21st century Britain: still the ’emancipated empire’?

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL December 29, 2021

There appears to be an element of self-righteousness about British foreign secretary Liz Truss’s declaration that Britain and like-minded countries should sign infrastructure and trade agreements with developing countries “so they’re not drawn into the orbit of authoritarian regimes”.

It sounds like Big Brother benevolence, a willing sacrifice by Britain and like-minded nations for the good of those less fortunate. Might it be the “emancipated empire” Mark II, to use Padraic Scanlan’s phrase from his recent Aeon piece?

Mr Scanlan, an assistant professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations and Human Resources at the University of Toronto, published his most recent book Slave Empire in 2020.

I haven’t read it but suspect it must build on the argument from Mr Scanlan’s Aeon piece. In it he argues that the emancipated empire – post-imperial Britain – is the one that ended its slave trade in 1807, abolished slavery in much of its far-flung territories in 1834 and subsequently touted its high-minded anti-slavery credentials as a template for the world. “But the empire that slavery made endured,” he writes, “antislavery affirmed Britain’s superior virtue in relationship to its empire.”

It bred a form of “contented patriotism”, one that anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce and his favourite poet William Cowper regarded, according to Mr Scanlan, as confirmation of “Britain’s special place in human and divine affairs”. Wilberforce, he writes, “assumed that Britain would hold the interests of freedpeople in trust during a long journey toward civilisation. What greater proof of advanced civilisation could a nation offer than opposition to slavery?” Both Wilberforce and Cowper, adds Mr Scanlan, regarded the antislavery movement as “evidence of British exceptionalism”. This notion would later be built upon by conservative Eurosceptics such as Oxford theologian Nigel Biggar to challenge post-imperial Britain.  Mr Scanlan quotes a recent essay by Mr Biggar: “Between the slave-trade and slavery of the 18th century and the present, lies 150 years of imperial penance.” Along with the penance, the  noted the “gifts” of empire – English, railroads, parliaments, property rights. It was, says Mr Scanlan, “a mawkish pageant of the pith helmet, the Bible and the flag. Antislavery, from this point of view, symbolises Britain’s moral awakening and special destiny, first and greatest among the European empires.”

If all of the above sounds like we’ve come a long way from foreign secretary Liz Truss and her sanctimonious belief in Britain joining with developing countries for their own good, we haven’t. We’re still in the same place. The point at which British exceptionalism meets the world and changes it for the better.

In her first big speech as foreign secretary, Ms Truss suggested that those who obsess over British history are not patriotic enough. Rather than embracing the future, she said, they were bent upon examining the past, a sequence of events that are detrimental to Britain.

History, she seemed to be saying, is best looked at once we’ve finished with the future!

That’s how the emancipated empire lives on.