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.
At no point does the reader alight on the telling detail, local colour, dramatic incident or pithy characterisations that Gildea, on the evidence of his earlier book Marianne in Chains, is certainly capable of providing. Amid all the right-on