'We're All Living Through Their Civil War': An Interview with Peter Mitchell

Talking to the author of Imperial Nostalgia about the complex British relationship to class, culture war diversions, and toppling statues.

December 9, 2021

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice an...

Shortly after local activists sent a statue of slaver-merchant Edward Colston tumbling into Bristol Harbour on June 7, 2020, The Daily Telegraph interviewed Nigel Biggar, a monkish conservative and theology professor at Oxford’s Christ Church College, who complained: “It’s not fashionable to stand up for the British Empire.” Biggar has spent the past few years doing precisely that, with a speciality in apologetics for the diamond magnate and Napoleonic megalomaniac Cecil Rhodes; his statue still looms above Oxford’s High Street, a tribute to the machinations that warped southern Africa. Peter Mitchell’s new book, Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves (Manchester University Press), critiques this reactionary vogue, moving from right-wing fury against seditious university students to the literary-political construction of the “imperial wonder boy,” always naively worldly, born to rule over some distant undetermined land.

Mitchell excavates the battlefield beneath today’s culture warriors, showing how Oxford itself became a storehouse of colonial knowledge, and how imperial historiography was created by obscure Victorians like George Birdwood, an expert on Indian handicrafts who nonetheless declared the subcontinent was incapable of high art. (“[A] boiled suet pudding would serve equally well as a symbol of passionless purity and serenity of soul,” he dismissed one Buddha statue at the time.) How to unravel these faerie glamours, to disenchant their dream-castles? “Nostalgism’s political trajectory is apocalyptic,” Mitchell writes. “It tends towards mythical return, purgative violence and fantasies of a transcendently renewed state: Odysseus’s massacre of the suitors on a grand scale.”

Chris Randle: Can you talk about the whole project that inspired this book?

Peter Mitchell: What interested me was, as I think I say at the beginning of the book, I was working on a project about the British Empire, kind of on the way to becoming a historian of the British Empire, in 2016 when the Brexit referendum happened. And I think the Brexit referendum is a symptom rather a cause of anything, but I was feeling that it's only really new to comfortable white people that certain violences are continual, are terrifying—I was well aware by 2016 that there was a new reactionary wave in what I guess we have to call the West, and the role of imperial history and the imperial imaginary within that, especially in Britain and in England, really concerned me. I never really became an academic, but in my PhD I had worked on the empire's own creation of a mythical past, the way empire itself rehearsed certain historical scripts.

I'm fascinated by the twin tracks of research in the book, where you're simultaneously looking at the historiography of imperialism alongside these present-day reactionary bleatings. What was your whole process like with that?

I'm not sure that it actually worked that well, but one intervention I wanted to make, and the one intervention that I think should be made more forcefully, is that the past also has a past. Reactionary movements tend to produce pasts as stable entities, without violent and odd and conflicted relationships with themselves or with the past that they themselves have to deal with and negotiate. The tropes that come up in public discourse about the Empire include stuff like, "No one would've had these kinds of opinions back then." And you're like, well, which back then is this? You assume a historical time outside time, in which certain things just weren't in contention, when people knew where they fit in.

And of course that's the whole structure of nostalgia, that the past is a place in which you would have known who you were, and you would've known who everyone else was, and in reality no one ever has. I thought that was important, a really basic point that people other than me probably made more interestingly once, but an important thing for people to reckon with in approaching how the culture war relates to history, so they're not seduced by reaction. To understand that the past has always been contingent, that there's no actual, empirically verifiable past to which one adds politics as a kind of overlay.

Approaching this stuff now, you could say, "That's nostalgia," the connotation being that nostalgia never existed until now, as if there wasn't this way of relating to the past until now. So during the pandemic here when we had our absolutely demented mass nostalgization of VE Day, it was like, why are we so weird about this, people weren't so weird back then. People were weird about the past in 1945. People were really weird about the past in 1945 [laughs]. And in 1875. And when Cecil Rhodes was alive. Cecil Rhodes was a fucking lunatic about the past! The imperial nostalgists and apologists of today would be knocked into a cocked hat by how insane Cecil Rhodes was about the past.

I was familiar with the whole idea of the invention of tradition, partly from that Tom Nairn book [The Enchanted Glass] about the monarchy, where he mentions how many supposedly ancient royal traditions were invented by the Windsors to seal their legitimacy. But you delve into figures I'd never heard of, like George Birdwood, or the absurdly named Francis Younghusband, who anticipated Boris Johnson: "Oh dear, I seem to have blundered into invading Tibet and ransacking all of their treasures."

And interestingly, because of this particular cultural moment, [Younghusband] later becomes a racially charged kind of syncretist "Eastern mystic." He gets really into symbologies and how Man will attain the Godhead. There's actually a mistake in the book, where I'm writing later about Sandy Arbuthnot, the hero of various John Buchan thrillers, saying he's always meeting his adversary in a high mountain pass and gazing into his eyes and finding the measure of the man. That's not fiction—I had that mixed up with Younghusband in real life. He met his Russian counterpart in a tent and they drank loads of vodka and sized each other up.

I was wondering, as somebody who's gone through a ton of this stuff now, how much of the historiography of empire is still informed by these people? Obviously there's been a big counter-movement over decades, but...

I'm not totally confident answering that because I’m not a professional imperial historian; there's far better people to ask. But, as it should be, this is a really fertile time for imperial history as it's practiced here and in the U.S. and elsewhere. The scale of the work being done is really impressive. Obviously the historical profession has its own problems of entry qualifications and social makeup, which aren't being helped by certain structural issues in higher education, but history seems to be doing pretty well. There's all this stuff generating noise and energy—I think it's an exciting time to be an imperial historian in a university at the minute. And I think we have to remember that out of the loudest voices in the profession who're doing imperial apologetics, very few of them are really professional historians anymore. They're just not in the game. Niall Ferguson long ago gave up being a historian to become a kind of jester in the court of the powerful.

[laughing as a cat named George saunters over to the laptop]

That cat's massive.

One of the points you make is that the British Empire never really had mass popularity behind it—I thought of Joseph Chamberlain's "Imperial Preference" scheme, which is so fantastically obscure now. It was sort of Chamberlain's attempt to resolve the inherent tensions between cosmopolitan capitalism and jingoistic nationalism. And it just didn't work. It flew apart. In one of Stuart Hall's essays about Thatcherism he talks about how she translated this arcane, freakishly niche ideology into a popular idiom that spoke to people. How do you see the ideas and images of empire being used in that way today?

Well, that's the whole book really, isn't it [laughs].

Maybe to be more specific, do you see any cases of that breaking down? In the book you mention British working-class support for the Morant Bay rebellion, and something like the toppling of Edward Colston's statue feels reminiscent of that.

It's hard to say because what I'm writing about, or writing against, is a very few writers for certain newspapers and a very few members of the Conservative Party. I'm writing against an attempt by an elite to create a structure of feeling out of a variety of—obviously they'd like to hope it's already there for them to conjure up, but it's not, people's natural relationship with the past is far more mysterious and inchoate than we think. And the only way to point out what it is, especially in a country where access to the means of representation and argumentation is as unequally distributed as this one, is to float a proposition and see whether people rise to it.

I've just been reading a cover article from The Spectator a couple weeks ago about how the National Trust has lost the nation's trust. And it's just absolutely fucking bonkers. But the idea is, can I make your property-owning granddad angry enough by telling him that the National Trust has been taken over by Black Marxist revolutionaries who want to murder him for being white? The only way to find out if you can do that is to do it. And to some extent it works and to some extent it doesn't. The question is, is it enough to keep him voting Conservative until he dies?

Is there some way you can convey the operations of British media to outsiders? In the U.S. there's Fox News, but only a small fraction of the country actually watches that. I guess it's a similar audience of older, white, propertied classes giving themselves black tar heroin.

We have a really, really complex relationship to class here. The map of class stratification between who reads The Times and The Daily Telegraph and who reads the Daily Mail and who below that reads The Sun and the Express is really complicated and really tiring to navigate—but all of these papers work together in advancing a reactionary agenda that takes a lot from the States. We’ve learnt a lot from the States, especially in terms of how to prosecute a culture war, since the Nixon revolution. But the other half of it we get from Central Europe, from the French Front National, from the AfD in Germany, from Orbán in Hungary and [Andrzej] Duda in Poland. I think we're increasingly seeing the influence of a European tradition of blood-and-soil nationalism. We're not settler colonists, we're the real thing, and I think the new New Right here, whatever you want to call it, is getting better at understanding that and consolidating those narratives.

How it works in terms of elections is that a lot of this media exists to keep the proportion of the country that votes and owns property voting for, if not for the Conservative Party, then voting against any redistributive politics. As is the case in the States as well, the demographic that's held the balance of electoral power since the Second World War is about to leave the stage ... There's no one central idea, a lot of this stuff is more chaotic than its creators would like to imagine, but the central thrust of it is to manufacture a politics of resentment, and to drive progressive and left-wing and class-based race and gender politics out of the acceptable mainstream. And that worked, we saw it work with Jeremy Corbyn.

I campaigned a lot in the 2019 general election, and the biggest divide wasn't between white and black or rich and poor, it was between people who owned property and people who didn't. People who owned property were like, "Oh, I've always voted Labour, but I just don't know, it's just, mm." It's like, something's clearly stuck here—there's a sense taken hold that something is just not quite right about these fairly unambitious social-democratic redistributionist politics.

And actually so much of the libeling of Corbyn preyed on his anti-colonial politics. I feel like he didn't even talk about Palestine that much after becoming leader, but there was also his IRA sympathies, or like, "look at the Old Fool publicly caring about the Chagos Islanders again."

Venezuela came up every day of the election cycle. Up here in Newcastle, local Conservative candidates were saying, “The Labour candidate will turn Newcastle East into Venezuela-on-Tyne” [laughs]. Corbyn’s association with Diane Abbott, the fact that they used to go out with each other... that stuff about how he went to Jamaica and came back as an anti-colonialist. He went native in the wrong way, which I think has power especially because he's from a privileged class of English boy, and he went to a private school. That kind of acculturation is supposed to be a prophylactic against the seductions of the colony. Half of the drama of the colonial mission arises from when those boundaries fail to be policed.

With the British media I also think of that combination of prurience and moralism, like, simultaneously nursing this Epstein-like obsession with teenage girls and raving about "gender ideology."

This is something I've noticed a bit about universities. Someone on Twitter the other day was like, "The press has a hell of a weird interest in what happens in student common rooms." They like to put the gendered and often not-white bodies of the students on the front pages of their papers, scour people’s social media for pictures of them looking particularly nubile, make you hate students but want to shag them too. I mean, the trans thing is obviously incredibly prurient—these people are completely obsessed with people’s undercarriages. Really odd. Maybe that is more of an English thing, what with our humour that's constantly in the toilet. On the cliffs at the end of my street someone has carved an enormous pictograph of a cock—you know, with a big bulbous end et cetera—out of the living rock. We’re not necessarily any more insane than other cultures, but the precise lineaments of our insanity are, uh, interesting.

That dovetails with your chapter about the essential boyishness of the imperial adventurer—to me the phrase "the Great Game" is so revealing of that, an endless series of intrigues and skirmishes and mini-invasions that killed many thousands of actual people, but to the occupiers it was all a jape. I forget who said this, it was some leftist academic type, but they had a tweet about how the main theme of 21st-century politics is impunity. Obviously there's Boris Johnson, where he can do almost anything and then skate away, because of his class affect—

There was that amazing moment during the election campaign where the other party leaders got interviewed, they'd all agreed to it, and then they were like, "So, now it's Boris Johnson's turn." And he just went, no, fuck you, I don't care, I'm Boris Johnson, I’m not doing it. I think that's right about impunity. And so much of that imperial-wonder-boy stuff is bound up with a kind of fetishized fragility. I've just been reading Time's Monster by Priya Satia, about the different stages and cultures of British imperialism and their own histories, and it's fantastic. She writes about Lawrence of Arabia, where he's such a fragile little boy even when he's doing a massacre. He's so sad after he murders a guy that they have to lift him up into his camel's saddle, he's just too weak to do it himself. He's having an attack of the vapours because of all the people he’s killed. But the fragility is a function of the impunity, in a way: he gets to dispense violence, be feted for how daring it was, how sensitive, how beautifully described in the most delicate prose, and then he goes home and gets killed much later in a mysterious accident, because someone that magical can only die by intrigue or suicide.

"If you'd been any prettier, they would've called it Florence of Arabia," Noel Coward said to Peter O'Toole after the film came out. One of the other themes of that chapter in your book is the winnowing of that whole class or sub-class, like, Rory Stewart is out of a job now. Jacob Rees-Mogg is obviously an important figure in the Conservative Party, but even now I can't imagine him ever becoming leader.

He's useful for his role, which is to model a certain affect, a certain kind of political theatre that he provides. And I think the Tories are getting better at using him for that. Whether he's conscious of it is another question. And I'm sure Rory Stewart will be around for the rest of our natural lives. One of the things I always want to say about culture-war stuff is that single interventions, single figures, are diversions in a way from the main thing being communicated. Take that Nigel Biggar guy that I spend a chapter on. He's not interesting, nothing he says is interesting, none of the debates he engages in are really worth engaging in. It's what he channels, the larger structure of feeling that he enables you to access, that's important.

So, you know, there'll be plenty more Rory Stewarts; there are thousands in waiting. Rees-Mogg is useful because he's such an oddity, but you could make a version of him out of pipe cleaners and plonk it in the House of Commons and have it occasionally squawk a few words of Latin and it would have the same effect. And Boris Johnson, he's very happy to draw on these tropes, these structures of feeling. What I find amazing about him is the way his appetites continue to grow. That Billy Bunter thing where he's always snaffling the pie from the window ledge. It just gets bigger and bigger with him, it doesn't seem to stop. The more you put in front of him the more he eats, and he'll eat until he bursts. He just can't have enough, and he doesn't know why he wants it. It's a Homer Simpson thing, and it's impossible not to kind of love, like having a stupid dog. Unfortunately your stupid dog is also an authoritarian who would happily see you dead if you can’t supply his needs.

I think that's why there's these perpetual intrigues to get rid of him. Maybe not right now, since the Labour Party is being fully Pasokified, but there's this sense that he's just too slippery, a little bit too much of a libertine, not really the ideal figure to usher in managed democracy.

Yeah, he doesn't work hard enough. I'm not really a political commentator, but I don't think we should ever underestimate the extent to which the Conservative Party is a riven organization, and what this country has been living through for the past five or ten years isn't so much a crisis of political democracy as a crisis of the Conservative Party. We're all living through their civil war. But it's a fascinating organization, because we have a hereditary ruling class and that ruling class has a party that's spent the balance of the past century in power. And that makes for a very odd kind of democracy, and an absolutely bonkers culture given that the ruling class also pretty much oversees that culture.

Yeah, like, I believe the UK is still the most regionally unequal nation in western Europe.

Yep. And you can see that in Rory Stewart, when he talks about his travels, and the way that for him the field of the regional isn't really that far away from the field of the colonial. Is he in a working men’s club in Easington or is he at a wedding in Kandahar? Who knows? What’s the difference? It's all territory to be mapped and conquered.

There's that Victorian ethnography you dig up, which was written like a Quillette article or something. It's talking about the "negresence" of northerners and the Irish.

Yeah, exactly. I worry that I’m stretching a thesis a bit, and being a bit too deterministic about how the colonial gaze gets turned on Britain's fringes, which are also its "heartlands," when that’s convenient. But it does, you know? Beyond anything else, it’s easily mapped out in the sense that some people exist to act and some people exist to be acted upon. And people especially in the North exist to be acted upon, in much the same way that people on the colonial periphery did. It's different, of course, because we have the privilege of whiteness, but as I say in that chapter, some whitenesses are more provisional than others, and sometimes our whiteness is extremely useful for underwriting the white supremacy of people who'd rather not say it with their whole chest. That's one of the things that's annoyed me more than anything else in politics over the past few years: whenever someone in London wants to say something racist or transphobic, they'll invent an imaginary working-class friend from where I'm from.

What was that one reactionary-safari piece in The Guardian? With the artisanal pizzeria owner who was also a landlord?

Oh, the pizza guy! He was a landlord business owner, but his opinions were properly working class because they were reactionary! I adored him. I think there's limits to how useful these anecdotes are, but I spent election day 2019 in Stockton South, which we lost, under the Labour MP who got parachuted into Hartlepool a few weeks ago and had his arse handed to him [laughs]. And in Stockton South there's loads of people who've been driven mad by the Daily Mail and they're nuts and they're racist, but also loads of people who Labour traditionally didn't really think about—they’d count on having their votes but keep it on the down-low, or assume they wouldn’t vote at all—who were absolutely red-hot for Corbyn.

It was when I went round the estates, kind of out-of-town, not a lot of amenities, but they're for people who own property, and they want to own a nice house that has some Doric pillars on the porch and enough space for two cars and a garage. And everyone who answered the door there wanted me to know that they've always voted Labour until now. This is obviously part of the reactionary script in this country, everyone's always voted Labour until this one point where they've gone too far, which is now. They've probably been saying that for 30 years. But these guys were serious about their working-class identity, and I'm not going to question that.

And they weren’t wrong to look at me in the certain way that you look at some dickhead who grew up with books in the house and went to university down south, because I am that dickhead and I did go down south. They were basically telling me that they couldn't possibly, as working-class people, as people who knew what's what, they couldn't possibly support this kind of stuff, it might be all right for the likes of me. I kind of wanted to say, "I made 12 grand last year and I live in a room where I can't stand up straight in London. You live in a house with Doric pillars on the front porch."

One of your favourite phrases in this book is "the imaginary," which I like a lot as well. Do you see a counter-imaginary happening at all, against these zombies of empire?

This is one particular historical imaginary that's been activated, and to some extent conjured and created, by reactionary politics. But there's absolutely shitloads of counter-imaginaries, it's one of a whole galaxy of them in this country. All historical imaginaries are nostalgic to an extent, but there's other nostalgias, like the welfare-state nostalgia we have, if you've seen Ken Loach's film The Spirit of '45. I find it dismaying, but a lot of Corbynism was based on, like: "Remember 1945 to '48, when we created the welfare state? That was great!" And the post-war utility aesthetic. Remember the war, but in a socialist way.

We have our mythologies about the International Brigades—it's not a hugely widespread mythology here, but if you know about the International Brigades in this country, it's likely that you think they were a good thing. I remember going to university and talking with someone who said, "Well, some people went to fight for Franco, and they were good chaps too," and just being absolutely horrified, because I'd never come across that before, because it was so unusual to hear someone speak about the Spanish Civil War in a way that didn’t come from the left. We have the whole British-leftist political imaginary going back to the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War, the Levellers and the Diggers and the Tolpuddle Martyrs.

So there's a leftist historical pantheon and heroic narrative, we have those traditions as well. I imagine there are emergent traditions from immigrant communities that I'm mostly not aware of. And a lot of our best art and writing over the past century has been about presenting counter-imaginaries like that. I was helping a mate the other day with an article about northern literature, and we ended up talking about Alasdair Gray, the Scottish writer. His whole project was to stake out another imaginary that would counter the imperial British one.

I've just watched a bunch of short films by Ayo Akingbade, which are all micro-histories of Black British people, both formally and politically radical. With cinema, like the Colston statue, I feel like there's a reason so many people were simultaneously horrified or galvanized by that, because it was such a dreamlike—this fact of the landscape just toppling into the water.

It was a really emotional moment over here. How much coverage did it get in the States?

It's hard to say, because so much of it happened via social media, and I never watch, like, cable news, but it was all over. People were joyously losing their minds here as well. I think there's an expectation, certainly on the part of people who pay for statues and have them commissioned, that they're not to be questioned. Even in Toronto where I'm from, there's this university called Ryerson, which is named after a Macaulay-like figure, Egerton Ryerson.

They just pulled him down, didn't they?

Yeah! He was one of the main architects of the residential school system, which is back in the news in Canada now after the discovery of these mass graves. Hundreds of children. So the university is gesturing towards changing its name, and meanwhile a bunch of people surreptitiously took his own statue and dumped it into Lake Ontario. The university was like, "Yeah, we're not going to replace it."

What sort of recent historiography or books or other interventions would you suggest for people to read if they wanted to delve further into this, the question of empire?

There's loads coming out right now—my book is in the middle of a huge splurge of stuff. It depends what it's for? The journalist Sathnam Sanghera, who's a really cool guy, he's written a book called Empireland for the general reader. It's kind of like, if your dad has been going on about mad students taking down statues, this is the book to give him. So it'll probably do more good than anyone else's book in the entire field, in terms of working against the ways reaction captures people, and meeting them where they are. Alex von Tunzelmann is publishing a really good book called Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made HistoryPriya Satia’s book that I mentioned before, Time’s Monster, basically does what my book just about barely attempts, but on a grand scale, and about a million times better than I ever could. Obviously anyone wanting to understand race and history in contemporary Britain has to read Paul Gilroy, and I’ve always loved Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History by Michel-Rolphe Trouillot. The Brutish Museums by Dan Hicks is really good, really emotional and challenging, and sort of visionary in how it approaches the museums issue. I was genuinely troubled by it, in good ways.

I really want to read that one, partly because it seems like the culture industry is such a redoubt of people who are—not unapologetic Nigel-Biggar-style imperialists, more like, "It's very bad that all these things happened, and we're going to sponsor a workshop or something, but please don't make us give back our looted treasures."

There's a book called White Innocence by Gloria Wekker, from the Netherlands, which is just about a perfect explication, albeit in a different national context, of what's at stake in all this. I think what's really important for people to read isn't so much about the empire—I mean, obviously we need to know more about it—but as I try to make clear in this book, most of the time it's not even about that, that's just the thing it's being hung on.

What we need, and this is something that comes down to the level of school curricula, is historiographical literacy, for people to understand how the past is used and what it's for. It's not just there being true, it's a political object that's always in contention. And for that there's classics like Raphael Samuel, like, everyone could do with reading Raphael Samuel. Patrick Wright is a writer who's still around, his book On Living in an Old Country is a selection of essays from the '80s, from the last moment like this under Thatcherism, the beginning of the heritage industry. He talks about how British history, Queen Elizabeth I and the Mary Rose, get mashed together into a lovely reactionary stew, with which to underwrite, in that case, a Hayekian neoliberal revolution that completely reconfigured society. Owen Hatherley’s book The Ministry of Nostalgia is really good, about the particular nostalgic fetish of austerity that took hold in the early 2010s. I wish all these books were more dated than they are, but there you go, they’re not, and whatever’s good in my own book I stole from them.

I think it's important to have examples of how to read things, because I'm not a proper historian, I'm not really a historiographer, I'm definitely not a theorist, but all my degrees are in English literature and the only thing I'm really useful for is being able to read a thing try to describe it. So this is a book not necessarily about empire, but about how to read things, how to think about the past.

Chris Randle is a writer from Toronto who has written for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, The Comics Journal, Social Text, the Village Voice and the Awl. Along with Carl Wilson and Margaux Williamson, he is one-third of the group blog Back to the World.