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Is the Empire Really Over?

Great Britain in the Middle East

by GRAHAM MacPHEE

Two recent news stories suggest that the question of the end of the British Empire is far from academic. The first is the astounding revelation from the leaked “Palestine Papers” that the British government has not only funded Palestinian security services widely accused of torture and human rights abuses, but also offered to take part in the illegal kidnapping of opponents of the Palestinian Authority (Al Jazeera English 1/25/11). The second is the less dramatic but no less illuminating rebuttal of Tony Blair’s recent testimony at the Chilcot inquiry into Britain’s participation in the invasion of Iraq. As reported in the Independent (1/26/11), the “devastating testimony” of two of the country’s most senior civil servants records that democratic decision-making mechanisms were simply by-passed, suggesting that British foreign policy is scripted in the Whitehouse and not determined by the elected government in London. While these revelations will confirm what many commentators have suspected for a long time, they come as an earth-shattering blow to the vision of the world usually presented by mainstream British media, and by extension what is regarded as commonsense by most educated, middle-class British voters.

According to this vision of the world, Britain’s imperial ambitions effectively ended in 1947 with the ignominious scuttling of the Raj. A kind of second ending occurred in 1956 during the Suez Crisis, when British forces invaded Egypt and occupied the canal zone in concert with France and Israel, only to be forced into a humiliating retreat at Eisenhower’s behest. In public memory, the Suez Crisis is a particularly British affair, an edifying farce in which the upper class twits then in charge of the Conservative government fail to understand what was plain to everyone else, namely that the Empire was over and the methods of colonial rule would no longer work. This narrative domesticates the Suez debacle as a precursor to the swinging sixties, when grammar school boys would elbow their way into the Establishment, regional accents would be heard on the BBC, and Britain would exorcise its imperial ghosts through mod style, a narrowly national fixation on World War Two, and a good line in self-depreciating humor.

However, historians like Peter Cain, John Springhall, and Piers Brendon paint a rather different picture. The British Empire did not suddenly evaporate, but played a key role in the transition to US global hegemony. From 1945 to about 1970, the Empire provided a kind of self-dismantling infrastructure that scaffolded the integration of large parts of the underdeveloped world, especially in the Middle East, into the new world system, before itself shriveling to nothing. Though remarkably quick, this process was not bloodless, requiring a series of vicious colonial wars and resort to internment camps, torture, extrajudicial killing, and the sponsoring of clandestine killing groups. Understood as a transitional mechanism for integrating former colonies and quasi-colonies into US hegemony, the British Empire may have formally ended (in this sense, probably around 1970 with British military withdrawal from its Gulf protectorates), but the political legacy of empire never did. British foreign policy has been subordinate to the US since 1940, and has taken as given its ancillary role in the new hegemon’s overt and covert military operations (with the singular exception of Prime Minister Wilson’s refusal to send troops to Vietnam). In Britain, this is called “being at the top table,” although if that’s where we are then our role is restricted to serving the food and clearing the plates.

This curious mixture of arrogance and servility underlies the blindness of mainstream British opinion to the legacy of empire and Britain’s continuing, structural involvement in the US-sponsored world system. Within this myopic perspective, to be an imperialist is to be something like Monty Python’s blustering colonel as portrayed by the late Graham Chapman: by comparison, Tony Blair’s decision to join Bush’s invasion of Iraq may have been misguided, but it is certainly not that. In the narrative of the “special relationship,” the widely believed fiction that the US holds Britain as its main ally and a key advisor on foreign affairs, Britain is imagined instead as a wise elder who, though admiring of the young hegemon’s energetic virility, is concerned to curb its excesses. Time and again, British subservience to US foreign policy is dressed up as a canny strategy for tempering the exuberance of the American behemoth, as the necessary involvement in something a little distasteful that will ultimately deliver a greater good. Logically speaking, the idea that Britain’s conniving in a war of aggression in Mesopotamia or its involvement in illegally kidnapping opponents of the Palestinian Authority might work towards the greater good makes little sense. But as long as “informed” British public opinion inhabits the hall of mirrors generated by its denial of the continuing legacy of empire, logical considerations are unlikely to be determinative. Only in Britain could Tony Blair be regarded as a plausible peace envoy for the Middle East.

GRAHAM MacPHEE is Associate Professor of English at West Chester University. He is the author of Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies (Edinburgh University Press, forthcoming), and co-editor of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective (Berghahn).