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March 11, 2013

The British Empire will outlast the European Union - argues Lincoln Allison

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison - Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick - believes the British Empire has more of a future than the European Union.

I have two granddaughters called Ava and Sylvie. Their other grandparents were born in Kenya and the Punjab. My brothers-in-law live in Abu Dhabi, Singapore and Western Australia, offering a rather neat set of stop-offs on a round-the-world trip. More of my primary school class from Colne, Lancashire live in Toronto, Canada than live in Colne. My wife has cousins in the United States and there is a branch of my mother's family which lives in New South Wales. When I worked at the University of Warwick I was, among other things, the "South Asia Liaison Officer" and regularly visited India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In both England and California I have played for predominantly South Asian cricket teams.

These facts might be described as the autobiographical consequences of Empire and I may be an extreme case. I am bound to look at things a bit differently from, for example, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who has a Dutch mother and a Spanish wife, but I wouldn't want to stress the contrast too much because I believe that both of our connections exemplify globalisation and the place of our country at the absolute forefront of the process.

Yet you can see why I might get a little bit cross when described as a European and asked to show solidarity and cohesion with people who neither play cricket nor speak English. The issue came up in my youth when a Polish girlfriend's mother assumed that I would be in favour of Polish immigration to the UK and against Caribbean immigration and it comes up when European politicians (most recently, Angela Merkel) try to insist that our European connections are more important than any others. Solidarity with those who have offered us the Inquisition, the Napoleonic code and the Gestapo and not with those who have offered us curry. I don't think so! That would have to be racism, wouldn't it?

At least as irritating is the idea that Britain has never got over the loss of empire. The most famous quotation in this respect is from Dean Acheson, at the time a former US Secretary of State, in a speech given at West Point fifty years ago (December 5, 1962). Acheson said,

Great Britain has lost an Empire and not yet found a role
- his father was an Englishman and he had a legitimate interest. This sort of sentiment has been repeated ever since, not least by Eurocrats unhappy with our Eurobacksliding. It's as if we are being told not to hanker after an earlier failed marriage, but to move on. In reality, of course, the marriage didn't fail: linguistically and demographically, which in the long run are the most important dimensions of history, the British Empire marches on, more important than ever.

The Acheson line has generally been swallowed by our political elites who have variously and pathetically tried to subsume us under Washington, Brussels or even Moscow. Non-elites, with their Australian relatives, Bajan dreams and local curry houses have generally taken a different view. I am prepared to wager that in a hundred years time the British Empire will be regarded as the greatest single influence on the shape of the world since (at least) the Eurasian population movements at the end of the Roman Empire. And that the "European Union" will be a mere footnote to history, a failed attempt to ring-fence a declining continent from the process of globalisation. Thus I take a particular pleasure when elderly papal nuncios remark that Britain is now a third world country or when some Mittel-European football crowd, from one of those incest-and-folk-dancing places, abuses the England football team (now predominantly of mixed race). It's good to be on the winning side for a change: the future belongs to English-speaking people of mixed race..

It all depends, naturally, on what you mean by empire. Most people, I guess, will attach to that word images from the period 1890-1914: a map (nearly) red from Cape to Cairo, a hundred tribes and nations marching in allegiance to Queen Victoria at her Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the great Durbah of George V in 1911; also, viceroys, district commissioners and a sovereignty on which the sun never set. This was empire as pseudo-state, narrow empire, if you like, and essentially empire as politically convenient fantasy.

That idea of empire made little progress towards its fantasy pseudo-state, whatever its chief protaganists - Rhodes, Beaverbrook, Churchill et al. - might have imagined. The smart money was always on this being a pretty temporary arrangement and so it proved, the credibility of the pompous empire lasting only from 1858 until the fall of Singapore in 1942.

It is often fun to ask an audience whose knowledge of the British Empire is pretty much limited to the fact of its existence - that would be most Brits and nearly all Americans, for instance - what it was and wasn't. It wasn't a currency union: rupees and dollars and rands all existed. It wasn't a legal system, but operated according to all kinds of appropriate local systems. (The most gross examples of foisting "British" values on people by the use of law were mainly African and fairly late.) It wasn't a project of the state, unlike its French, German and Belgian imitators and for most of its history it had more opponents than supporters at Westminster. There were elements of all these things and imperialists who wished it were so, but they had little success.

But the broad empire must be assessed quite differently. It consists of four hundred years of population movements, economic relations of every kind and cultural transfers and it shows no sign of abating at all. It was the expression of an expanding commercial and maritime people and its consequences are infinite. To take three at random, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is now the dominant force in the game; Perth, Western Australia is a deal more "Anglo-Saxon" than London and Sir Stamford Raffles vision of founding a port of global significance on an island at the foot of the Malay peninsula has proved 100% successful.

I rather enjoyed the comment of a German student who arrived in my room from the Students' Union where he had been introduced to a new world on the big screens of rugby matches against Southern Hemisphere opposition and cricket test matches against South Asian opposition. He said:

You still have your Empire at least on the playing field.
He was also intrigued to discover that in matches between England and Australia young Indians were entirely pro-English. Meanwhile, the Indians have made a much better fist of reviving the British car industry than their German and Japanese predecessors did.

The British Empire is not something to put behind us; it is what we are.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas, available as a Kindle download from and from

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Poland has had to extensively adopt European Union laws whereas the Caribbean countries have not. Under the protection of common EU law a British person who chose to live in Poland has many more guaranteed rights now than he would if he was residing in any of the Caribbean countries. So, it's really quite logical that your Polish student would assume you'd feel more welcoming to immigrants from Poland than from the Caribbean, Middle East or any of the other countries outside of the EU. After trying to understand the rest of your rant I have to say the student was rather na´ve in thinking you were capable of rational thinking, at all.

Posted by: Cromwell at May 18, 2013 07:05 AM

Poland was not forced to join the European Union, they democratically chose to join. They can elect a short-sighted and reactionary anti-European Union party and leave anytime they like. But, why would they want to? Increasing European integration works!

Britain is now poorer, in terms of Nominal GDP per capita, than every single one of its Eurozone neighbours. Germany, at $41,513 per capita, and France, at $41,141 per capita, are not only richer than Britain, at $38,589 per capita, but both have larger and faster growing economic investments in the newly emerging economies than Britain does.

Just last month, April, BMW sold more cars to China, 30,331, than it did to America, 28,273.

No, the European Union will continue to grow and prosper while Britain carries on deluding itself that its fragmenting little island Empire has some kind of future.

If Scotland were to become independent and then claim, using the logic of your arguments, Russia was part of a greater Scottish Empire because they like to play golf and like drinking whiskey, how ridiculous a claim would that sound?

Posted by: Cromwell at May 18, 2013 07:45 AM
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