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Charles McGregor "Some cultural responses to the loss of empire"

Charles McGregor

Visiting Professor,
Faculty of Foreign Languages
and Area Studies,

Lomonosov Moscow State University,
Russian Federation.
Email: latimer.lion@btinternet.com

Some cultural responses to the loss of empire

Extensive territories across the world which were ruled mostly from Europe broke up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  In the nineteenth the Spanish empire in the Americas (and Asia) ended, and in the twentieth, so did the Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Dutch, French, British, Portuguese, German, Ottoman  and Japanese empires, as well as the Soviet Union.   This paper discusses some cultural responses by former imperial powers and their ex-colonies, using mainly examples from the British empire (the largest) and suggesting their relation to new identities.


We live in a post-imperial age (1)*.  Nearly all Spain’s empire disappeared in the nineteenth century: New Spain and Peru became independent between 1816 and 1825 and the Philippines and Cuba fell to the USA in 1899.  In the twentieth century seven other European empires in Africa and Eurasia, and two Asian empires, also came to an end.

The victors in World War I dismantled the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and confiscated Germany’s African (and Pacific) colonies.  World War II’s winners liberated Italian colonies in Africa and defeated German and Japanese efforts to establish empires in Europe and Asia.  But this war turned out to cost the victors their own empires too: by 1965 the Dutch, the French and the British had given most of their colonies independence.  Portugal, a neutral in World War II, hung onto its African colonies till the mid-1970s.  (Brazil had won its independence from Portugal in the same period as the Spanish colonies, in 1822.)  Russia’s control over parts of Central Asia and Eastern Europe ended a generation later, about 45 years after World War II: the Russian Federation’s constitution succeeded the Soviet Union’s in 1991 and the (Russian) Commonwealth of Independent States was established in 1992.

Most former colonies became members of the United Nations (UN), the League of Nations’ successor in 1945.  By 2000, there were more than 190 UN member states.  The League, which  did not admit colonies, had had about 60 members.

Membership of the UN provided a new political position for an ex-colony but contributed little to its adjustment culturally to independence.  Benedict Anderson has pointed out (Anderson, 1991) that as part of the independence struggle, ex-colonies sometimes had to create a nationalism which would unite culturally disparate elements, each often with its own language.  A group which was unified by resistance to the colonial power had after independence to conceive itself as a new and independent state with its own economy and culture.  The former imperial power, with diminished control overseas, had to re-constitute itself as something  smaller.  Both the ex-colonies and the ex-imperial country had to re-imagine themselves, that is, to create new cultural identities.

*See note (1).

The nature of “culture”

What is meant here by “culture”?  Something vague and huge.  Over the last 350 years, earlier prescriptive senses of “culture” have given way to a descriptive meaning:

a) The education of Children (is called) a Culture of their mindes. (Thomas Hobbes, 1651)  [Culture          = the process of improving nature, for example the training and refining of plants and animals for    food, clothing, shelter, transport, entertainment and adult life.  Prescriptive.]

(b)  Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world.       (Matthew Arnold, 1873)  [Culture = getting to know the best in the sciences, and in the arts of the court rather than of the streets or fields.  Also prescriptive.]

(c) The study of any language spoken by a people who live under conditions different from our own          and possess a different culture must be carried out in conjunction with a study of their culture and          of their environment. (Bronislav Malinowski, 1923)  [Culture (or subculture) = collective of a       human group’s learned customs, beliefs, attitudes, way of life and social organisation.     Descriptive.]

In the twentieth century, meaning (c) sometimes appears on its own or sometimes contains one or both of the two earlier senses as background shadows:

We need to distinguish three levels of culture ... There is the lived culture of a particular time and    place, only fully accessible to those living in that time and place.  There is the recorded culture, of       every kind, from art to the most everyday facts: the culture of a period.  There is also, as the      factor connecting lived culture and period cultures, the culture of the selective tradition.

(Williams, 1961, p 49)

The “lived culture” highlights Malinowski’s meaning (c) but the “recorded culture” explicitly includes Matthew Arnold’s meaning (b) though without giving it the prominence Arnold does.  The “culture of the selective tradition” mistily blends (a), (b) and (c).

To keep things clearer and more manageable, let us restrict ourselves to meaning (c), the descriptive meaning from social anthropology.  Even this restriction leaves us with a vast field, including most of human social behaviour.   The inventory below (from G P Murdock, cited by Fox, 2004, p 12) provides a small-scale territorial map in behavioural terms.  In the passage above, Williams describes culture as a “structure of feeling” (ibid, p 48); certainly “the only way in which we can know the significance of the selected detail of behaviour is against the background of the motives and emotions and values that are institutionalised in that culture.” (Benedict, 1934, p 49)  But a behavioural inventory is a useful starting point:

Table 1                   Cross-cultural universals – a behavioural inventory of culture

Group 1

1.1       Food

Agriculture, weather control.

1.2       Medicine

Medicine, surgery, cleanliness training, hygiene.

1.3       Pregnancy

Pregnancy, obstetrics, postnatal care.

1.4       The economy

Fire-making, tool making.

Group 2

2          Amusements

Bodily adornment, hairstyle.

Decorative art, dancing, music.

Folklore, mythology.

Athletic sports, games.

Group 3

3.1       Social practices

Language, numerals, gestures, joking.

Greetings, visiting, gift-giving, hospitality.

Cooking, meal times, feasting, food taboos.

3.2       Social organisation

Weaning, education, puberty, courtship, sexual restrictions, incest taboos, marriage.

Modesty concerning natural functions.

Personal names, family, kin groups, kinship names, inheritance rules.

Age-grading, status differentiation.

Housing, residence rules.

Population policy.

Government, law, property rights, penal sanctions.

Cooperative labour, division of labour, trade.

3.3       Religion


Religious rituals, soul concepts, propitiation of supernatural beings.

Divination, luck superstitions, magic, dream interpretations.


Eschatology, funeral rites, mourning.

Across industrial societies the realisation of some of these universals varies less now than it did a century ago.  The items in group 1 above (under Food, Medicine, Pregnancy and The economy) are part of science and so within the world’s common culture, although their social features (eg the means of their provision and the status of their providers) differ widely between societies.  These items are less sensitive politically: conflicts on proposed changes in forms of realisation are resolved more often by debate rather than by violence, and the overall rates of change are usually more rapid than in the other two groups.

Group 2 (Amusements) is politically more sensitive than group 1 but much less so than group 3.  In group 3 lie some explosive universals, such as “food taboos”, “courtship”, “status differentiation”, “religious rituals” and “funeral rites”. These highly sensitive items are slow to change: changes within the society are often punished by other members, and ridicule from outside may elicit violent responses including even murder.

It seems likely that in the colonial period the imperial power would leave many (but not all) universals of group 3 in the colony unchanged, promoting change instead in groups 1 and 2.  After the end of empire, cultural adjustments in the new state, whether ex-imperial or ex-colonial, would occur first in group 1, next in group 2 and only much later in group 3.

Providing comprehensive evidence to support these suggestions is however beyond the scope of the rest of this paper.  It offers instead something more restricted: some cultural and political adaptations that followed the rise and fall of (chiefly) the British empire in the post-imperial period.

The rise of the First and Second British Empires

Empires are won by wars.  They are retained not only by preparedness for war but also by cultural hegemony, which strengthens as the conquerors gradually substitute their own cross-cultural universals for the conquered forms and as the imperial identity itself matures.  This imperial identity may emerge gradually and haphazardly by combining disparate elements in the imperial nation.  For example, the main circumstance from which the first British empire emerged in the eighteenth century was the Act of Union of 1707 between Scotland and England (plus Wales), which proclaimed “‘one united kingdom by the name of Great Britain,’ with one Protestant ruler, one legislature and one system of free trade.” (Colley, p 11)  The defeat of the French and Spanish in the middle of that century, which established the British in North America and India, gave employment not only to English but also to Scots, Welsh and Irish - as military personnel, administrators, engineers, missionaries, merchants.  Victories in war, and the opportunities for personal enrichment which they created, promoted the blending of different ethnicities into a new cultural identity: an imperial one.

This new imperial self had by the middle of the eighteenth century become a focus for a patriotism sometimes expressed as uncritical nationalism.  Both patriotism and nationalism produce and feed on cultural symbols, such as the national anthem.

The British believe they created the world’s first national anthem.  Theirs was sung publicly for the first time in a London theatre in September 1745.  There “the men and women present received (the song) rapturously, rising clammily to their feet in the warm autumn evening and calling repeatedly for encores” (Colley, 2005, p 44).

The song that aroused this fervour had a narrow focus.  Here is its first verse:

God save our noble King,

God save great George our King,

God save the King.

Send him victorious,

Happy and glorious,

Long to reign over us,

God save the King.

The Almighty is asked to protect Britain’s head of state by helping him win battles and thereby remain on his throne for many years .

The second verse asks God to smite unspecified enemies:

O Lord our God arise,

Scatter our enemies

And make them fall;

Confound their politicks,

Frustrate their knavish tricks.

On Him our hopes are fix’d,

O save us all.

The threat of a foreign enemy commonly promotes unity at home, and 1745 was a year which tested British unity.   A month before this anthem was first sung, Prince Charles Edward Stuart landed on the island of Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides.  Two weeks later he sailed to the mainland, where he raised his Royal Standard as James the Eighth of Scotland and James the Third of England.  He was suspected of having French and probably also Spanish support.

In the third verse a duty of the monarch is explicitly stated:

Thy choicest gifts in store

On him be pleased to pour;

Long may he reign;

May he defend our laws

And ever give us cause

To sing with heart and voice

God save the King.

The only specific effect of these gifts from the Almighty is to be that the monarch will maintain a rule of law.  But the whole song asks God to preserve the nation as a single political unit and to make it victorious in war, and by its reference to laws it invokes ancient freedoms from tyranny.  The God invoked, however, is not specifically Christian, and no wider task for Britain in the outside world is mentioned.

These sentiments and omissions belong to the period when the First British Empire was being built in North America (and the Caribbean).  They antedate a setback: the loss of the Thirteen Colonies after the American war from 1775 to 1783.  The British ruling classes recovered popular support afterwards, however, and victory over Napoleon, though mainly the result of careful alliances and of Russian’s defeat of La Grande Armee, consolidated that support.  The nineteenth century became for Britain a period of further imperial expansion: Canada and the Caribbean were retained in the western hemisphere and a Second British Empire was built in Africa, Asia and Australasia.  This enlargement changed the British sense of who they were.  Although the anthem itself did not lose its popularity, the defensiveness of God Save the King changed into a sense of destiny in the wider world outside Britain.  An ideology of imperial mission arose.

In this larger empire, Britain became for its administrators and their supporters the preeminent fulfiller of two objectives.  Lord Lugard, the founder of colonial Nigeria and Uganda, called this “the dual mandate”:

“Let it be admitted at the outset that European brains, capital, and energy have not been, and        never will be, expended in developing the resources of Africa from motives of pure philanthropy;             that Europe is in Africa for the mutual benefit of her own industrial classes, and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane; that the benefit can be made reciprocal, and that it is the    aim and desire of civilised administration to fulfil this dual mandate ...

“As Roman imperialism laid the foundations of modern civilisation, and led the wild barbarians of      these islands along the path of progress, so in Africa to-day we are repaying the debt, and           bringing to the dark places of the earth, the abode of barbarism and cruelty, the torch of culture        and progress, while ministering to the needs of our own civilisation. ” (Lugard, 1929, p 617 & 18)

He detailed some of the benefits the British had brought:

“By railways and roads, by reclamation of swamps and irrigation of deserts, and by a system of     fair trade and competition, we have added to the prosperity and wealth of these lands, and          checked famine and disease.  We have put an end to the awful misery of the slave-trade and inter-  tribal war, to human sacrifice and the ordeals of the witch-doctor.  Where these things survive,            they are severely suppressed. We are endeavouring to teach the native races to conduct their      own affairs with justice and humanity, and to educate them alike in letter and in industry.”

(Ibid, p 617)

He defended this achievement against its detractors with rousing rhetoric but also with a more acute argument:

“British methods have not perhaps in all cases produced ideal results, but I am profoundly      convinced that there can be no question but that British rule has promoted the happiness and       welfare of the primitive races.  Let those who question it examine the results impartially.  If there is unrest, and a desire for independence, as in India and Egypt, it is because we have taught the        value of liberty and freedom, which for centuries these peoples had not known.  Their very discontent is a measure of their progress.”                                                                       (Ibid, pp 618-9)

The British approved of imperialism beyond their own dominions even when it was not allied to the teaching of liberty and freedom.  It introduced European realisations of cultural universals from at least Table 1’s Group 1 and probably also elements from Groups 2 (Amusements) and 3.1 (Social Organisation).  A prominent Victorian engineer, working at Merv on the Murghab River (formerly the Oxus). wrote home to a relative in 1890:

I think no reasonable person can doubt that the country is much better for being under the        strong Russian Government.  The extreme militarism is an offence to me; but there is public      security and order, and the wild Turkomans, the terror of their mild Persian neighbours, - man-   stealers and ruffians of the worst type -, have settled down into respectable Russian subjects.            This is surely for the good of mankind; and it does not become an Englishman, with our turn for    annexation, to object.”                                                                                                         (Hollings,ed, 1917)

  The fall of the British Empire

Many of the British immediately after the First World War supported this view of their own imperial achievement and God Save the King still fitted.  But by then other visions were gaining ground.  A music scholar writing first in 1938 thought the song was “certainly opposed to Christian teaching (or the teaching of any idealistic religion) and cannot be for the good of the world.” (Scholes, 1955, p 678)  He thought a very different song appropriate:  a “boldly idealistic song ... which from the 1920s assumed almost the position of a secondary British National Anthem.” (ibid, p 540)

This “made a great impression when sung at a meeting in the Royal Albert Hall, in March 1918, to celebrate the attaining of the final stage in the ‘Votes for Women’ campaign.” (ibid, p 540.)  It is now the theme song of the English Rugby Union team, and is sung at the end of each season’s BBC Promenade Concerts in the Royal Albert Hall.  It is called Jerusalem.

Its four verses are the work of a Romantic poet-painter, William Blake: they appear in his Preface to his Milton.  He wrote them in 1803 or 1804, and they expressed his vision of Britain as the birthplace of true religion, not as the founder of an empire. (Blake supported the American and French Revolutions.)  The verses were chosen 100 years later by Robert Bridges, Poet Laureate from 1913, and set to music in 1915 or 1916 by Sir Hubert Parry, Professor of Music at Oxford:

And did those feet in ancient times

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

And was the holy Lamb of God

On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here

Among these dark Satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold;

Bring me my arrows of desire;

Bring me my spear – O clouds, unfold!

Bring me my chariot of fire!

I will not cease from mental fight,

Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,

Till we have built Jerusalem

In England’s green and pleasant land.

Behind God Save the King the redcoats march past, with fifes squealing and drums thumping.   In Jerusalem we are among Celtic holy men and their bards, struggling sometimes pugnaciously to recall Britain to the teachings of Christianity’s founder.  Jerusalem belongs to a different part of the British identity, which this later period favoured.  By 1918 the unity of the kingdom was weaker (2)*, and the militarism appropriate to building the first and second British empires had been darkened by the coffins of  World War I.  Perhaps Lugard’s reference to Indian and Egyptian independence shows that he too perceived a decline in Britain’s imperial conviction: he defined and celebrated what he knew had passed its zenith.

The empire was finished by the 30-year war with Germany that began in 1914 (with a pause for breath between 1919 and 1939) and whose effects were compounded by US actions.  British victory in World War II incurred substantial debts to the US for ships and munitions, and a condition for US support against Nazi Germany was the opening of the British Empire as a market and source of raw materials for US goods and services after the war. When Churchill and Roosevelt met on shipboard off Newfoundland in August 1941, Roosevelt made post-war free trade a condition of America entering the war.  Churchill replied, “Mr President, I think you want to abolish the British empire ... everything you have said confirms it.  But in spite of that, we know you are our only hope.  You know that we know it.  You know that we know that without America, the British empire cannot hold out.”  So the fourth point of the Atlantic Charter issued after that meeting specified that “all countries large or small, victorious or defeated, should have access on an equal footing to the markets and raw materials of the world necessary for their economic prosperity.”(George and Sabelli, 1994, p 23).  Britain’s economic and military losses weakened her cultural position too: after defeats of British by German and Japanese forces the empire could no longer project credibly an image of the calmly invincible led by the effortlessly superior.

So once World War II ended, political independence for the colonies arrived soon.   India became independent in 1947 and Nigeria in 1960, with most of Britain’s other colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean receiving independence between those dates (although Hong Kong did not return to China till 1997).  The mother country had now to re-imagine herself.  The British Empire was dead: long live its successor, the British Commonwealth!

Cultural and political adjustments by a former imperial power

What that meant was already envisaged by 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II, the present queen, was crowned.  In the officially-approved souvenir programme of the coronation, a popular historian wrote:

“A coronation is a nation’s birthday.  It is the day on which its people celebrate the union that makes them one ... The legal and spiritual association of men of different races, creeds and classes which we call a nation, though often taken for granted, is a more wonderful miracle than the greatest achievement of science. Of all our institutions the monarchy serves best to unite us: to remind us that the political and economic differences that divide us are less real than the ties of history that unite us. For a nation is a union in both space and time.” (Bryant, 1953, p 8)

Bryant then addressed the empire’s current state:

*See note 2.

“The Coronation of the first Elizabeth was of the Sovereign of one Nation.  The Coronation of Elizabeth II is of the Sovereign of many Nations.  Her Majesty is Queen not only of Great Britain but of the independent States of Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Ceylon, and of nearly fifty other lands over which the authority of the Imperial Parliament at Westminster is still extended. And as Head of the Commonwealth she is the sole symbol of the free association of the eight sovereign Nations that form the largest political group in the world.  In that great union – embracing all the earth’s five Continents and nearly a quarter of its population – there is no binding or coercive force: only the free will of its members to be associated with one another and their acknowledgement of that solitary and seemingly powerless, but beloved, human figure as its Head.”                                                                                                                                                     (Ibid, p 9)

Soft power was to supplant hard power and its symbol would be the young monarch.

She was to stand for continuity.  The British political class was hoping for “the same but different”: a transformation of empire which would somehow sustain Britain’s influence in the world.  But during 1956 a new reality obtruded itself: in future the British would have to accept an unwelcome dependence on decisions taken in Washington.  Half a dozen years later, Britain’s position was candidly stated by a former US Secretary of State.  Addressing US army officer cadets at West Point in December 1962, Dean Acheson said, “Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role.”  This was a polite reminder that the independent power lost by Britain had passed to the USA.

A weakened international standing did not however mean that domestically Britain’s polity was in ruins.  For example, post-imperial Britain avoided a takeover by the military, unlike Turkey after the end of the Ottoman empire and Spain (in the nineteenth century) after the loss of New Spain and Peru.  A British historian of Spain ascribes the military takeover then to Spain’s social structure which allowed its military to impose their own conceptions of their duties:

”In nations where civil society is weak ... the army possesses not merely a monopoly of physical force, but a disciplined cohesion and esprit de corps which no other social group can rival ... (The Spanish military considered) it was its duty to save the fatherland ... from dissolution at the hands of bad governments; in other words, to preserve ‘order’. (It) must act to save itself as an   institution when (civilians attacked) its conception of ‘honour’ or its material interests. Finally,    commanders must maintain what was called ‘the harmony of the military family’.”

(Carr, 1980, p 3)

In Turkey military domination of politics lasted for at least 50 years after the empire ended in 1918, and even today traces remain.  “The chief of staff answers to the prime minister and ranks above government ministers.  (To avoid a conflict of precedence, the defence minister avoids attending NATO meetings at the same time as his chief of staff.)” (Kristianasen, 2011)  France, where civil society was stronger, escaped a military coup after the loss of Vietnam (1954) by returning political office to the war-time general, Charles de Gaulle, who had led its first post-war government.

What prevented Britain’s military from intervening after the loss of empire may have been the strength and cohesion of civil society but that did not promote successful economic adaptation. By 1964 Britain was in relative decline.  Two bestsellers (The Stagnant Society and Suicide of a Nation?) pointed out that “in the preceding ten years, Britain’s share of world trade had shrunk by as much as in the whole previous half century.  ‘Amateurism’ was the culprit ... Class privilege was at the root.” (Pimlott, 1993, p 300)  One writer stated, “Capitalist economic performance (compares) unfavourably ... with that of Russia,” and likened the West to Athens and the East to Sparta, “which husbanded and refined her talents with the same single-minded persistence which Soviet Communism, with all its defects, demonstrates today.” (ibid)

The Labour Party, out of power for 13 years, now claimed that if new scientific and technological knowledge were applied with changed attitudes, Britain could recover.  Labour’s leader, Harold Wilson, said in his speech at the Party conference before the 1964 election:

“We are re-defining and we are re-stating our Socialism in terms of the scientific revolution.  But that revolution cannot become a reality unless we are prepared to make far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society.  The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods on either side of industry ... In the Cabinet room and the boardroom alike those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and to speak in the language     of our scientific age.”                                                                                                                       (Ibid, p 304)

The Labour Party believed that a cultural revolution was beginning.  Its manifesto for the 1964 election ended enthusiastically:

“It is within the personal power of every man and woman with a vote to guarantee that the British again become THE GO-AHEAD PEOPLE WITH A SENSE OF NATIONAL PURPOSE, THRIVING IN AN EXPANDING COMMUNITY WHERE SOCIAL JUSTICE IS SEEN TO PREVAIL.”

(Labour Party, 1964, p 24, capitals in the original)

To what would this thrilling sense of purpose be directed?  Identifying that fully remained a work in progress.  But among the more specific pledges were those headed “Commonwealth Immigration”:

“As the centre of a great Commonwealth of 700 million people, linked to us by ties of history and common interest, Britain faces the three great problems of poverty, rapidly rising population, and racial conflict.

“By herself Britain cannot, of course, solve these problems; but more than any other advanced country in the West, we have the greatest opportunity and the greatest incentive to tackle them. We believe that the Commonwealth has a major part to play in grappling with the terrible inequalities that separate the developed and underdeveloped nations and the white and coloured races.”                                                                                                                                                   (Ibid, p 19)

Since the Labour Party’s foundation it had consistently opposed colonialism, and the manifesto shone a golden light on the process by which the British Empire had ended:

“When World War II unleashed the demand throughout Asia and Africa for the end of colonialism, Britain’s first response was an act of creative statesmanship.  The Labour Government, headed by Clem Attlee, granted full and complete independence to India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and thereby began the process of transforming a white colonial empire into a multi- racial commonwealth.

“No nobler transformation is recorded in the story of the human race.” (Ibid, p 18)

One effect of this noble transformation was a large increase in the rate of immigration from the Indian sub-continent and other parts of the Commonwealth.  The Party was aware of the social tensions this created, and the manifesto described its policy here:

“The Labour Government will legislate against racial discrimination and incitement in public places and give special help to local authorities in areas where immigrants have settled.  Labour accepts that the number of immigrants entering the United Kingdom must be limited.  Until a satisfactory agreement covering this can be negotiated with the Commonwealth a Labour Government will retain immigrant control.”

With this manifesto the Party won the 1964 election.

But adaptation to the end of empire required more than economic recovery, the exclusion of the military from political power, and settling immigrants from former colonies without jeopardising British unity .  There were more local threats to this unity.  English and Celtic ethnicities which had blended during the building of empire began to resolve into separate components as the empire dissolved.  Older loyalties reasserted themselves.  During Labour’s period in office (1964 to 1970), Gwynfor Evans became the first Plaid Cymru or Welsh Nationalist member of the House of Commons and Winifred Ewing, the first Scottish National Party member.   In 1972 the IRA (Irish Republican Army) began its violent campaign in Northern Ireland for unification with the Irish republic, which lasted nearly 30 years in its fiercest form and still sputters on.

Over those following 30 years these fissiparous tendencies increased in strength.  In response, a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly were set up in 1999 and a Northern Ireland Assembly after the Good Friday accords of 1998.  Movement away from a unitary state became more attractive as decisions in Westminster began more obviously to depend on decisions made abroad: not only in Washington but also in Brussels.  Britain was now a member of the European Union, created in continental Europe mainly to prevent another war between France and Germany but also as part of the process of adjustment to the end of empire by France, Holland, Belgium and Portugal.

Behind the anti-colonial movements and the loss of empire lay shifts in ideas.  Cultural relativism was gaining ground among the intelligentsia.

Cultural equality in the post-imperial metropolis

Cultural relativism, the theory which promotes cultural equality, is expressed attractively in a proverb of North America’s Digger Indians:

“In the beginning God gave every people a cup of clay, a different cup for each people, and from this cup they drank their life.”                                                                                    (Benedict, 1934, p 21)

This implies that no cup is better or worse than another: all ethnicities express equally good ways of being human, and we should celebrate their diversity.  Benedict was an American academic, writing only five years after Lugard.  Tolerance and cultural dialogue were beginning gradually to replace imperial domination and supremacy in many parts of Africa and Asia.

But like freedom, tolerance has its limits.  Rights imply responsibilities, and these impose restrictions; tolerance implies respect, but not everything deserves respect.  Should we suspend ethical judgements on each other’s culture by supposing that all manifestations of other cultures are morally neutral?  If not, then on what grounds should we judge them?  How can we tell what is bad everywhere and always from what we feel is bad because of our own times and culture?

The English philosopher Mary Midgley has expressed her long interest in such questions by suggesting some principles for cultural dialogue (Midgley, 1983).  She starts with a test case for tolerance: the status rite in feudal Japan known as the Tsujigiri or “crossroads killing”, a ritual practice for a  samurai.  Here the samurai slices his sword from the shoulder through to the opposite flank of a stranger met at a crossroads. (Presumably the commonest victims were Japan’s untouchables, outcastes beyond the structure of the four Japanese castes.)  Most status rites now stop short of assassination but some are still cruel and brutal, like other universals from Table 1’s Group 3.2.  For example, “puberty” is in some societies realised by female circumcision, “marriage” by honour killings and forced marriages, and “protecting kin groups” by genocide.

Can we justify our judgement that these realisations are wrong by anything other than makeshift arguments about moral laws as distinct from moral truths?  We may assert the ancient principle of not doing to others what we would not want them to do to us.  This old solution to an old problem is not as unifying as it might appear, since what is regarded as proper treatment varies widely across human societies.  Perhaps because she senses the difficulties here, Midgley is more interested in providing a superstructure: an introductory framework for cultural dialogue which characterises relations between cultures and proposes a code of manners:

Table 2.1        Midgley’s principles for cultural dialogue

1 Our choice of items to criticise in other cultures and our judgments on these are shaped  and directed by our own culture.

2 We criticise our own culture by comparing it with others, whether or not we acknowledge this.

3 All cultures contain “outside” elements of some sort.

Principles 1 and 2 describe the process of criticism and 3, the composition of cultures.  These three principles are “is” statements, true or false and so capable of proof or disproof.

Table 2.2  Midgley’s principles for cultural dialogues (contd)

4 Cultural criticism should be mutual / reciprocal: A and B can criticise each other.

5 “Criticism” should include praise as well as blame.

6 Judgement is more than opinion.

7 In disputing adverse judgements on a culture we invoke universals, such as fairness, consent, and proof by evidence and by logical argument.

Principles 4 and 5 are “ought” statements, rules of good behaviour in cultural dialogue. Principles 6 and 7 go further.  They sound like “is” statements but are actually “ought” too: they outline how we should arrive at judgments on other cultures.

They only “outline”: she instances only three ethical universals as bases for disputing adverse judgements.  And as a group the principles are the reflections of a philosopher, not a historian or a politician.  But insofar as her views were shared by those in power, they suggest that in this era, immigrants to Britain from ex-colonies would not be forced to follow the mother country’s majority in realising the cultural universals of for example Table 1’s Group 3.

Cultural and political equality in a multi-ethnic community

The empire had tolerated different realisations of religion (Group 3.3) at least in India.  Queen Victoria annotated by hand the draft legislation transferring the government of India from the East India Company to the crown in 1858:

“Firmly relying ourselves on the truth of Christianity, and acknowledging with gratitude the solace of religion, we disclaim alike the right and the desire to impose our convictions upon any of our subjects ... We do steadily charge and enjoin all those who may be in authority under us that they abstain from all interference with the religious beliefs or worship of any of our subjects on pain of our highest displeasure.”                                                                                         (Morris, 1979)

Perhaps she thought that indifference to her Moslem subjects’ religious beliefs had caused the Indian Uprising of the preceding year.  In any case the British discovered that they tolerated Indian culture more easily in India than among Indian immigrants in Britain.  What would support social cohesion here at home?

According to the Labour party, enforcing tolerance by laws to ensure equal rights for all citizens. After the 1964 election and in later administrations Labour passed four Race Relations Acts (1965, 1968, 1976 Act and the 2000 Act amending it). These forbade discrimination on grounds of colour, race, nationality or ethnic or national origin, in education, employment, provision of goods and services, and public functions including the police.

Labour later extended this approach. The Equality Act of 2010 refers to “nine protected characteristics ... (which) cannot be used as a reason to treat people unfairly. (These) are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.”

All are to be treated equally under English (and Scottish) law. For example, a Moslem cannot choose to be tried under sharia law. Relativism or multiculturalism encourages plurality, the blooming of a thousand flowers, but equal legal status to only some realisations of Murdock’s universals of Social Organisation in Group 3.

For example, ethnic minorities can within limits arrange their own education. They can set up faith schools: schools run by religious groups which receive funds from government if they follow the national curriculum and allow regular inspection by government.  Of about 31,000 public-sector primary and secondary schools, around 7,000 are faith schools but the proportion of faith schools in the primary sector is about double that in secondary: around 25% instead of 12% (6,400 out of 26,000 primary schools as against 600 out of 5,000 secondary).  98% of all these faith schools are Christian: 6,950 out of 7,000.  About 40 are Jewish, 5 are Moslem, 2 are Sikh, and some of the remaining 3-5 are Hindu.  The private sector adds about another 3,000 schools; of these, about 100 (3%) are Moslem.

Ethnic minorities show different propensities to set up faith schools.  According to the 2001 Census, about 300,000 respondents described themselves as Jewish, but there are roughly 40 Jewish faith schools. Only 5 faith schools are Moslem, although perhaps 1.25 million British inhabitants are Moslem**.  Christian and other public-sector schools educate most of the children of the White British (50.4 million) and the remaining ethnic minorities***.

** About 700,000 from Pakistan and 300,000 from Bangladesh, perhaps 150,000 from Africa and the Caribbean (out of the 1.1 million immigrants), and perhaps 100,000 from India (out of 1.1 million from India, where Moslems are about 10% of the domestic population). *** 3.8 million other whites (including Irish), 1 million (non-Moslem) Indians, 950,000 (non-Moslem) Black Africans and Black Caribbeans, 700,000 mixed race, 400,000 Chinese and other Asians, and 300,000 others.

By sending their children to secular or Christian schools, parents from ethnic minorities make it more probable that their children (and so themselves to some extent) will realise other cultural universals as the majority around them do. This is part of a wider process of assimilation. What are the results? For instance,do those who are British by choice rather than by birth have a different sense of what being British means?

Opinion polls provide evidence that they do. One conducted in 2006 for the Commission for Racial Equality polled two groups: white and non-white Britons. They responded differently to an open-ended question, “What does the term ‘Britishness’ mean to you?”:

Most answers fell into two categories: either geography/tradition (e.g place of  birth, monarchy, pride in British achievements) or values (e.g. democracy, fairness, free speech). That was, perhaps, predictable.  What was striking was that by two-to-one, white respondents opted for geography/tradition, while non-white respondents, also by two-to-one, opted for values. Here are some typical responses:

Geography /tradition

1.1    Someone whose great grandparents were born in Britain.  Persons who put Britain before themselves.  Persons who, if their families are recent arrivals, are prepared to accept the British way of life and laws above their natural instincts.  When in Rome do as the Romans do.

1.2    Stiff upper lip, slightly conservative, fish and chips, tea, history, old Empire.


2.1    Holding certain values, beliefs and behaviour which people who live in Britain tend to display.  For me, the best of Britishness would be a belief in the rule of law, fair play, moderation in politics, ‘common decency’. However the worst traits of Britishness are (a) lapses in civic consciousness such as hooliganism and public drunkenness and (b) philistinism.

2.2     Being America’s lapdog, falling manufacturing business, football yobs, soft touch for immigrants (legal & illegal) and no national pride.

(Kellner, 2009, p 62)


The non-white respondent above who indicted Britons for having “no national pride” registered the fading of an earlier social identity: one defined by imperial militarism with its dual mission, its cultural supremacy, its unitary state and its Protestant Christianity.  We have moved away from both God Save the King and Jerusalem but have not replaced them by anything  comparably strong.  The British Commonwealth has not become a new power bloc internationally and its leading symbol shines more dimly now: in spite of the present Queen’s long reign, republicanism in the Commonwealth, for example in Australia, is stronger now than when she ascended the throne.  On the official website for aspirants to British citizenship, the values said to define Britain’s identity sound limply worthy rather than boldly inspiring:

“Britain is a country where people of many different cultures and faiths live.  What brings British

people together is that they listen to different points of view, they have respect for equal rights and

they believe that community is important.”

www.lifeintheuktest.ukba.homeoffice.gov.uk Accessed Nov 1 ,2011.

Perhaps no cultural patriotism need now inspire its citizens as its predecessors did.  In comparison with twentieth century societies, the twenty-first’s are bigger (through population growth), more diverse (through migration) and more strongly interconnected (through mobile phones and the internet).  Midgley’s code of conduct feels less contemporary because cultures are now more fluid, more heterogeneous and more weakly anchored inside national frontiers.  We realise ourselves through loyalty to wider groups than nations.

Some in earlier generations longed for such changes.  About 120 years ago, two German analysts saw a shift in the material world around them which led them prematurely to greet a new international order:

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country ... It has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood.  All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.  They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries which no longer work up indigenous raw material but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe.  In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes.  In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations.”                                                           (Marx and Engels, 1888/2002, pp 223)

As internationalists they rejoiced at globalisation’s cultural consequences, meaning by “culture” Matthew Arnold’s sense (b) above:

“And as in material, so also in intellectual production.  The intellectual production of individual nations becomes common property.  National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness becomes more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”                           (Ibid, p 224)

“National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness” were for them the hallmarks of imperial cultures.  But is cultural life weaker when more of its Murdock items are realised in the same or similar ways across most nations, either from external commercial pressures or their importation by immigrants?  For example, when a national language becomes an international means of communication, does the donor country’s cultural identity become blurred? Or when Nokia mobiles, Toyota cars, Nike trainers and Coca-Cola soft drinks arrive in Russia, with Manchester United scarves and heavy metal music, do young Russians feel less Russian?

Russians must answer that, not I.   All I would suggest is that far above suicide bombers and the free movement of cultural icons and ideologies stand the world’s real “problems without passports”:

Rapid and widespread changes in the world’s human population, coupled with unprecedented levels of consumption, present profound challenges to human health and wellbeing, and the natural environment.

The combination of these factors is likely to have far reaching and long-lasting consequences for our finite planet and will impact on future generations as well as our own.  These impacts raise serious concerns and challenge us to consider the relationship between people and the planet            (Sir Paul Nurse, 2012)

The effects of increasing population and consumption include exhaustion of easily mined resources, diminishing biodiversity, new epidemics, increasing pollution and greater strains on water, energy and food supplies.  Each problem is itself complex, and interacts with the others in complex ways.  A study of their nature and connections, and the forums within which pressure groups and governments may negotiate peaceful solutions, should now be part of every young citizen’s education, whatever their nationality and their individual, fluid, heterogeneous and weakly anchored culture.


1 This statement needs qualification: the American empire is a new kind, partly anticipated by the US founding fathers.  In 1776 the chief justice of South Carolina declared: “The British Period is from the Year 1758, when they victoriously pursued their enemies into every Quarter of the Globe ... The Almighty... has made choice of the present generation to erect the American Empire ... And thus has suddenly arisen in the World, a new Empire, stiled [sic] the United States of America.  An Empire that as soon as started into Existence, attracts the Attention of the Rest of the Universe; and bids fair, by the blessing of God, to be the most glorious of any upon Record.” (Ferguson, 2005, p 35)  This empire began in North America but by the end of the 19th century it had extended in a new form to the Caribbean, the Philippines and Central America.  It made these territories amenable to its wishes not by planting settlers but by inward investment and by using the US Marines to protect these investments and promote the USA’s political ideology.

These methods delivered power but limited responsibility, as shown in a conversation in 1913 between Walter Page, the American ambassador in London, and Sir Edward Grey, the British foreign secretary.  The two men were discussing the US government’s intention not to recognise a new government in Mexico which had seized power by assassinating a liberal premier:

Grey Suppose you have to intervene, what then?

Page Make ‘em vote and live by their decision.

Grey But suppose they will not so live?

Page We’ll go in and make ‘em vote again.

Grey And keep this up 200 years?

Page Yes. The United States will be here for 200 years and it can continue to shoot                                     men for that little space till they learn to vote and to rule themselves.

(Ferguson, p 53)

2 Irish nationalists organised the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916. In 1922 southern Ireland gained its independence and the UK lost more than 10% of its land area: what had been since 1801 The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland became The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  This did not however fully resolve longstanding tensions in Anglo-Irish relations, whose basis Disraeli identified on 16 February 1844 in the House of Commons in these words:

I want to see a public man come forward and say what the Irish question is. One says it is a physical question, another a spiritual. Now it is the absence of the aristocracy. Now it is the absence of railways. It is the Pope one day and potatoes the next.  A dense population inhabits an island where there is an established church which is not their church, and a territorial aristocracy, the richest of whom live in a distant capital. Thus they have a starving population, an alien church, and in addition the weakest executive in the world.

Well, what then would gentlemen say if they were reading of a country in that position? They would say at once, “The remedy is a revolution.” But the Irish could not have a revolution and why?  Because Ireland is connected with another and a more powerful country.  Then what is the consequence? The connection with England became the cause of the present state of Ireland. If the connection with England prevented a revolution and a revolution was the only remedy, England logically is in the odious position of being the cause of all the misery of Ireland.  What then is the duty of an English minister? To effect by his policy all those changes which a revolution would effect by force.. That is the Irish question in its integrity.

(Jenkins, 1996, p 279)


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  26. urther commitment of becoming a British Citizen. By passing the


I am grateful to my children (Simon and Roz) and to some friends for helping me improve an earlier draft of this paper: Svetlana Ter-Minasova, Angus Walker and Janet Whitcut.  Any errors are my own.

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