Megan Ison is a PhD student funded by the ESRC South Coast Doctoral Training Partnership. Her research looks at Alsace and the politics of memory at the commemorative site of Oradour-sur-Glane, France.
Empires of the Mind:
A book that was supposed to stop Brexit
An Interview with Professor Robert Gildea
Is there any better way to cheer oneself up on a cold day in the depths of British winter, than with a trip to Oxford University to talk about Brexit? Quite frankly, I can think of many. This is because Brexit is as bleak a reality for us British Mug[gle]s as was the prospect of Lord Voldemort securing unmatched power in J.K. Rowling’s fictional world of Harry Potter. In fact, are you even British if visiting the Great Hall at Christ Church isn’t at the top of your list of sites to visit in Oxford? Indeed, Harry Potter is basically Britannica.
Well, I haven’t read Harry Potter, or even watched the films. Maybe the Home Office will take my passport away for not assimilating into British culture. The same government department that a few years ago senselessly denied that the Windrush generation truly belonged after 70 years of living in Britain. Someone one who is not afraid to make a bolder intervention against cultural imperialism than me, is Professor Robert Gildea.
Meeting him in his Worcester College office to chat about his new book ‘Empires of the Mind’ brightened my day in this dark period of British History. Professor Gildea gave a very honest and raw account about trying to write a book that was supposed to stop Brexit but failed to do so. The esteemed Oxford scholar also shared extremely relatable stories about the dismay he felt after negative peer reviews. Empires of the Mind is a book in which Professor Gildea offers new reflections on national identity that could be a turning point for the future of cultural historiography, that no one has properly listened to yet.
Meg Ison: Let’s start from the beginning. What inspired you to write Empires of the Mind?
Robert Gildea: This work started off as something called the Wiles Lecture Series at Queens University Belfast, which I gave in 2013. I had spent the year 2011/2012 in Paris researching and writing up the book that became Fighters in the Shadows. But before I went to Paris, I’d been invited to give these lectures and I thought, what can I do that comes off the back of Fighters in the Shadows, but is something different? In Fighters in the Shadow’s there’s a chapter called the Hinge: North Africa. This is a chapter about how France was liberated from North Africa and then France tried to prevent Algerians from liberating themselves. So, I think I became interested in the colonial dimension of French history and this seemed to join up with another interest, which was the fact that in France and in Britain the colonial question goes on in the metropole. For example, I became interested in a group called Indigènes de la République, made up of people who said they were French but felt like Indigène because they were excluded, and their story was not listened to. So, I gave four lectures that followed the Liberation to the Algerian War, and ended up with Indigènes de la République, and how this is all playing out in the metropolis.
Meg Ison: How did you translate these ideas into a publication?
Robert Gildea: You are supposed to write up these lectures as a book. And I just thought are the French a special case? Or should I be thinking about Britain as well? One of the paradoxes of teaching at Oxford is that you’re either an historian of Britain, or you’re a historian of everything else. And then it occurred to me that I could write something that wove the French and the British case together, that dealt with decolonisation, and how they dealt with immigration. Fighters in the shadows came out in 2015, so I then started more work on this project. But then Brexit happened. And I became interested in what is the relationship between what is currently called colonial nostalgia and Brexit: whether a sense of regret that we no longer have an empire, or a certain attitude we have to foreigners, is built on ideas of colonial superiority, which equates in our ignorance? Can we derive some sort of template from Empire to explain Brexit?
Meg Ison: Was it an easy book to write?
Robert Gildea: The French didn’t have Brexit. But one of the events that again happened when I was writing was the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in 2015. It became clear to me you could only understand these massacres through the lens of colonial oppression and a kind of Islamist blowback. So, it was a book that took a long time to write and went through many phases. One stage was in 2017. Our faculty had a provision called ‘the dissertation workshop’, normally for Early Career Researchers. You invite colleagues to critique a first draft of your book, so you can improve it. I invited people who were mainly colonial and imperial historians and we had a workshop – they were unbelievably savage about the book. With good reason. One of them said: why are you starting this book in 1940? I said well all my books start in 1940. They said it’s like starting Hamlet in act three- you have to go back to the beginning. So, I did a first chapter as a kind of introduction chapter on colonialism and imperialism in France and Britain, and the second chapter became about Two World Wars and the interwar period, instead of being just about World War Two, and then it went on. I suppose it’s a book in which the first chapters move quite quickly and cover a lot of ground, then as you get more recent, there’s a bit more space. I expected this book to have some kind of effect. But it has had no effect whatsoever. Absolutely not. It’s had about two reviews, one in the London Review of Books which was incredibly savage. It did have a review in the TLS, but I learnt that was only because a colleague of mine lobbied for it. I’ve been invited to speak at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies soon. The director, Phillip Murphy has written a book I like a lot called The Empire’s New Clothes. He thought his book would make a difference too. But it didn’t.
Meg Ison: What difference did you want to make?
Robert Gildea: I wanted to stop Brexit!! This book was supposed to stop Brexit. That is how mad and delusional I was.
Meg Ison: Do you think in writing a book published by Cambridge University Press you were talking to the wrong people?
Robert Gildea: I wanted to go with an academic press because this is quite controversial and I wanted to cover myself against people who said it’s not proper history, it’s just polemic. Maybe people just don’t like it. I wrote a piece for something called the Oxford Historian which is aimed at alumni who studied history at Oxford, and I got a quite nasty email a couple of days ago from someone saying that I was prejudiced, that I didn’t understand Brexiters, and that I wasn’t being an objective historian. I gave a presentation about the book at the Chalk Valley History Festival and people asked these savage questions about why I was betraying the British Empire, and didn’t I know it brought civilisation to the world? I think the problem is we’re such a divided society and you can’t please everybody – so the more you try to please one group the less you’ll please another group.
Meg Ison: Do you regret writing it now Brexit is a reality?
Robert Gildea: The book is an historical artefact now. Gina Miller said Brexit is over, now the debate is about our country. What kind of country do you want to live in? And in some sense the Brexit debate was a question of what kind of country we are living in – is it basically a multicultural society or a monocultural society? That is basically the root of what was Brexit, and it’s the root of what is Britain.
Meg Ison: When we think about national identity in French/Francophone history today, we talk a lot about memory and coming to terms with the past. Empires of the Mind is a book about the ways in which Empire has been reimagined and reinvented by Britain and France in the post-colonial era. Is this based on the idea that looking towards the ‘past’ is necessary to understand society in the present, or that Empire never ended?
Robert Gildea: Yes, Empire never ended. That’s why it’s called Empires of the Mind. It’s the idea that we are still thinking in imperial and colonial ways, whether we’re talking about our role in the world, or our attitudes to immigrants and foreigners, or our attitude to Europe. Those are the three main areas you can see it playing out. I suppose my basic point is that we as a country have barely got to first base with thinking about all this. The Germans, because of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, they had done a lot of working on thinking about their past and coming to terms with it. The French, I think they’ve done some thinking, because they’re always thinking about their past. The British, I think, have done very little. First of all there is a story of decolonisation as the transfer of power, which is that there was this idea for a long time that French decolonisation was difficult and bloody, and British decolonisation was easy. The flag was lowered and we got on with it and everyone lived happily ever after, more or less. This was not true. One of the issues with the British example is the Second World War. We had a good Second World War – most people had a bad one. This is in the sense that Britain was on the winning side and although it had losses, they were not on the scale of the First World War. Now there’s a whole narrative that is propped up by this memory: that we liberated Europe, and then they were ungrateful. And not only were they ungrateful they then took over Europe and started telling us what to do. I could write a book about Second World Wars of the Mind.
Meg Ison: You tackle a massive time period, you take a comparative approach between France and Britain who had different experiences in World War Two as well as very different and complex systems of Empire, both of which have a very complicated afterlife in the two national contexts. Were you worried about what Fred Cooper calls ‘leapfrog legacies’?
Robert Gildea: I think the French academic establishment hasn’t really taken on the post-colonial agenda, which it has in Britain and maybe in USA. My theory about French academics is that they are the high priests and priestesses of the Republic and they tell the story of the Republic and the Resistance and French colonialism and the Empire as it’s supposed to be. But there’s a school of French historians led by Pascal Blanchard and one of the concepts I gained from this group was the notion of La Fracture Coloniale. I thought that was an incredibly interesting concept and that maybe we should use it as a way to think about how we in Britain also treat our immigrant populations, to the extent that they are excluded or marginalised or stigmatised. So of course it is a leap, but Louise Bennett, who was a Jamaican singer/poet in 50s/60s, wrote a piece about colonisation in reverse, talking about how the British had colonised all these places and how they, such as Jamaicans like herself, were now colonising Britain, and what would the British make of it. Would they be able to stand colonialization in reverse? My answer was they would have problems with it. So, when we talk about racism, the Windrush scandal, it just seems to me if you add in a colonial dimension it’s a more powerful understanding. Maybe it’s a leap too far, but it helped me try to understand what’s going on.
Meg Ison: Fighters in the Shadows was a book about France coming to terms with its Second World War and memory of the Resistance. Empires of the Mind is essentially about colonial nostalgia in Britain, which has not come to terms with shameful aspects of its past and present, which has in some way contributed to Brexit. Is there a difference between the politics of memory in France and the politics of nostalgia in Britain?
Robert Gildea: I didn’t invent the term nostalgia, and I didn’t invent the term colonial nostalgia. What I would say is that all memory is a construct, and all memory is about identity, so I’m not sure there’s necessarily a difference between memory and nostalgia. What we’re coming back to is this idea of Divided Memory, and memory is divided because of power and because of conflict. The way I look at it is you’re the colonial power or you’re the subjugated power. So, your memory and your narrative of events will be defined or shaped by your historical experience – on one side or the other. So it’s obvious. I’m a white middle-class man and some people who are non-white and non-middle class might say – what does he know? I suppose what I’m saying is that I suppose historians analyse different sides of each debate too – very often you’re on one side or the other and your memories and narratives and your identities are shaped by that. I think it’s really difficult to bring these together, unless we do what is called ‘thinking through’. I feel I have a historical obligation to think it through.
Meg Ison: Close reading of your book shows evidence of this process of thinking through. Indeed, we were criticised for not thinking Brexit through…
Robert Gildea: I will just add one thing. I’m currently doing another project. It’s an oral history of the miners’ strike and it’s an idea that came to me the day after Mrs Thatcher died and everyone was saying how wonderful she was, apart from the miners, who still hate her. I’ve done about three weeks of interviewing so far, starting in South Wales. These are with miners, miners’ wives, miners’ children, but also people involved in support groups who weren’t necessarily miners but were involved in their struggles. What I’ve found is I instantly relate to those who are Remainers. But I also interviewed a mining couple last week who had struggled after the strike, with jobs, with health, and they had both voted leave. They talked about ‘the people’, and how we have to listen to ‘the people’- this has been a bit sobering for me. That’s because I did go on all these people’s marches, I was in favour of a Second Referendum, and yet there are these people, who are the salt of the Earth, living in a village in South Wales with not much, who talk about the people, and how we, politicians or intellectuals, need to listen to them. They have a view of the people who voted Brexit that is different to mine. They see communities hollowed out by the strikes regaining some of their dignity. It’s my job to understand their idea of Britain too.
Meg Ison: I think this is a point worth thinking more about. Scholars such as Robert Paxton made controversial interventions into the political arena during their 1970s, with books about the Vichy Regime that warned us not to take the socio-cultural identity of people we assume work in favour the nation, and those against it, for granted. In the French case, historians in the decades after Paxton have deconstructed the identities and motivations of resisters and collaborators – this is what Fighters in the Shadows was about. You’ve done the same with Brexit. Could Empires of the Mind be the necessary intervention that encourages a new generation of scholars to think more deeply about the characteristics of Brexiters, and what this tells us about British identity and Britain’s place in the world in the 21st century?
Robert Gildea: Yes. I think perhaps it could be.
Robert Gildea will be at Senate House talking about Fighters in the Shadows on Friday, in an event organised by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
Legacies of colonialism or the persistence of empire? The French and British cases (13 February, 5.30–7.30pm)
Robert Gildea, professor of modern history at the University of Oxford and author of Empires of the Mind: The Colonial Past and the Politics of the Present. (Cambridge University Press, 2019).