Illustration by Sanne Boekel

The dangers of historical amnesia Colonialism’s impact on British identity
Virginia Stuart-Taylor // Colonial History

The United Kingdom is undergoing a national identity crisis, as demonstrated by two recent significant decisions on sovereignty: the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence and the 2016 referendum on European Union membership. While these referendums appear on the surface to provide a clear political answer to the question of British identity, the close nature of the results of these two referendums however depicts a highly divided situation in terms of Britain’s national identity.


One significant but often overlooked factor in the question about Britain’s national identity is historical: the impact of the former British Empire and its subsequent decolonisation. Scotland’s current Culture Secretary, Fiona Hyslop, recently said: ‘the UK has lost an Empire, and has not managed to decide who and what it is yet over the last few decades, and needs a new identity’.(1) A journalist also recently remarked: “Britain is wrestling with its identity, stuck between nostalgia for an Empire lost and an uncertain future”.(2)


This imperial nostalgia is a direct result of a trend of historical amnesia on the part of official government institutions, in whose official representations of Britain there are virtually no references to the Empire. An unofficial policy of conveniently forgetting, or deliberately excluding, shameful remnants of colonialism from the collective memory has shaped the way Britain views its past. This institutionalised selective memory fosters a misinformed pride in the Empire and affects the political mood in Britain even now, in the 21st century. However, the role of official institutions in crafting post-colonial narratives and national identity is rarely recognised and is therefore worthy of deeper scrutiny, as attested to by cultural anthropologist Aleida Assmann.


Assmann’s theory on collective memory details how nations and governments construct a national identity through selection and exclusion of historical events.  As a result, it is vital to question the norms and biasses involved in the selection of historical events and to consider the political consequences of such choices, in particular focusing on ‘forgotten episodes and shameful moments […] that society has decided are better forgotten’.(3) In the case of Britain, the elephant in the room is its imperial past.


Historical overview of British decolonisation

To better understand the journey towards the imperial nostalgia present in 21st century Britain, it is helpful to cast an eye back over the transition that Britain underwent during the post-World War II decolonisation period, which spans from Jordan in 1946 to Hong Kong in 1997.


After World War II, there was both a rise in anti-colonial nationalism inside the colonies themselves and simultaneously an increasing ‘disenchantment’ with the Empire felt by the population in Britain.(4) Despite a rise in patriotic sentiments inspired by Britain’s victory in World War II, in the 1950s and 1960s Britain declined in power and importance on the global stage, which was now dominated by the two Cold War superpowers, the US and the USSR. In an era where nuclear capability surpassed the power of a colonial empire, the Empire ceased to be such an indispensable asset for Britain. It thus shifted its strategic attention away from the colonies, and towards trade and investment with North America and Europe instead. In addition to Britain’s changing commercial focus, historian Nicholas J. White claims that an ‘ethical revolution’ took place after 1945, with many Britons starting to regard colonialism and the so-called ‘dirty wars’ in colonies such as Malaya and Kenya as ‘morally bankrupt’ and an ‘international embarrassment’, which further paved the way for an imperial withdrawal.(4)


Once the end-of-Empire process became an inevitable reality in the new bi-polar world order, Britain’s pragmatic decolonisation strategy in the 1950s and 1960s was to preserve its post-colonial influence

through a surrogate system for the former Empire: the Commonwealth. This proved a far more palatable solution in the eyes of the British population and the international community. However, in terms of trade and investment, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth did little to diminish the economic dependence of the former colonies on Britain, leading some to view it rather as a policy of ‘neo-

colonialism’, designed to continue the imperial vision under a more democratic and humanitarian guise.(4)


During the end-of-Empire period the British public’s attitudes transformed from embarrassment at the former Empire into patriotism for Britain’s new status as ‘primus inter pares’ (‘first among equals’) in the Commonwealth.(5) This transformation explains a root cause for: firstly, the absence of colonialism in contemporary British identity, due to historical embarrassment; and secondly, the continued pride that Britons attach to the Empire in opinion polls, due to the patriotism that swiftly replaced their feelings of embarrassment.(6)


The British Empire played an undeniably significant role in the world up to 1945, at one point covering 25% of the globe and also 25% of its population.(4)

However, its decolonisation occurred at a rapid pace, with the colonial population under British rule falling over one hundred times from 700 million in 1945 to just 5 million in 1965.(7,8) It is therefore understandable that this rapid and relatively recent end-of-Empire phenomenon, paired with Britain’s parallel decline in global status, would have had a sizeable impact on British identity formation.


Institutionalised historical amnesia

A number of official institutions engage in the promotion of a historical amnesia across 21st century Britain. They do this either actively, through

deliberate attempts to conceal and forget about the negative colonial past (e.g. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office), or passively, through the conspicuous absence and exclusion of references to colonialism (e.g. the BBC). By not addressing and correcting the continuing misinformation and under-education of the British public on the topic of the Empire, this trend of historical amnesia contributes to an underlying sensation of imperial nostalgia. This residual imperial nostalgia plays a role in the ongoing difficulty in distinguishing what the British identity really represents, leaving the population stuck in limbo between the country’s past glory and its uncertain future role in the world.


The Foreign and Commonwealth Office [Textbox 1]

There are examples in the 21st century of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) engaging in convenient historical amnesia and exclusion from the UK’s collective memory of certain less savoury aspects of its colonial past. This deliberate attempt to forget the past is evident in the case of the 2012-2013 release of colonial administrative documents, which had been hidden in a secret government archive at Hanslope Park. The existence of this so-called ‘migrated archive’ was repeatedly denied by the FCO until 2011, when it was used in a court case against the British government by a group of former Mau Mau detainees in Kenya, representing some of the 41,000 Kenyan claimants who had been subject to beatings and abuse.(9) One such note written in 1957 by the attorney general in Kenya even admits, ‘If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’.(10)


The admission from the FCO of this ‘migrated archive’ prompted a surge of academic research into the 20,000 newly released documents, and a conference on ‘The Hidden History of Decolonisation’ was held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS).(11) At this conference, ICWS Director Philip Murphy ‘raised the question of institutional memory in the Foreign Office, asking if it could possibly be so poor as to explain entire “lost” collections’ or whether it rather represented a ‘conspiracy’ to keep these documents away from public knowledge.(12) The link between the FCO’s supposed concealment of unsavoury evidence and the British identity formation process can be demonstrated by a statement from John Lonsdale at this same conference:


‘The release is provocative, moreover, for illuminating the difficulty the British public continues to have in coming to terms with this dark episode of its history and the manner in which events around the Mau Mau rebellion clash with the country’s post-imperial national image’.(12)


Looking specifically at the impact of this on British identity, it must be acknowledged that the structural violence imposed by the British administration in the colonies is widely unknown to the British public.(13) Little of the history of the British Empire is taught in schools, depicted in the media, or widely publicized by the UK government, which has led to an atmosphere of imperial nostalgia, in which 59% of Britons in 2014 felt proud of the Empire and only 19% felt ashamed.(6,14) Even more shockingly, 34% of Britons in 2014 would have liked it if Britain still had an Empire, such is the misunderstanding and lack of remorse felt by the British population even in the 21st century.(6) In this context, the actions of the FCO to conceal archives that contain embarrassing and contradictory evidence can be considered a direct contribution to the post-imperial national image, through the continuing misinformation and under-education of the British public about the injustices and structural violence inflicted under the British Empire.


The BBC [Textbox 2]

With such extensive global reach and the dominant audience share in the UK, the BBC today can be considered a significant public diplomacy actor in Britain’s soft power strategy and a prominent influence on British identity formation.(15,16) While colonialism is a much-studied field in the UK’s academic circles, little of this academic research is presented in an easily digestible format to the British public: not in school curriculums, nor in the UK’s heritage film industry, whose overwhelming focus on period dramas, World War I, and World War II, promotes a ‘fake nostalgia’.(17) Therefore, the BBC’s representation of the Empire to its UK audience is one of the principal sources of information and education on the Empire. A search of the BBC’s online archive, however, yields few results that focus on the Empire overseas. The only significant BBC programme since 2000 to deal with Britain’s imperial past is Empire, a five-part documentary series broadcast in 2012.(18) The series does paint an honest and critical picture of the colonial period, not nostalgic or sentimental, but it attracted criticism for being overly politically sensitive and a ‘wasted chance we need to take’ to acknowledge the darker sides of the Empire.(19) Unfortunately the Empire series stands as a lone example of such a documentary broadcast by the BBC in the 21st century. Theologian Robert Beckford explains this absence of media attention as follows:


‘Colonial history is not a popular subject for general inquiry partly because of what Professor Stuart Hall calls a selective historical amnesia at the heart of our national consciousness. […] British apprehension towards the colonial past (even the most well intended) is partly the result of an irrational fear of opening oneself to a history of shame’.(20)


It is understandable that this ‘selective historical amnesia’ in the media would contribute to distorting the narratives of British national identity. Regardless of the reasons for broadcasting so little on the subject of British colonialism – whether due topolitical sensitivity or embarrassment – by doing so, the BBC contributes to the knowledge gap that allows misinformed and uneducated imperial nostalgia to linger in Britain.



This trend of historical amnesia is visible in the FCO’s cover-up of unsavoury archives and the BBC’s omission of colonialism. This lack of critical references to the Empire in the collective memory has led to a misinformed and uneducated imperial nostalgia and pride, which is rarely portrayed by official bodies, discussed in the public sphere, or explicitly visible in another way, due to a sense of shame and embarrassment. However, a 2014 opinion poll demonstrates that even now this patriotic pride for the Empire, and the desire to still have an Empire, lingers in 59% and 34% of the population respectively. Sociologist Paul Gilroy defines this underlying nostalgia as a form of melancholia for the past, with the absence of references to the Empire signifying public denial of the dark episodes of Britain’s history.(21)


Gilroy likewise suggests that the national failure to come to terms with the end-of-Empire phenomenon and the country’s parallel decline in global status has left open a gap in the national identity, one that is yet to be filled. The resulting question is therefore, what could fill that gap in the national identity? One hypothesis worthy of further investigation might be the emergence of populist imperial rhetoric in the Brexit campaign surrounding the June 2016 EU referendum, which constituted a revelatory moment in Britain’s identity crisis.


The re-appearance of this imperial rhetoric in 21st century British politics demonstrates that the issue of colonialism has not lost its relevance, even several decades after decolonisation. The British Empire continues to impact and hinder national identity formation in Britain and remains an important, but under-addressed, aspect of British society today.

Textbox 1:

The British Broadcasting Corporation: The BBC came into existence as a public service broadcasting organisation in 1922 around the time of the Empire’s greatest territorial extent. Now reaching a global audience of 348 million people per week, it is government-owned and funded primarily through a television license fee paid by UK taxpayers.(23)

Among the six public purposes set out in its Royal Charter, the BBC commits to ‘promote education and learning’, ‘build a global understanding of international issues’, and ‘broaden UK audiences’ experience of different cultures’(24)


Textbox 2:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office: The FCO is the UK government’s foremost ministerial department for the promotion of its national interests overseas. Its origins date back to 1772 and lie in two separate offices: the latter of which was formerly called the Colonial Office until 1966, when it evolved into the Commonwealth Office, before its merger two years later in 1968 into the FCO department that still exists today. While the FCO’s name does reference the Commonwealth, this is merely a historical remnant. Nowadays the FCO is in fact an entirely separate body from the Commonwealth Secretariat, the principal intergovernmental agency that runs the Commonwealth association of 52 member countries (50 of which were once British colonies) that together represent 2.2 billion people, a third of the world’s population.(22)




1. Vincenti, Daniela. Scottish minister: UK in post-Empire mode needs to find a new identity. EurActiv. Last modified October 17, 2016.


2. “Britain’s identity crisis: It’s stuck between nostalgia and an uncertain future.” Hindustan Times. Last modified June 21, 2016.


3. Assmann, Aleida. 2008. Transformations between history and memory. Social Research 75, no. 1 : 49-72.


4. White, Nicholas J. 2014. Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945. London: Routledge.


5. Darwin, John. 1991. The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate. Oxford: Blackwell.


6. Dahlgreen, Will. “The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’.” YouGov. Last modified July 26, 2014.


7. Louis, William Roger. 1999. The Dissolution of the British Empire. In The Oxford History of the British Empire: the Twentieth Century, edited by Judith Brown and William Roger Louis, 329-356. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


8. “Overview of the UK population: February 2016.” Office for National Statistics. Last modified February 26, 2016.


9. Anderson, David M. 2011. Mau Mau in the High Court and the ‘Lost’ British Empire Archives: Colonial Conspiracy or Bureaucratic Bungle? The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 39, no. 5 : 699-716.


10. Cobain, Ian, and Richard Norton-Taylor. “Sins of colonialists lay concealed for decades in secret archive.” The Guardian. Last modified April 18, 2012.


11. “The Hidden History of Decolonization: What do the ‘migrated archives’ reveal about British withdrawal from Empire?” Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Accessed on December 2, 2016.


12. Moffat, Chris. “Exploring the ‘Hidden Histories’ of Decolonization at the ICWS.” Institute of Commonwealth Studies. Last modified February 27, 2015.


13. Galtung, Johan. 1969. Violence, Peace and Peace Research. Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3: 167-191.


14. Jeffries, Stuart. “The Best Exotic Nostalgia Boom: Why Colonial Style Is Back.” The Guardian. Last modified March 19, 2015.


15. “BBC television, radio and online services: An assessment of market impact and distinctiveness.” UK Government. Accessed on February 2, 2017.


16. Nye, Joseph. 2004. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. New York: Public Affairs.


17. Loughrey, Claire. “Ken Loach criticises British TV’s reliance on ‘fake nostalgia’ of period drama.” Independent. Last modified October 18, 2016.


18. Empire. Documentary. Written and presented by Jeremy Paxman. BBC. 27 February – 26 March 2012.


19. White, Michael. “Jeremy Paxman’s Empire: a wasted chance we need to take.” The Guardian. Last modified February 28, 2012.


20. Beckford, Robert. “Colonial history is British history.” BBC News. Last modified August 3, 2002.


21. Gilroy, Paul. 2004. After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London: Routledge.


22. “Fast Facts on the Commonwealth.” The Commonwealth. Accessed on December 2, 2016.


23. Morgan, Charlotte, and Kayley Rogers. “BBC World Service announces biggest expansion since 1940s.” BBC Media Centre. Last modified November 16, 2016.


24. “Inside the BBC: Public Purposes.” BBC. Accessed on February 2, 2017.



Issue 9 / October 2017 / ISSN 2214-6083

Edition: 500 copies


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