Comment: After empire, we badly need a new refrain

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In a year's time, the union flag will be lowered for the last time over Hong Kong. The implications of Chinese rule for the Colony itself are momentous; but the event ought to have deep significance for all of us in Britain, whether or not we have eaten a Chinese meal. For when that scrap of fabric runs down the flagpole, the imperial experience will come to an end. Our excuses for failing to adjust and fashion an up-to-date and lasting national self-identity will have run out.

Empire will not quite be exhausted. Britain will be left with a handful of fag-end dependencies: a clutch of islands in the Caribbean, some more scattered on the vast open waters of the South Atlantic, a few in the Pacific, a cluster in the Indian Ocean, Bermuda, Gibraltar, and the unpopulated expanse of British Antarctic Territory. But Hong Kong, with nearly six million people, is the last plot with any economic importance. London once ruled some 400 million people. As late as the 1950s, British schoolchildren could truthfully be told the sun never set on the Commonwealth/Empire. As from the first of July next year, Britain's remaining possessions will encompass some 160,000 people, roughly the population of the Isle of Wight.

Next year will also see the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, the beginning of the end of Empire. The handover of Hong Kong will coincide (almost to the day) with the centenary of the extravagant celebration of Empire bound up with Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. Ninety-nine years ago, so Jan Morris tells us in her Empire trilogy, they sang in Happy Valley. They won't be raising their voices in celebration in 1997.

Will these coincidences thicken the contemporary mood of fractious patriotism, at least in the part of Britain that is England? The end of Empire has not been a political question for a long time. Yet it could and perhaps should excite attention - and precipitate long-needed debate about national role and purpose.

Inside a century, an empire spanning a quarter of the globe has disappeared. John Seeley said the British acquired their empire in a fit of absence of mind; they disposed of it with even less attention. Outside the Indian subcontinent, the liquidation has been relatively untraumatic, unbloody. Of course, there was armed struggle in Kenya. Blood was shed in Cyprus, Aden and elsewhere. Often independence came agonisingly slowly - as it seemed to colonised and coloniser alike. Yet the process produced no Angola or Congo or Algeria. For the colonial power in that instance, France, the end of empire left deep, domestic scars. France is the European country with which Britain has most in common in its imperial history; their Dien Bien Phu was a national catastrophe; Algeria destroyed the Fourth Republic. We have nothing to compare. Rhodesia was painful, but on nothing like the same scale. In just 50 years, we have left it all behind us, and the very ease (some would say indecent haste) with which we packed our bags meant we have thought about it all the less.

But there are consequences. Britain has never quite been at ease with itself in the world since - or should that read "England"? Perhaps the end of empire has yet fully to register inside the United Kingdom; perhaps the settlement of empire entails settling relations between England and the other countries. Meanwhile, the British state and its representation to the wider world has been confused. Dean Acheson famously remarked that Britain had lost an empire but not yet found a role. Nobody thanked him for saying it in 1962, yet it remains a truism of foreign policy in 1996. The character part which Britain took in the drama of the Cold War gave reassurance, but even that has gone now.

It is not as if we have not had time to inure ourselves to reduced circumstances. Kipling saw the writing on the wall in 1897. "Lo, all our pomp of yesterday/ Is one with Nineveh and Tyre," he wrote in Recessional. One response has been retreat, a kind of inner migration - ignore the world and cultivate our gardens. Another has been the desire to march through the councils of the world, stamping our feet and demanding that everyone else snap to attention. We cannot quite shake the imperial habits of mind. Here are elements of psychosis, as reactions to Euro 96 have shown. Victory made some English people mad with arrogance, while defeat left them full of self-hatred.

In England, it sometimes seems we can only sing two songs: Rule Britannia, or An English Country Garden, as if we were still fighting those old battles between the Imperialists and the Little Englanders that raged a century ago. We badly need to find a new refrain.

British people know the reduced economic and political facts. Hearts have to accept lower-tier membership of the international community. Yet Britain remains a global player. We are, for the most part, a diligent and responsible member of the international community. This is a less stirring, less vivid thing than empire. But is a better thing and, even when the flags come down in distant parts and there are tugs in British hearts, none of us now thinks otherwise.

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