The Faded Irony About UK Imperialism

Craig Murray recalls a time when Britain had decolonized almost entirely in a remarkably swift quarter century and the Last Night at the Proms seemed harmless. 

By Craig Murray

I came across this excellent heat map representation of a large opinion poll on support for the monarchy, sampling 22,000 people all across the U.K., taken in 2018 by focaldata.



Red tones indicate net disapproval of the monarchy and green tones indicate net approval. It is worth noting the quite astonishing, and detailed, degree of correlation with this heat map of the Brexit referendum. Annoyingly I cannot find the actual datasets for the focaldata survey.

Among other things, that rather puts to bed the notion of a significant left-wing Brexit vote. Brexit voters are indeed mostly highly traditional British Nationalists who love the Queen.

All of which underlines the obvious point that Scotland has a very different political culture to England. It also ought to cast some doubt on the triangulation methodology so favored by gradualists. I find that speaking to Scottish National Party (SNP) branches is no different from speaking to any other Yes group, in that abolition of the monarchy is overwhelmingly popular, and virtually nobody at meetings is a monarchist. I have never detected any generational difference in this.

Scottish Republicanism tends to link in with views on much more radical land reform, which is so desperately needed. A campaign for a Scottish Republic would have majority support.

Yet we are told that openly to advocate a Scottish Republic would alienate voters. No, it would not, most people would support, and you are not going to convert a great many diehard monarchists to independence anyway.

Foreign Policy

I strongly suspect that this extends to other areas, particularly foreign policy. I simply do not believe there is a large well of support in Scotland for U.K. neo-con foreign policy, nor that it is necessary to support U.K. foreign policy to maximize support for independence.

Neither Russia nor China is the enemy of the Scottish people. The problem is, that those with the finances to commission opinion polls have every interest in keeping support for such opinions hidden. I have always found the argument that people will only vote for independence if they think nothing will change rather amusing; if nothing will change, why vote for it?

Anyway, while on the subject of British nationalism, I have a unifying solution to the culture wars question of singing “Land of Hope and Glory” and “Rule Britannia” at the Proms.

A Promenade concert in the Royal Albert Hall, 2004. (MykReeve, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“Rule Britannia” has no musical virtues and in my view should never be sung or played anywhere; it is a horrible bit of doggerel laced with ugly baroque frills. “Land of Hope and Glory” however is sung to a genuinely great piece of music. The answer is perhaps something like this:

The truly wonderful Patrick Fyffe is no longer with us, but George Logan is and for £20 I’ll slip on a frock and do it myself.

In childhood we always watched the Last Night of the Proms with my mother, and enjoyed it greatly. In those days there was no doubt at all that the patriotic singing was taken with a huge dose of irony. Britain had decolonized almost entirely in a remarkably swift quarter century, and there was a presumption the process would be completed.

The state was properly social democratic; all utilities were in public ownership as were all the largest industries. All public provision really was provided by the state, not through profit making private agencies. You could not only go to university for nothing, you were paid to go. Post Suez Crisis, the idea the U.K. would ever invade anywhere else again seemed wildly improbable, and more importantly, nobody wanted to invade anywhere. 

There were still American dictated blights, like the Chagos Islands, but very few were conscious of it. Public discourse was left wing. TV had A J P Taylor, not David Starkey, and Bertrand Russell popped up regularly. The BBC showed Ken Loach and the play “The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil.”

In these circumstances, some singing of “Wider still and wider Shall thy bounds be set” seemed harmless, given that the exact opposite had plainly been in full train. The promenaders were determinedly silly. One year there was a large banner saying “Eat prunes they make you go,” which we children thought hilarious and became a joke in our house.

Unreconstructed Revival of ‘Liberal Imperialism’ 

HMS Cardiff anchored outside Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, at the end of hostilities in 1982. (Griffiths911, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

I suppose that it was former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War that changed all that, and made British nationalism start to be sinister again, even though most of the promenaders themselves remained the same knowing skeptics.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair then took it to another level, with his promotion of “liberal interventionism,” the doctrine that bombing BAME people (black, Asian and minority ethnic) is good for them. That was and is a direct and unreconstructed revival of “liberal imperialism” of a kind that composer Edward Elgar would recognize and support.

Suddenly the Last Night of the Proms went down another notch in the irony scale and up another notch on the jingoism scale, as Blair started to invade countries left, right and center.

Now with Brexit, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage

 there seems to be a point of no return where British nationalism is too toxic to be adopted ironically. I am not sure the Last Night of the Proms will survive Scottish independence. Would they still mark the imperial nostalgia with the old butcher’s apron from imperial days? I think it is probably time, absent Patrick Fyffe, or me in a frock, to put this grand old lady to rest.

Craig Murray is an author, broadcaster and human rights activist. He was British ambassador to Uzbekistan from August 2002 to October 2004 and rector of the University of Dundee from 2007 to 2010.

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