The White Man's World (Memories of Empire)

Joanna Lewis admires an exploration of attitudes to colonialism and immigration in a crumbling empire

February 2, 2012

Interviewing Enoch Powell in 1988, Bill Schwarz made some unnerving discoveries. No, he didn't find him dancing to Madonna's Like a Prayer, wearing nothing but a Union Jack and a dab of Gentleman's Relish. If only. Rather, Powell told him that his "rivers of blood" speech had been remarkably restrained; that men in politics could be understood fully only through their attitudes to each others' bodies; and that England was being unravelled from within by a "Thing".

Powell knew not what "The Thing" was exactly. Just that it was a deep disorder; an amorphous subversion: "an engine for the destruction of authority which was unfolding in the everyday and at such a low level that it was strangely invisible; each rupture could not be understood for what it really signified..."

Schwarz's main aim in this excellent book is to explore this phenomenon and the perception of it. It's the first in a trilogy, Memories of Empire, that the author intends to serve as an extensive academic study of the impact of Empire on the home front. This volume explores memories of Empire; the second, attitudes to England among black migrants; finally he will knit them together in a history of post-colonial England and race. His basic thesis here is that from the 1960s Powell was grappling with - and articulating - the widely felt "political-cultural effects of the end of empire at 'home'". These were remembered and simultaneously suppressed memories of colonial rule as a lost state of white rule; white order and white rightness overseas. The white man's burden, then, according to this argument, had been hard-wired into the DNA of daily narratives and collective identities. It was the stuff of life, our daily bread; and forgetting something remembered was slow, awkward and traumatic, as a defeated people looked on in fear at immigration at home.

This is difficult history to write, and Schwarz should be congratulated on what he has achieved here. Evidence of what has been repressed or turned slowly invisible is challenging to find. Even when contemporary commentaries can be found, "the lived forms of popular ideologies seldom mirror the tracts and blueprints produced by accredited social intellectuals". Schwarz's solution has been to analyse the ideas of Charles Dilke, John Seeley, James Anthony Froude and Jan Smuts, among others, in their writing on overseas white settlement. He uses white proconsulars to chart the cultural presence of settler colonies in Britain, particularly South Africa, Australia and the Central African Federation. His last chapter is on Ian Smith. Like Bilbo Baggins, entrusted with the Ring, it's a burden that not everyone could carry and survive intact.

Schwarz's knowledge of the secondary literature is outstanding; his writing is effortlessly readable and wonderfully mischievous at times (while he doubts that Powell was particularly intelligent, he agrees that he was an intellectual). Few academics can begin a chapter, as he does, quoting Agatha Christie, Peregrine Worsthorne, Margaret Thatcher and Tsitsi Dangarembga. And Schwarz has put sceptics such as Bernard Porter on the run with regard to their minimal-impact thesis of the Empire's presence at home. Empire-lite has gone full fat. Hurrah.

I began reading this book in Vicky Pollard mode - "yeah but no but yeah but no" - but became more convinced as I went on. Only a nagging doubt remained about the extent of the hangover, triggered ironically by the cover: a photograph of upper-class whites; mini-marquee behind, defeated tiger in front. This was the typical image of whites in the Empire. The British press loved reporting on badly behaved posh settlers in Kenya, always notoriously out of step with the UK. Many working people became repulsed by that whiteness overseas; so did "liberal" paternalists and missionaries. As one Establishment figure privately confessed in 1960 writing about apartheid: "I do hate niggers; but I hate injustice more."

The White Man's World (Memories of Empire)

By Bill Schwarz

Oxford University Press

600pp, £35.00

ISBN 9780199296910

Published October 2011

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