Historians – and sometimes politicians or a wider public – argue ever more fiercely over what entailments, if any, empire and its end have for us today. Some vehemently deny that they are at all important. The strongest counter-arguments have often centred on ideas about race, and how they shape the collective imaginings, political rhetoric and cultural workings of national life, of Britishness and Englishness.
It has regularly been asserted that the crucial point of connection and contestation was the "moment" of Enoch Powell in April 1968, with his notorious "Rivers of Blood" speech. But that assertion and its denials have usually been more a matter of polemic than reflection. Nobody had deeply studied the multiple historical roots of that moment, its connections to the whole intricate story of Britain's postwar global decline and internal transformations, nor its manifold consequences. Until now.
Why was the popular response to Powell so huge and passionate? How did it illuminate deeper currents of social change, the loss of empire, the febrile vauntings and hidden anxieties about what it meant to be "white", and to be a man? Bill Schwarz in this book finds many of the answers in the experience, and imagery, of whites on the frontiers of imperial settler societies - the "white man's countries". "Powellism" was in significant part about the reworking of these experiences within Britain.
One of the main themes both in Powell's speech, and in reactions to it, was the idea that the British nation was under threat of destruction: stabbed in the back by a treacherous ruling elite - Macmillan, Macleod, Wilson, Heath, Major - betraying race and nation. It was a malign fantasy, but had a powerful collective appeal, to which the idea of whiteness, indeed of a white world, was central.
The ideas went far back into the 19th century, at least as far as Rider Haggard or Cecil Rhodes, but were renewed first in post-1950s settler populism on the shrinking frontiers, then at home. Britain had become too prosperous, urbanised, civilised, idle – indeed too "feminine" - to live up to the ideals of a proper white man's country. As ideas of "the white man" came to an end in the colonies, they were reborn in Britain.
Britain itself was ceasing to be truly, fully British: the best elements in "the British character" could no longer flourish there. Mass non-white immigration, loss of empire, the threat of "going into Europe" (Schwarz could perhaps have integrated this last more fully) together formed a true axis of evil. Ideas and fantasies of race entered into the intimate textures of everyday life in post-war Britain. Schwarz finds them persisting and renewing themselves in domestic political developments from the 1970s to the present.
The White Man's World is to be the first of three volumes, under the general title Memories of Empire. In the sequels, Schwarz will be enriching, and extending, the already remarkable range and depth of argument found here. He will be looking especially at how the historic encounters between Britain and the Caribbean have shaped both, and how the ideas of an array of West Indian-born artists and theorists illuminate the British present and possible futures.
He will also probe further the notions of empire, decolonisation and nation, of historical memory, of national consciousness and collective unconscious – thus pushing at the limits of our historical and political imagination. The White Man's World is already the finest, most original work on these themes I have read. It also whets the appetite for what the rest of the trilogy will bring.
Stephen Howe is professor of the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies