Astrid Rasch
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Exemplar empires
Battles over imperial memory in contemporary Britain
in British culture after empire
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This chapter explores the heated debate over the memory of the British Empire through an examination of the public interventions by scholars Nigel Biggar and Niall Ferguson and their critics. On either side of the debate, scholars agree that the colonial past is too complex to be reduced to a simple question of for or against. To begin to understand why the debate is nevertheless so fierce, this chapter studies it as a case of disagreement over ‘exemplar empires’. The chapter argues that contemporary British memory culture is marked by a singularisation of the imperial past. Here, the Empire is summed up in a few emblematic images and episodes that are seen as representative of the whole. This gives rise to disagreement over which exemplars are the most appropriate, how they should be judged and a fear that one account will crowd out the other. The chapter explores how Ferguson and Biggar and their critics have discussed the British Empire often using similar rhetorical flourishes: accusing their opponents of reducing past complexities, disagreeing over how best to sum up empire, questioning each other’s moral evaluation of it and worrying that their version of the past will be forgotten.

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