Reflection on empire helps shape UK views on EU membership

London Letter: Exhibitions at two galleries are taking a look at how Britain views itself

The sumptuously restored European galleries at London's Victoria and Albert Museum offer a splendid showcase for more than 1,100 objects from the museum's 17th- and 18th-century collections. But as you walk through the seven rooms, past a giant Bernini statue of Neptune, a painting of the chateau of King Louis XIV's secret police chief, and a dinner service given to the Duke of Wellington by the people of Portugal, one great European nation is notably absent – Britain.

Britain has its own galleries on the floor above, but those too are filled with the work of continental European artists. The separation reflects nicely the way Britain has for centuries defined itself against Europe while at the same time remaining a European nation.

During a discussion at the museum last month, Dundee historian Felicia Gottmann described how the rise of the British empire encouraged Britain to regard itself as a place apart from the rest of Europe.

"If you look at Germany and France, they will define themselves against each other; at the same time they will define themselves together as Europe. So I think where the problem would start, or the alternative narrative lies – and that's very much the kind of Ukip narrative you have now – that what makes Britain or England rather different is that there is a way out of the binary, and that way out is empire," she said.


“Now if you have that narrative, then suddenly the channel becomes vast, because you don’t need Europe anymore for your self-definition because you’re special and you’re different and you can break out of the binary. And that is why you have the Britain galleries, quite possibly, separate from the Europe galleries, because suddenly Britain isn’t part of Europe anymore.

“And I think if we want to understand the relationship between Britain and Europe, we have to look at this crucial period in the 18th century, in which Britain suddenly breaks out and defines itself differently.”

Artist and empire

A couple of miles away, Tate Britain has mounted the first major exhibition of art made in response to the British empire for over a century.

"Artist and Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past" does not celebrate the empire, even if it includes paintings such as Edward Armitage's Retribution, painted after the 1857 Indian rebellion, which shows Britannia slaying a tiger that has attacked a white woman and her child.

Instead, the exhibition is an eloquent exploration of the complexity and ambiguity of Britain’s relationship with its empire and the peoples it colonised.

This is most evident in what the curators call “trans-cultural cross-dressing” in works such as Augustus John’s portrait of TE Lawrence in Arab dress, and others showing colonisers adopting the dress of their subject peoples, while the colonised adopted or modified western dress.

The empire and its shadow, the commonwealth, continue to exercise a strong pull on the British imagination, as can be seen in the extraordinary success of commonwealth writers, both critically and commercially. When Britain looks towards the commonwealth, it often sees a flattering reflection, not least because immigration from the former empire has produced a remarkably successful multicultural society by European standards.

When it considers its membership of the European Union, one avidly pro-European former cabinet minister told me recently, Britain can see defeat, "an acknowledgement that we are no longer able to go it alone".

Better alternative

In the current referendum campaign, the more romantic advocates of leaving the EU look to the former empire as a better alternative to Europe, a diverse, global community with Britain at its centre. It is a sentiment first articulated as long ago as 1952 by

Anthony Eden

in a speech at New York’s

Columbia University


"If you drive a nation to adopt procedures which run counter to its instincts, you weaken and may destroy the motive force of its action . . . You will realise I am speaking of the frequent suggestion that the United Kingdom should join a federation on the continent of Europe. This is something which we know, in our bones, we cannot do," he said.

“For Britain’s story and her interests lie far beyond the continent of Europe. Our thoughts move across the seas to the many communities in which our people play their part, in every corner of the world.

“These are our family ties. That is our life: without it we should be no more than some millions of people living in an island off the coast of Europe, in which nobody wants to take any particular interest.”