except for the fact that spouse and I lived in Britain during the early and middle 1970s. The popular response to Powell was surprisingly (to me) passionate! It really did illuminate deeper currents of social change, the loss of empire and hidden anxieties about what it meant to be white.


columnist said...

Although Powell's "rivers of blood" was wide of the mark, the face of Britain has changed dramatically since the arrival of immigrants from the empire, some of it very much for the good, and some of it not. If you live in some communities in Britain they are almost entirely made up of a non-white culture, and of people unwilling to accept being British; yes indeed an irony of the reversal of what their forebears had to endure under British colonial rule. But the lack of integration, (yes indeed...) means that there are social tensions caused by differences in culture and religion, and although the ideal is a "multiculural" society, the reality is probably quite different. In Australia you have a similar melding of different cultures, and I wonder how it compares, and how your country copes with the tensions that arise from time to time.

Hels said...


Good question. European powers colonised black, under-developed countries because of their natural resources, their strategic location, their potential as a penal colony or their markets.

But imagine what might have happened had Britain colonised a white, highly-developed nation eg the Netherlands. Would we still be talking about social tenstions caused by immigration from the old colony?

My guess is that there would not have been any White Man's Burden in the Netherlands. Nor would there have been social tensions had the Dutch immigrated to London or Bradford.

I would argue that Australia, which has 26% of its population born overseas, is not in the same situation. Italians, Greeks, Yugoslaves, Lebanese and Indian citizens volunteered to migrate to Australia but not because they were colonised by us in the past.

John Tyrrell said...

IIt is difficult to discuss a book none of us have read! Clearly the ideology of empire, and a sense of superiority over foreigners, including Europeans (less so the Germans and Nordics perhaps) and certainly including Australians, was an important fact in post-war England. I am old enough to remember it well, but I would hesitate to say it was the primary factor explaining the popularity of Enoch Powell.

Cultures change: there is a complex interaction between shared and inherited values, folk memories, and changing social and economic circumstances, and of course in the case of England, let us not talk of Britain, there is the important factor of class consciousness.

Hels said...


re the book, yes indeed. I was very hesitant about relying on a the review written by the judges of Longman-History Today book awards. But the topic was becoming inceasing important and I didn't want to wait another year.

A sense of superiority over foreigners, I suppose, is inevitable in every society. I can feel it every time I see the overseas news on tv (those primitive and brutal Americans have guns; those Russians drink way too much vodka).

But was it class consciousness, at the heart of the Powell problem? Possibly not.

John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

I didn't intend to suggest that class consciousness was the heart of the "Powell problem", simply that you cannot understand English culture in the post war years without some reference to class. Powell was I think the first populist post-war politician until Mrs Thatcher made it into an art form. Mrs T of course combined implicit racism with nostalgic imperialism, symbolised by the Falklands War, and to the accompaniment of claims that she had put the "Great" back into Britain.

I may add re my own experience that in my youth I was implicitly made to understand that England/Britain (the two were of course synonymous) had the world's best police, the best legal system, the best education system, a model democracy, the most honest politicians, and that the rest of the world could still learn a lot from us. Latins were naturally inferior, the "coloured" races even more so, and it would take them a very long time to reach our level of civilization. Within the white Empire/Commonwealth, Kenyan settlers came from the officer class, Southern Rhodesians were Non Commissioned Officers, and Australians the descendants of convicts. The Americans of course were Anglo-Saxons like us, had taken up the burdens of empire, but lacked an aristocracy, a history and a culture and were probably not quite up to the job.



Andrew said...

I remember seeing Powell interviewed in the early eighties, I suppose. He came across as a very reasonable man, having toned down the gist of his '68 speech. I just looked at the Wikipedia page about him and I am surprised he was so popular, but not with politicians of his own party.

It would be nice to be able to have people like him give his views and there not be repercussions, but like there was after Hanson here, there can be a shocking backlash against immigrants.

Hels said...


I actually understand the concept of "nostalgic imperialism" very well. If I had been leading one third of the face of the earth for hundreds of years, I too would not understood that the new world would be very different. I too would have felt as if those people were biting the hand of the nation that generously fed them.

I am the greatest Anglophile ever and still believe that the UK has the best police, the best legal system, the best education system, a model democracy and that the rest of the world could still learn a lot from us.. (although not the most honest politicians *cough*).

So my last thought is this: If nostalgic imperialism is a bit pathetic but mostly not harmful, why is racism vicious and largely inevitable.

Hels said...


Enoch Powell was educated, scholarly, thoughtful, well spoken and well published. Pauline Hanson was not educated, not scholarly and incoherent in her speech. Yet both had enormous appeal to a certain minority of the voting population and both had terrible repercussions for migrants.


John Tyrrell said...

Hi Hels,

It is interesting tht you still believe the things that I was brought up to believe. I think few people in the UK now do! Our culture and values have changed a tad, and so have all the aforementioned institutions.

John hopper said...

As far as racial tension in the UK is concerned I suppose we have to be aware that with the British Empire, racial diversity was largely an Empire phenomeon, not a UK one. With the collapse of Empire and the influx of immigrants from different colonies, many people in the UK saw their first African or Asian individual, so it was no longer a comfortable theoretical ideal of different races living in harmony under the British flag as long as they stayed in their colonies, it was a much more immediate one.

I think also the whole generation of white British Empire colonial staff and their children who started drifting back to Britain during the collapse of the Empire, many of whom were bitter due to their reduced status in the UK and many who had quite disturbing rascist/patroninsing viewpoints, didn't help matters.

As far as the British and their life post-empire is concerned. I, along with many others, thought that we had jettisoned all our colonial past with the coming of the 1960s, when it seemed as if Britain had reinvented itself as a forward-thinking positive nation that mocked its imperial past. However, here we are in the 21st century and it is only beginning to dawn on us that we have been living in denial for the last half century. With the rise of China and India to near-superpower status, with the prospect of an independent Scotland, it leaves Britain beginning to realise its true status in the world, and it is not a very large one and hasn't been for the last half century.

Hels said...

John T

Just one thought on the concept of a model democracy. I get so depressed when some bloody president vetos the authority of the peoples' parliament in a so-called democracy. The head of state should be welcoming ambassadors and opening the Olympic Games, not thwarting the will of the people.

If Australia ever changed from the Westminster system, I think I would emigrate.

Hels said...

John H

Modern Britons "believed that the nation had jettisoned all its colonial past with the coming of the 1960s, to be a forward-thinking positive nation that mocked its imperial past".

We might restate that. Modern Britons believed that the nation had been booted out of its colonial past by the very colonies that had once called the UK the "motherland". When those colonial children came home to their motherland, it was far more difficult than expected.