Comment: After empire, we badly need a new refrain

Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Assistants Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Operational Administrator

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen ...

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Two out of five marriages end in divorce but filling in the paperwork wrong can prove very costly  

Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Simon Kelner

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum