Stuck in an imperial past

Ronnie Cohen wonders if nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past is damaging its future.

One buzz phrase frequently used about the UK’s post-Brexit future is Global Britain. But what does it mean? The UK Government has published its vision of Global Britain on its official website. It tells us about an aircraft carrier operating in the Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific, a tilt to the Indo-Pacific, being a force for good in the world and a renewal of trading relationships with Commonwealth countries.

On 3 February 2020, Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a speech about the government’s post-Brexit vision of Global Britain, saying:

“We will reach out to the rest of the Commonwealth, which now has some of the fastest growing economies in the world.

It was fantastic at the recent Africa summit to see how many wanted to turn that great family of nations into a free trade zone, even if we have to begin with clumps and groups, and we will take these ideas forward at Kigali in June.

We will engage with Japan and the other Trans-Pacific agreement countries, with old friends and partners – Australia, New Zealand, Canada – on whom we deliberately turned our backs in the early 1970s.”

Sceptical government officials have privately branded this vision “Empire 2.0”. Commonwealth leaders have told the British to forget Empire 2.0, saying that they do not want to be treated like colonies anymore. The Global Britain vision sounds like elements of Rule Britannia and a longing for a lost empire. The language of being a “force for good” sounds similar to what the British tell themselves about the empire. Not to mention “Gunboat diplomacy”. Hence the Leave campaign’s slogan of “Take back control” may be seen as the desire for the nostalgia of the lost empire. The problem with the trade plans is that the EU is the UK’s main market. The UK exports over four times as much to the EU as it does to the Commonwealth.

The desire to go back to imperial measures in market stalls and shops seems to be related to the same mindset, an attempt to turn the clock back and recreate a lost imperial past. The nostalgia for an imperial past is also reflected in the desire to keep imperial measurements on British roads. The continued visible use of imperial weights and measures in so many areas of British society contradicts ministers’ attempts to promote the UK as a modern, forward-looking country.

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5 thoughts on “Stuck in an imperial past”

  1. I must confess, it is still disappointing to see the BBC adding Imperial to the metric units in their reports or even putting Imperial first, and this despite the article below being a “science” article.

    https://www.bbc.com/news/in-pictures-57233756

    Sad, truly. But I resolutely hold out hope that the younger generation will eventually push for a complete changeover (maybe even before the UK achieves net zero carbon emissions?)

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  2. It’s a very sad situation, Ezra, and a lot of the blame lies on selfish ‘boomers’ who refuse to move forward. People born directly after WW2 seem to need the crutch of traditional measurements to feel secure now that Britain’s status in the world has diminished. They’re frustrated. They’ve left work and they don’t have a voice any more. They’re the ones dictating what the BBC does. They seem to feel that they’re at war with younger people and see the adoption of anything new as conceding defeat. It’s very strange behaviour from a generation that sang ‘My Generation’ (hope I die before I get old) and ‘The Times they are a changin’ (get out of the new road if you can’t lend a hand).
    The British tabloids are even worse than the BBC. They would put the imperial measurements first and the Daily Mail wouldn’t use SI measurements at all.
    The country needs a forward-looking government that has the interest of the people at its heart rather than just going with the flow to keep in office. I can’t see that happening soon.

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  3. Well Ezra, that’s because there are imperial supporters working for the BBC and they input their personal choice into the reports. Maybe in the past the leadership of the BBC put together rules specifying metric, but these individuals who support imperial feel it is their right to free speech or something to rebel against the ruling and use imperial. As long as there is no one to stop them or their editors and bosses agree with their personal choice, they will continue to do so.

    It’s wrong to just blame the BBC, which is an inanimate object. It is living, breathing human beings doing it and as long as they feel empowered to do it and no one stops them, they will continue to do so. Maybe when viewing the report, at the beginning or the end you may see a list of names involved with the production. Such as the reporter’s name or even the editor’s name. These names you need to take note of and if you decide to lodge an official complaint, these names need to be mentioned. Blaming the BBC without mentioning a specific culprit is meaningless.

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  4. Daniel, I read somewhere that Charles Moore, the former editor of the Daily Telegraph and an Honorary member of BWMA, was recently put forward as the chair of the BBC. Thankfully he declined due to ill health. To think that someone as reactionary as this person was even considered is quite frightening.

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  5. I would classify the Government’s thinking as being “Empire 3.0”, not “Empire 2.0”. They might have forgotten that “Empire 1.0” ended on 4 July 1776.

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