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Reviewed by:
  • Imperial Britain: The Empire in British Politics, c. 1880–1932
  • James H. Warren
Imperial Britain: The Empire in British Politics, c. 1880–1932. By Andrew S. Thompson. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.

In the last decade, historians of Britain have had to engage the challenge issued by the “new imperial history” to recognize and make the focus of analysis the imperial social and cultural formations that underpinned British society. Any study that promises to explore the political impact of empire on late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain, as Imperial Britain does, is a welcome addition to this endeavor. Thompson sustains a narrative that captures the importance of imperial issues—from tariff reform (ch. 4), naval defense (ch. 5), and migration (ch. 6)—to extra-parliamentary pressure groups and their ability, in turn, to appeal—through public ceremonies and festivals, (ch. 2) and the press (ch. 3)—to “ideas, values, and assumptions which existed in the country at large”. (3) Chapter 7 offers perhaps the most significant contribution of the book, identifying the continued importance of imperial politics during the First World War and into the late 1920s. Thompson’s understanding of imperialism, and of political “-isms” more widely, as “broadly-based and participatory” (39) does allow him to make valuable contributions to the historiography of British political culture. However, his foray into the debate over the relationship between ‘nation’ and ‘empire’ is ultimately limited in some crucial ways. This is due to his conception of imperialism as a narrowly “political movement” (3) that originated in the metropolitan “heart of empire,” (6) rather than an authority predicated on particular strategies of inclusion and exclusion which shaped a transnational social, cultural, and political formation.

His observations on political culture, derived from his doctoral dissertation, “Thinking Imperially? Imperial Pressure Groups and the idea of Empire in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain,” (University of Oxford, 1994), are overshadowed by his attempt to recast that work within the more timely debates about the relationship between Britain and empire. 1 To this reader, that venture feels forced and operates too close to the surface of the analysis to contribute seriously to understandings of how imperialism functioned in the political sphere. Thompson too often describes the presence of empire rather than analyzing the whys and hows of its meanings and implications. This is especially curious, given his acknowledgement of the gains of cultural history (x) and his emphasis on “Imperial Languages, Identities, and Beliefs” (ch. 1). In this first chapter, Thompson begins to articulate an important shift in “imperial” politics away from an empire of conquest and authority towards an empire of expansion, migration, and settlement. The increased attention to what he (without qualification or problematization) refers to as ‘white’ or ‘self-governing’ colonies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand—demonstrates the cementing of a British imperial identity across “Greater Britain.” But, even when Thompson makes reference to the “English-speaking race” (19) or the “white Dominions,” he fails to attend to the racial implications of these labels or to the broader imperial matrix of identities in which the political vocabulary of “Greater Britain” was forged—as Catherine Hall has done for the early and mid-nineteenth century. 2 Following the enfranchisement of working class men by the Reform Act of 1884, white males around the globe—not British women and certainly not racial and ethnic others—were the next to be imagined as citizens rather than subjects. Approached from this perspective, ideas about colonies such as Ireland—which he unnervingly omits as a problematic subject that would have required “at least another chapter in the book” (x)—and India—which appears merely as a foil for interrogating the political focus on settler-colonies—are central rather than peripheral to the history of British political culture between 1880 and 1932. Construing India, between the foundation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 and the non-co-operation campaign of the early 1930s, as marginal to imperial politics simply as a result of the “new status attained by the Dominions” (34) is ultimately unsatisfying. This study would have benefited greatly from a more nuanced analysis of the political vocabulary surrounding the social and political status of peoples in...

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