To get revved up for reviewing Imperial Island, I reread some classic Peter Hennessy. For non-British readers, Hennessy’s histories must seem as peculiarly English as driving on the left or having separate hot and cold taps. They present what might be called the Goldilocks and the Three Bears version of Britain’s postwar past, describing how, with its happy admixture of Conservative and Labour governments, its ‘splendid ambassadors’ and the ‘genius’ of its Cabinet ministers, the British got everything ‘just right’ in their political life. The style is stirringly patriotic, Hennessy intoning about ‘great institutions of national life’, ‘great moments’ in the history of the British people and the enduring promise of this ‘formidable, self-confident nation’, no matter what the haters, or the economic indicators, might say. It’s all quite enough to stoke my innate rebelliousness, and by the end of Having It So Good: Britain in the Fifties (2006) I wanted nothing more than some withering, iconoclastic historical revisionism.
Charlotte Lydia Riley’s attempt to radically reconceive the history of modern Britain revolves around the idea that our British national story was actually an imperial one – and that how we understand that ‘our’ must significantly change. This is, on one level, an empirical exercise, an effort to bring into the story the citizens of the empire who played important roles in such iconic episodes as the Battle of Britain and the Blitz, flying the fighter planes and manning anti-aircraft guns. But it is also a matter of perspective. Riley’s aim is to push the notion of multicultural Britain much further back into the national past than the recent emergence of this term would suggest is justified. The ‘splendid’ figures in this account are mostly non-white, many are not men and none of them are ministers.
In many ways, the individual stories, political struggles and cultural shifts collated here provide remarkable testimony to the openness of postwar Britain – especially given that British society has long been renowned as singularly, even eccentrically insular. Take, for instance, the career of Kamal Chunchie from Ceylon, who arrived in London after service in the army during the First World War, rose to prominence as a Methodist minister and community organiser, played cricket for the Gentlemen of Essex and was invited to Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. Riley also describes the life of Sam King from Jamaica: an RAF veteran who returned to Britain on the Empire Windrush, he worked for Royal Mail and ended up mayor of Southwark. Another figure whose life she chronicles, Beryl Gilroy, arrived from British Guiana as a teacher in 1952 and eventually rose to become one of London’s first black school principals. We find British governments determined to keep Britain open to migration from the Commonwealth, even when democratic pressure seemed to militate against this. Real opposition to racial toleration was and remains an minority pursuit. The upshot can be seen in the striking fact that ‘white British’ people – who according to estimates formed 98 per cent of the UK’s population in 1961 – today form a minority in London, at around 37 per cent, and a tiny one in boroughs such as Newham (where Riley tells us she is writing), which must be among the most diverse places in the world.
Of course, this is not how Imperial Island wishes us to see things. The aim, by contrast, is to dispel comforting ‘myths’ and ‘polite’ fictions and to lay bare the postcolonial trauma ward that is modern Britain. Each new landmark piece of legislation – from the revolutionary British Nationality Act of 1948 to the Race Relations Acts of the 1960s and 1970s – is recast to expose the ‘imperialist and racist attitudes … still deeply ingrained in British society and culture’. The end of empire abroad is revealed to have resulted in the import of colonial violence and white supremacy back home, where they were ‘woven into the machinery’ of modern Britain, as evidenced by the ‘racism of the British border force, the British police force and wider British state’. Any progress that has been made is thanks only to the rise of a grassroots ‘resistance’ that has pushed back against the Imperialist Racist Fascists in power. This story runs through seven chronological chapters, which bring in everything from Live Aid and football hooliganism to the Iraq War and Brexit. The method of composition, a kind of historical free association, makes it fairly difficult to summarise. Yet the overall gist of the book can be divined from the fact that in under three hundred pages of text the words ‘racism’ and ‘racist’ appear nearly two hundred times, inserted wherever Riley seems to lose her chain of thought or thinks that readers need reminding of her argument.
How valuable is this would-be reckoning with Britain’s imperial past? Much of what is significant in Imperial Island has already been explored at length elsewhere over the last three and half decades, beginning with Paul Rich’s Race and Empire in British Politics (1986) and Paul Gilroy’s There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987). Many of the author’s claims regarding the relevance or originality of her book suggest that she has no knowledge whatsoever of the historiography. The suggestion, for example, that the history of Britain and the empire in the 1950s has been ‘overlooked’ defies reality: their study has been one of the richest areas of growth during the past twenty years. Then there are her narratives of signal episodes in the history of British colonialism and decolonisation, which can only be described as the opposite of valuable. An inflammatory account of the Malayan Emergency, for instance, uses as a source not Karl Hack’s groundbreaking five-hundred-page, multi-perspective study published in 2021, but a public-relations briefing document prepared on behalf of a law firm representing clients seeking to sue the British government in 2009.
A bit more reading might also have saved the author from some of the howlers that litter the book. Winston Churchill, for example, obviously did not lead a ‘Conservative government’ during the Second World War. Sir Stafford Cripps was not a ‘Labour Party statesman’ during his 1942 mission to India; he had been an independent MP since his expulsion from the party in 1939. Rab Butler was not ‘Conservative foreign minister’ during the Suez Crisis of 1956 – Selwyn Lloyd was – and fighting in that conflict did not begin on 26 October. Tanganyika was not a ‘British protectorate’ and Malaya was not a British ‘colony’. These last points might be technicalities, but Riley cites the British public’s ignorance of such distinctions (displayed in a 1948 Mass Observation study) as further evidence of the their ‘amnesia’ about empire when she doesn’t seem sure about them herself. Even the author’s grasp of geography sets alarm bells ringing: Britain’s ‘vast empire’ is described as stretching ‘from Aden to Zanzibar’ – so compromising around a thousand miles of east Africa.
But it is probably obtuse to highlight all the historical errors in Imperial Island since it is so clearly not a historical work but a political one. The blurb on the book’s back cover informs its readers that this ‘is the story that best explains Britain today’ – and in many respect it’s exactly right. Shortly after finishing it, during a visit to a National Trust property, I suddenly found myself plunged back into the nightmare of reading Imperial Island all over again when I stumbled upon some promotional material for the organisation’s latest report ‘into colonialism and historic slavery’. Back home that evening, I retired happily to bed with Hennessy on Audible.