Michael Burleigh

Dreaming of Rhodesia?

Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present

By

Cambridge University Press 358pp £20 order from our bookshop

This is not the first book to explore how fantasies of an Anglosphere (conspicuously excluding South Africa and the Caribbean) or Empire 2.0 have crassly fed into the Brexit debate, usually in the pages of the Daily Telegraph. Last year, the French historian David Andress published an inspired polemic with the slightly awkward title Cultural Dementia, which covers much of the same ground as Robert Gildea’s new book. Similar themes are explored in Anthony Barnett’s The Lure of Greatness and in a tremendous polemic by the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole called Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. The legacy of empire is obviously a hot topic for academics, not least in Oxford, where Gildea teaches and where there have been rows about whether to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College and about a controversial research project led by the moral theologian Nigel Biggar, an Anglican cleric who rarely ducks public controversy, entitled ‘Ethics and Empire’, which has sent dust clouds billowing upwards from the stone spires.

All of this explains why much of Gildea’s book seems very familiar terrain. The initial chapters, on typologies of empire, on war and decolonisation and on what might be called metropolitan postcolonial blowback, feel like summaries of summaries, or at least drastically simplified explanations produced for public lectures. On the most topical issues, including racism in Britain and France, the rise of Islamist militancy and the US-led wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, Gildea brings little new to the party, and has a lot less to say than Innes Bowen in Medina in Birmingham, Najaf in Brent: Inside British Islam (2014), to take just one example.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter

  • Last Tweets

    • 'Full of invention which, at its most pedestrian, is eminently Victorian, and at its most unrestrained wildly imagi… ,
    • 'What in other hands could have been a dry, pedantic account of Christianity’s birth and evolution becomes in Holla… ,
    • RT : One of my favourite literary magazines is celebrating 40 years this year. Here is the September edition of… ,
    • 'Now that the Thames is too fast-flowing to freeze, its spirit’s devotees ... have found other climes for their pri… ,
    • 'Bythell glowers past his till at a world in slow free fall.' on the travails of a second-hand book… ,
    • 'It is a scent of animal wrath, of instinctive need, of brutal life which affects the cultured nostrils of our civi… ,
    • 'The day produced countless stories of chance, of people taking one route or another without realising that the dec… ,