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Statues in our public parks tell us much about the British sense of identity, argues Dr Andrew Smith.*
Empire is everywhere in Britain, even if it is rarely noticed. Our parks are a case in point. When I walk through Glasgow’s central park, I pass repeated symbols of Victorian imperial glory resting in what has been called ‘prominent obscurity’.
First there is Thomas Carlyle; then the Earl Roberts; and next a memorial to soldiers of the Highland Light Infantry killed in the Boer war.
The obscurity is real enough. Who passes Thomas Carlyle and recalls him as the author of a racist polemic against the abolition of slavery, or as the man who complained of the ‘squalid apehood’ of poor Irish immigrants?
Fewer still are likely to know that the young Roberts wrote home to report enthusiastically on his involvement in the suppression of India’s 1857 rebellion, the execution of rebels and his expectation of how this would lead to his early promotion.
While these histories are obscure, the statues are very prominent. Their stern material presence imparts to the carefully ordered landscape of the park much of its atmosphere of historical grandeur. The park is an important space that helps form Glasgow’s civic identity, yet its mood still reflects this imperial self-regard.
Empire is not only everywhere in Britain today, but is everywhere in Britishness as well – as Miranda Carter has recently argued. Stories and visions of empire, both prominent and obscure, continue to inform how we conceive of British identities.
This is true, it should be said, in Scotland as well as in England. Only recently has a concerted public discussion about Glasgow’s historical involvement with the British empire started to develop in earnest.
It bears insisting that this is a question about the here and now. Exploring the dynamics of ethnicity today and in Britain’s more recent history – as the developing research of CoDE is doing – requires us to be particularly attentive to the ways in which ethnic or national identities are treated as things which ‘step forward’ out of the past.
In that respect the writing of history is about more than reporting past events, but often has the effect of saying who ‘we’ are supposed to be today. The word ‘our’ in ‘our history’ always does its work in the present: it makes an implicit claim about who we are (or should be).
Take, for example, John Darwin’s Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain. Darwin’s study was first published in 2012 and in paperback last year. It was widely praised, described by Linda Colley as ‘the best single volume guide’ currently available to the British Empire and its legacies. The praise is well-deserved: Unfinished Empire is a work of exceptional scholarship, elegantly written and deftly organized.
Nor is it merely an apology for imperialism: it acknowledges the violence which frequently attended imperial expansion. It is frank about the economic self-interest which drove such expansion.
Yet Darwin refuses the claim that imperial relations, practices or ways of thinking rebounded to any significant extent on British domestic society, or on the British sense of self. These things were too “shadowy”, he says, for British society to be “decisively influenced … by its engagement with empire”.
Nor, Darwin argues, can we trace the roots of contemporary racism in Britain back to the imperial period. Such racism, he claims, took hold elsewhere. It was largely a feature of the Raj after 1857 and of the settler colonies such as Australia where the “racial exclusion of ‘others’ was the vital corollary of the nation-building project”.
But this argument seems to me profoundly ambiguous. It leaves open the interpretation that there really was something about those ‘others’, some quality of difference, which made it necessary for them to be excluded from these ‘new Britains’, if the latter were to become effective nations. At the least, it implies that national identity is unable to accommodate such differences.
It is precisely this assumption of a self-contained national or cultural identity which explains Darwin’s view that the empire had no significant effect on domestic British society. He reiterates in his conclusion: “Britain was not in any obvious way a product of empire. …Its English core was already an exceptionally strong and culturally unified state… Imperial attitudes entered Britain, but only (like the tea-drinking habit) after they had been suitably anglicised.”
Darwin is able to tell the story this way partly because of who he chooses to quote. Almost without exception the voices we hear are of white British movers and shakers – with occasional critics – of empire. Darwin doesn’t simply endorse these views, yet there is no whisper of a long-standing population which was not just British – not just ‘suitably anglicised’ – but whose history crossed the seemingly ‘unbridgeable gulfs’ of culture and ethnicity in empire and which lived out the possibility of being British and more than British at once.
Empire was not just a process involving the ‘global expansion’ of something called ‘Britain’: it also created and necessitated encounters and relationships that expanded Britain and Britishness from the inside.
Darwin doesn’t fail to criticise British imperial activity, but his story has the effect of pulling from the fire of history an untarnished contemporary ‘we’ – we, the British, still despite it all, that singular thing: ourselves.
The ethnic and cultural diversity of Britain that CoDE is investigating is the product of centuries. It could be argued that in important respects it is the default condition of any nation and of any national identity.
An important part of the Centre’s work may be to allow various communities to cast new light on the ‘prominent obscurity’ of empire in Britain’s public spaces and conversations.
Another will be to explore the ways in which diversity – its history, the stories which are born of it, as well its contemporary living out – reveals the extent to which there is always more than one way of being Glaswegian, Scottish or British.
*Dr Andrew Smith is a senior sociology lecturer at the University of Glasgow and a member of the ESRC Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity (CoDE), which is based at the University of Manchester. This article was first published by Manchester Policy Blogs: Ethnicity on April 24, 2014.