Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Hobsbawm and freeing England from colonialism

Every now and then I read of the death of a public figure that touches me more than others. 

I was particularly sorry to learn that Eric Hobsbawm had died. He was an outstanding historian and a fine political thinker; in the course of a distinguished career he collected many honours, one of them that of becoming President of Birkbeck College where he taught and where, unbeknown to him, I also spent most of my student career.

It was at Birkbeck that I attended a public meeting which took the unusual form of an interview: Hobsbawm questioning (none too aggressively) Tony Benn.

Now Benn is someone I find it easy to disagree with. He has a way of adopting simplistic radical positions which maintain his reputation as the champion of the left of the Labour Party, without the slightest danger of ever being called on to put any of them into practice. Besides, I always remember his time as Energy Secretary when he caved in to commercial pressure from the US to introduce a new generation of highly questionable nuclear power stations.

Even so, in that interview Benn came out with one statement of great elegance and simplicity which, in my view, summarises a vital truth: ‘the last colony of the British Empire,’ he said, ‘will be England’.

It’s a thought that has come back to me many times down the years. For instance, when Maggie Thatcher won her first landslide victory on the back of the Falklands campaign. When she insisted on banning the voices, though not the words, of Sinn Fein leaders from British radio or television. When she reacted with undisguised contempt to the initiatives of other heads of government in the European Union. It all seemed to suggest that Britain was somehow a different kind of country, more powerful and influential than our continental partners.

And Benn had spoken of ‘England’, which was right too. In the other parts of the United Kingdom there seemed to be a greater readiness to accept that our imperial role was over and that we had to carve ourselves a new one, as a middling power, with a better chance of moulding world events as part of a bigger grouping such as the EU.

Then we had the election of Tony Blair and the first fully post-World War II generation took the helm. His government incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic legislation. It granted devolved powers to the other nations of the UK. It brought in a freedom of information act. Would he free the last colony from the thrall of British imperialism?

Next came Afghanistan and Iraq, and all that stuff about the special relationship with the US. Not that I think our relationship with the US isn’t special: it is. Unfortunately, the US relationship with us isn’t.

We were still trying to punch above our weight, still trying to be a world power.

Another country suffering from the illusion that it can indulge imperial pretensions is our closest neighbour, France. So it was interesting to be at a wedding on Saturday, in a tiny village in the Moselle department of Lorraine (and I stress that Lorraine, like Alsace, is in France not Germany). The town hall contained a little bouquet of French flags, a common sight in France and rather an attractive way of treating the national colours.

The traditional bouquet of French flags
In another niche there was another bouquet: 

A more surprising but heartening collection of European flags

European colours had been given equal prominence to those of France.

If the mayor of a village in deepest France can see that the country’s future lies with the other countries of the continent, then it seems to me that the distorting effects of an imperial tradition are gradually beginning to fade on that side of the Channel.

In England, however, as David Cameron rattles his sabre over Syria, we still have some way to go. On the other hand, that public meeting chaired by Eric Hobsbawm only took place just over three decades ago. England likes to make haste slowly. Who knows, in a few more decades it too may free itself of the imperial yoke.

In the meanwhile, I feel I owe a tribute to the man who helped open my eyes to the problem in the first place. His death has reminded me that I need to do what I can to contribute to the solution. Which is perhaps the best tribute I can pay him. 

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