Rory Stewart and the fantasy of innocence
Peter Mitchell

This chapter focuses on the imperial history of British ruling-class masculinities and codes of behaviours. Focusing initially on the Conservative writer and politician Rory Stewart, it proposes the category of the ‘imperial wonder boy’ – the archetype of the soldier-scholar-adventurer-administrator that runs through imperial culture from explorers and scholars such as Richard Burton through to their inheritors in Stewart and other figures of the post-2010 Conservative Party. Tracing the myth of the imperial wonder boy from his origins in the likes of Burton, and through the intimate collaboration between adventure fiction, memoirs that produced the adventure fiction of John Buchan, the writings of T.E. Lawrence and the lives and self-mythologisation of later figures such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, it argues that the rich imaginaries of this mythology still structure the public performance of the British ruling class and undergird its persistent appeal to an idea of innocence, exception and good intentions.

in Imperial nostalgia
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Nostalgic time and the revolt against mourning
Peter Mitchell

Beginning with a close reading of a controversy surrounding the erasure of a mural of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If …’ at Manchester University in 2018, this chapter explores the concept of nostalgia, its relation to mourning and melancholia, and its political valences. Taking its cue from Svetlana Boym’s writing of nostalgia, it follows through how affective reactions to loss can be redirected towards potentially eliminationist political conclusions. Touching on the memory of the Second World War and the COVID-19 crisis, it proposes an understanding of how nostalgia works by making mythical histories coexist imaginatively with the present.

in Imperial nostalgia
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Escaping the empire
Peter Mitchell

This chapter recapitulates the book’s main intervention: imperial nostalgia as a structuring element of national life, culture and politics, and as the connective tissue between popular understandings of British history and reactionary politics. Adverting to John Everett Millais’ painting The Boyhood of Raleigh and its postcolonial refiguration in Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, it argues that the willed delusion of innocence, central to the imperial project, is just as central to our current relationship to empire and our failure to come to terms with our national history. Noting the immediate contexts of the book’s production amidst the ongoing crisis of liberal democracy and COVID-19, and the particularly charged circumstances of 2020–1, it suggests that a first step towards a healthier relationship with the past might be the promotion of historiographical literacy – a wider popular understanding of how history is written and how it is invoked or enlisted in the service of various politics.

in Imperial nostalgia
Empire and the languages of class
Peter Mitchell

This chapter examines the contemporary discourse of class and regionality within Britain, and traces its genealogy in nineteenth-century conceptions of the ‘respectable working class’ and the ‘residuum’, racial differentiation within Britain and Ireland, and colonial approaches to domestic others. Beginning with a discussion of the ‘Red Wall’ and the invocation of an inherently reactionary working-class and non-metropolitan voting bloc as the vanguard of nationalist populism, it examines the imperial entanglements of how class and region are construed in contemporary British politics and culture. Taking in the use of the colonial gaze in approaching the Irish diaspora and urban slums, the culture of Protestant evangelical philanthropy, and the imaginaries of racial threat, disgust and desire with which bourgeois culture and the popular press understood the urban scene in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this chapter draws these strands together in considering the hidden and not-so-hidden colonialities at play in present-day domestic politics.

in Imperial nostalgia
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How the British conquered themselves
Author: Peter Mitchell

This book studies the persistence of imperial memory, nostalgia and culture in contemporary Britain. Focusing on imperial nostalgia as a structure of feeling, it attempts to understand the role it plays in forming and articulating a politics of nationalist reaction, and how it has been mobilised by political actors in promoting emergent right-wing movements. Historicising nostalgia as an inherent part of imperial culture, it argues that the fantasies developed in late Victorian Britain in order to give ideological coherence to the imperial project are to a large extent the same fantasies at play in the current sovereigntist turn. Focusing on the events following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and controversies over freedom of speech and education, it traces how ongoing public debates over histories of slavery and colonialism are put to work within the ‘culture wars’; more broadly, it interrogates the imperial genealogies of contemporary approaches to class, gender, race, nationality and sovereignty.

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Peter Mitchell

The chapter argues that the UK’s vexed relationship to its colonial past is a long-running issue which has become more urgent in the current crisis of the post-Cold War liberal consensus, and more open in the intensifying culture wars of the past ten years. Contextualising the imperial nostalgia within a global reactionary turn, it lays out the book’s approach as an exercise in memory studies which approaches imperial nostalgia as a structure of feeling and a symbolic vocabulary in contemporary politics and culture.

in Imperial nostalgia
How nostalgia made an empire
Peter Mitchell

This chapter discusses the centrality of nostalgia, elegy and mourning to the high imperialist culture of the imperial core in the late nineteenth century. It explores the concept of ‘invented traditions’ and how collective/national pasts are constructed to meet political needs. The chapter argues that current UK imaginaries of empire and the imperial date largely to the period 1875–1914, and that that period based its own historical imaginaries on fundamentally nostalgic structures.

in Imperial nostalgia
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Britain’s imperial present
Peter Mitchell

Focusing mainly on the events of 2020 following the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol, this chapter traces how, in the immediate contemporary context, conflicts over imperial history and memory are mobilised within a broader cultural assault on liberal society and institutions. Studying examples such as the reaction to Colston (in parliament, in the press and on the streets), the campaign against the National Trust for investigating its properties’ links to slavery, the discourse surrounding immigration and asylum seekers, and the resurgence of imperial federationist politics in the rise of ‘CANZUK’ and the ‘Anglosphere’ as post-Brexit political aspirations, it argues that the entailments of empire and the politics of memory in approaching it work together in articulating violent defences of racial, gendered and cultural sovereignties.

in Imperial nostalgia
Empire, race and free speech in the battle for the university
Peter Mitchell

This chapter focuses on intersection of imperial nostalgism and the ‘free speech crisis’ in higher education in the UK over the past few years. Using as a case study Professor Nigel Biggar’s career as a notional free speech martyr, it situates the current right-wing discourse about university, empire and free speech within the longer history of the close relationship between the university (in this case Oxford) and the imperial power/knowledge complex, and argues that elite universities in particular are a significant part of our imaginaries of race, gender, nation and empire. Widening its scope to take in incidents such as the media campaign against Lola Olufemi for requesting curricular changes at Cambridge, academic ‘cancellations’ including those of Noah Carl and Jordan Peterson, and the formation of the ‘Free Speech Union’, this chapter argues that the defence of the university, for figures such as Biggar, is ultimately a defence of certain imaginaries of whiteness.

in Imperial nostalgia
Representations of anxiousness in personal and filmic accounts
Juliette Pattinson

Films such as Odette and Carve Her Name with Pride portray agents who engaged in clandestine war against the Nazi war machine as unflappable and psychologically strong. And yet both written and oral testimonies of SOE agents suggest that these are inaccurate depictions and that most agents were constantly plagued by self-doubt. This chapter explores the different types of accounts in order to examine the phenomenon of passing undertaken by SOE agents in the context of wartime France. The representations of agents in written, oral and filmic accounts portraying passing and fear are diverse and complex. Reminiscences about anxiousness indicate that passing takes a dialogic form: agents were conscious that their performances required external ratification in order to be successful and thus there was an incorporation of the other as well as resistance as they tried to subvert the readings of others.

in Behind Enemy Lines