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The Empire’s new clothes

The imperial backstory still stops Britain from grasping how it looks in the eyes of the world

How the world sees Britain

Backing Britain: the 1968 campaign

While international editor of the Guardian, Anthony Hartley visited Amsterdam in 1958. Journeying in the opposite direction from Joris Luyendijk (p19), he was immediately struck by the quiet confidence of the citizenry. It seemed such a contrast to the temper of 1950s Britain that he could not help contemplating the underlying cause. “They have learned to live in Europe as mere Europeans”, he ventured, “and— let us make no mistake—that is the way we ourselves and every ex-colonial power will have to live in the not-so-distant future.” Hartley marvelled at the extraordinary success of the Dutch in relinquishing an empire state of mind, not only in puncturing the moral imperatives of their civilising mission overseas but also their ready embrace of a new, downsized self-image drawn to a European scale.

In the early 1960s, Hartley returned to this theme in a series of articles for the Spectator, later published as A State of England (1963). By that time, Britain had caught up with the Netherlands in the liquidation of its empire, but rather than producing the same beneficial effects, it had caused “a narrowing of horizons and a sense of frustration in English society.”

Seventeen years ago, I arrived in Britain having completed a book about how far things had changed since Hartley’s day, with the steady release of the empire’s grip on the national imagination. As an Australian, I may have been more “intimately cognate” with Britain (to use Boris Johnson’s tortured turn of phrase) but back in the year 2000, there seemed little sign of the post-imperial torment that had haunted Britain in the 1950s and 60s; the ghost of the past had been laid to rest. Today, I’m not so sure. As Britain enters a new bout of post- Brexit soul-searching about its place in the world, the unsettling questions of the country’s last identity crisis are back with a vengeance, and complicating its haggling with the European Union. If a country doesn’t know what it is, how can it know what it wants? Certainly, it now appears that I was premature in publishing my book The Demise of the Imperial Ideal in Tony Blair’s self-consciously post-imperial Cool Britannia—just a couple of years before his ill-judged adventures in Iraq.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.