An ear attuned to resonances of imperial legacy

The Empire Strikes Back?
May 18, 2007

The influence of empire on British "domestic" history and the significance of empire's legacies for Britain and Britishness today have drawn much attention in recent years. Literary and cultural historians pioneered the shift, with scholars in other subdisciplines following more slowly and cautiously.

Yet if the rapid expansion of work on such themes has shone light into previously neglected corners and imparted a welcome new permeability to once rigid barriers between British and imperial history, there have been drawbacks, too. Much of the resulting work has been notably speculative or polemical. In some hands, there has been an overcompensation for previous neglect, with incautious claims that absolutely all aspects of 19th and 20th-century British culture and society were products of imperialism. This new orthodoxy has already drawn vigorous counterattacks, most notably in Bernard Porter's The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004).

There has been an obvious need to go beyond sharp polemics and broad conjectures, and for someone to attempt a synoptic, cool-headed overview of the field. Andrew Thompson's book is the closest thing we have to such an overview. It is, however, also both more than that description implies, in that it is based on substantial primary research and offers some quite novel insights; and rather less, in that its coverage is in some respects notably uneven.

Thompson emphasises throughout the complexity and diversity of British responses to empire: divided above all by social class, but also by region, religion, gender and more. The book is organised along two distinct axes.

The first five chapters discuss the influence of empire on distinct social groups - elites, lower-middle and working classes (treated "at home", "at work" and "at play") and the catch-all category of "women and children".

The next three analyse empire's importance for domestic politics, the metropolitan economy and the forging of British identities; a final section - among the most thought-provoking if also more tentatively exploratory - considers the continuing and contemporary after-effects of empire within Britain. Historians of Scotland and Wales may feel those countries'

distinctive experience deserves more attention, while the treatment of Northern Ireland is perhaps surprisingly cursory.

Nonetheless, this is a fine piece of work: perhaps the best book so far in its field. It will surely be seen as an essential undergraduate text in many British and imperial history courses, and in some sub-fields of politics, sociology and cultural studies, too. It is a pity about the title, though: the cliched phrase, which has already been used for numerous related articles and books, seriously undersells the importance and originality of Thompson's work.

Stephen Howe is professor of the history and cultures of colonialism, Bristol University.

The Empire Strikes Back?: The Impact of Imperialism on Britain From the Mid-Nineteenth Century

Author - Andrew Thompson
Publisher - Pearson Longman
Pages - 374
Price - £19.99

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