Imperial nostalgia is choking Britain

It’s a political imperative for the government but harms the economy, alienates swathes of the population, and closes down free expression.

As the country gears up to a much-deservedjubilee celebration, the Prime Minister has summoned spectres from the empire: promising to “bring back imperial measurements to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee”.

The Home Office also has suppressed a reportExposing the racism at the core of the imperial plan.

The benefit of Brexit was the return to imperial measurements. But the UK formally adopted the metric system in 1896 and EU law already permits imperial measurements.In reality, it’s about re-animating an imagined past – the clue is in the name. It represents a time in which the UK could claim to have established a standardised method of measuring the world.


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Ministers have been open in their desire for the days of empire. In the Prime Minister’ own words: “the problem [with the UK’s former colonies] is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.” Jacob Rees-Mogg authored an entire book devoted to “sentimental jingoism and empire nostalgia”.

This nostalgia is a political imperative for any government that is behind the polls. It was arguably the most influential government in its first two years of office. worst response to Covid-19The UK was the west’s worst-hit country, with the highest death rates and the steepest economic declines. It has spent much of its time trying to disavow a key part of its signature achievement – the Northern Ireland protocol – and defending itself against allegations of corruption and criminality. Ministers resort to fantasy when they are unable to find legitimacy through competence or popularity.

The British Empire and Britain at its head was ruled over by men who had wealth, status, and connections. The current government follows a similar path to power. Having failed every real-world test, they fall back on the imagined success of their generational predecessors, insisting that things are better when those in charge are “born to rule”.

This argument is only valid if people believe the past was better. Nostalgia is certainly popular amongst sections of today’s population and press. But the “age of empire” was one of unmitigated misery for most people. The colonial empire was built on the backs working-class people who died in colonial wars to improve the glory and wealth their social superiors. The colonies were governed in accordance with terror and tortureSlavery to Boer concentration camp, to the Amritsar Mau Mau and Croke park massacres (to name just a few), Indian and Irish famines as well as the destruction of Ventersburg and Briggs plan in Malaysia and the invasion of Tibet.

It’s no surprise, then, that the truth about empire is expunged. According to the Guardian“officials have repeatedly tried to suppress…” a Home Office historian’s report tracing the origins of the Windrush scandal to“30 years of racist immigration legislation designed to reduce the UK’s non-white population”. The report roots the background of the policy to empire, concluding “the British Empire depended on racist ideology in order to function”

The Home Office’s argues that publication would “inhibit discussions and the ability of ministers to take free and frank advice”. This is legally ambiguous. It relies upon a provision of Freedom of Information Act 2000 to protect confidential ministerial advice. If the Home Office claimed that the provision would work, it would render the Act inapplicable because all information held by government could be relevant to ministerial guidance. The report is likely to differ from the government approved history on race and empire and must be hidden. Charities that investigate the imperial origins and properties of their property have suffered a similar fate (the National Trust). referredTo the Charity Commission for doing this and the author of its Report subject to a barrage o attacks, including from the government and politicians), museums that remove or contextualise statues of colonists/slavers (threatened with funding cuts by the Culture Secretary), or teachers who fail to teach their students that invading a fifth of the world was a good thing.

Imperial nostalgia helps no one but those supposedly “born to rule”. At best, the Prime Minister’s promise to “bring back” imperial measurements will have no impact whatsoever (after all, they never left). However, if such measures become mandatory, it will be a significant obstacle to trade. The vast majority of the world uses metric measurements, while the United States uses an alternative form of imperial measurements. Before exports and imports can be sent out or in, they will need to be translated into an obscure (and often difficult-to-understand) series of measurements. This will add to the considerable regulatory burden of Brexit (ironically sold as a chance to “cut red tape”).

Meanwhile the government’s attempts to act like a “great power” on the world stage only serves to infuriate the UK’s allies. Attacking historians, and denying the racist legacy colonialism has left behind, stifles free expression and alienates large swathes. Unless we ditch the nostalgia, wise up, and address real problems in the real world, the UK’s best days will remain in an imagined past.


Sam Fowles is a lawyer and lecturer in law at St Edmund Hall University of Oxford. His book is Overruled: Confronting our Vanishing Democracy in 8 CasesYou can pre-order it. He tweets @SamFowles