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Amnesia, Dilution and One Dominant Narrative: The Impact of Colonialism on British Identity in the 21st Century



Chapter 1: Theoretical perspectives

Chapter 2: Historical overview of British decolonisation

Chapter 3: Trends in the official external representations of Britain



          The United Kingdom is currently undergoing a national identity crisis, as demonstrated by two significant decisions on sovereignty in as many years: 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.

          The as yet unanswered question about Britain’s national identity is an extremely complex one, affected by a myriad of historical, geographical, political, societal and cultural factors. 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] In the context of this national identity crisis, it is useful to research and analyse the role of one particularly significant historical factor: that of the former British Empire, that is, the role of colonialism and subsequent decolonisation on contemporary British identity formation. As one journalist recently remarked, “Britain is wrestling with its identity, stuck between nostalgia for an empire lost and an uncertain future”.[2] But how much of a role does the former British Empire really play in this identity crisis? Is the empire remembered with nostalgia, or is it even remembered at all?

          This research analyses the extent to which remnants of colonialism and imperialism are present in, conveniently forgotten or deliberately excluded from the collective memory and national identity of Britain. Careful examination of eight official actors in this paper reveals three clear trends regarding the impact of colonialism on British identity in the 21st century: firstly, a phenomenon of historical amnesia or selective memory regarding the Empire; secondly, a process of identity dilution through sharing key identity markers with former colonies; and thirdly, official institutions’ promotion of one dominant narrative at the expense of others, including those connected to Britain’s colonial legacy. Each of these three trends is analysed in turn through eight official institutions and organisations. 

          As identity has both internal and external dimensions, it is important to state that this research analyses solely the official, external representations which are promoted by the government and its institutions. It considers the formal elements of Britain’s external identity, including the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Commonwealth and the cultural symbol of the Monarchy. Additionally, it focuses on the impact of colonialism in the external narratives of Britain’s identity through institutional tools of soft power, such as bodies of public diplomacy, cultural relations, nation branding and tourism. Limiting the research to representations of Britain in the 21st century thus far helps reach a meaningful and relevant conclusion that can shed light on the contemporary situation.

Chapter 1: Theoretical perspectives

          The British Empire and post-colonialism are popular disciplines for study in UK universities, interestingly so, considering the frequent claims from historians that the subject is under-taught in schools.[3] There are several university departments and research institutes dedicated to colonialism, resulting in a plethora of literature about the Empire itself.

          When reviewing the existing academic conversation and literature surrounding the sub-topic of colonialism and its impact on identity, there is confirmation from academics such as historian John Lonsdale and political scientist Andrew Mycock that this legacy does indeed play a role in the contemporary formation of British identity.[4]

          Likewise, there is wide agreement on the British public’s reluctance to remember or acknowledge colonialism, with academics like Robert Beckford and Eric Taylor Woods attributing this historical amnesia to a sense of shame or embarrassment.[5] However there is almost no analysis of the causes of this historical amnesia or the methods used to reinforce this sense of shame, as also asserted by sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra.[6]

          There is no literature that specifically addresses, in a methodological manner, the UK’s official bodies’ representation and treatment of colonialism, their role in this historical amnesia or the impact of this on British identity. Therefore my research seeks to address this gap and link these two phenomena, colonialism and British identity, through the lens of the UK’s official external representations, to determine what role these official bodies play.

          While there is a research gap in this particular area, a number of broader theories on national identity, collective memory and post-colonialism will be useful for my investigation.

          A definitive work on the topic of national identity and nationalism is Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism by political historian Benedict Anderson, whose theory of socially constructed identities explains why communities develop a deep attachment and patriotism for the nation to which they belong, bound together by markers such as language and historical connections.[7]

          Cultural anthropologist Aleida Assmann’s theory on collective memory details how nations and governments construct a national identity through selection and exclusion of historical events. They then transmit this constructed identity transgenerationally through symbols and practices of ‘explicit, homogeneous and institutionalised top-down memory’.[8] Her work encourages researchers to question the norms and bias involved in the selection of historical events and to consider the political consequences of such choices, touching upon the importance of focusing on ‘forgotten episodes and shameful moments’ and ‘dredging up things that society has decided are better forgotten’.[9]

          On colonialism and decolonisation, Gurminder K. Bhambra theorises on the absence or omission of a post-colonial perspective in most analysis of identity construction in Europe, highlighting the reluctance of scholars to address the implications of post-colonialism and in particular drawing attention to how decolonisation has played a significant role in Britain’s identity construction.[10]

          The backdrop of these broader theoretical perspectives, among others, informs my research into the specific case of British decolonisation and identity formation.

Chapter 2: Historical overview of British decolonisation

          The post-war British decolonisation period spans over half a century, from Jordan in 1946 to Hong Kong in 1997, however the process actually occurred in two distinct phases: the first phase from 1946-48, and the second from 1957 onwards.

          After World War II ended in 1945, there was both a rise in anti-colonial nationalism inside the colonies themselves and simultaneously an increasing ‘disengagement’ or ‘disenchantment’ with the empire that was felt by the population in Britain.[11] Despite a rise in patriotic sentiments inspired by Britain’s victory in WWII, in the 1950s and 1960s Britain saw itself decline in power and importance on the global stage, which was by now dominated by the two Cold War superpowers, the US and the USSR. In an era where nuclear capability held the trump card in the power stakes over and above a colonial empire (whose economic development in any case was failing to meet expectations), the empire ceased to be such an indispensable asset for Britain and it thus shifted its strategic attention away from the colonies, towards trade and investment between industrialised economies in 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’, which further paved the way for an imperial withdrawal.[12] In the first phase of decolonisation from 1946-48, the very first colony to gain independence was modern-day Jordan in 1946, swiftly followed by India and Pakistan in 1947, and modern-day Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Israel in 1948. After these, no further independence movements took place until after the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, which was seen by Brian Lapping as the most significant catalyst that ‘speeded up the end-of-empire process’.[13]

          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, which 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.[14] Nonetheless, as the other European imperial powers also underwent their own decolonisation processes in the aftermath of WWII, remnants of overseas territories were deemed an ‘international embarrassment’ and Britain mostly co-operated with the independence movements of each of its former colonies.[15] This prompted the second phase of decolonisation, which from 1957 onwards saw the main ‘wind of change’ blow through the major colonies in the 1960s and 1970s, with Zimbabwe and other predominantly small island states gaining independence as late as the 1980s.[16]

          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’ in the Commonwealth.[17] This transformation is particularly interesting from the point of view of subsequent identity formation, as it explains a root cause for both the absence of colonialism in contemporary British identity, due to historical embarrassment, and for the continued pride that Britons attach to the Empire in opinion polls, due to the patriotism that swiftly replaced their feelings of embarrassment.[18]

Chapter 3: Trends in the official external representations of Britain

          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 people.[19] Given that decolonisation occurred at such 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) and furthermore having occurred within living memory of nearly one fifth of the British population, it is understandable that this end-of-empire phenomenon and the parallel decline in global status would have had a sizeable impact on British identity formation.[20] In that context, it is interesting to analyse the subsequent presence or absence of references to colonialism or imperialism in the official narratives of Britain.

          The selection of only official narratives of Britain for analysis in this research (excluding other unofficial narratives emanating from civil society, individuals and the independent media) intended to address the identity formation processes promoted by the government and its institutions. Through analysing only the official actors in the external representation of Britain, three clear trends emerge regarding the impact of colonialism on British identity in the 21st century: firstly, a phenomenon of historical amnesia or selective memory regarding the Empire; secondly, a process of identity dilution through sharing key identity markers with former colonies; and thirdly, official institutions’ promotion of one dominant narrative at the expense of others for the purpose of profit.

          These three trends have been observed through analysis of the following eight actors’ treatment of colonialism:

  1. Historical amnesia: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Commonwealth, the BBC and the London 2012 Olympic Games.
  2. Shared = diluted: the Monarchy and the British Council.
  3. One dominant narrative: the national tourist board VisitBritain and the nation branding GREAT Britain campaign.

3.1 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 colonial past (e.g. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the London 2012 Olympics), or passively, through the conspicuous absence and exclusion of references to colonialism (e.g. the Commonwealth and 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 amongst the population. This residual imperial nostalgia feeds into the formation of British identity and contributes to the ongoing confusion and difficulty in distinguishing what the British identity really represents.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office

          The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is the UK government’s foremost ministerial department for the promotion of its national interests overseas, specifically including the three foreign policy priorities of ‘protecting our people, projecting our global influence and promoting our prosperity’.[21] 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. Therefore this historical organization played a major role throughout two centuries of the British colonial period and remains a relevant actor to study in the 21st century representations of colonialism.

          While the FCO’s name does reference the Commonwealth (the name of the association that effectively replaced the empire as a system, once the former colonies had gained independence), 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. The FCO website states that its policy regarding the Commonwealth is to work through the Commonwealth Secretariat on Commonwealth-related issues such as ‘democratic practice and development, […] human rights, democratic values and the rule of law, […] sustainable development and engaging with civil society’.[22] That the FCO makes no reference on its website to the terms ‘empire’ or ‘colonies’ is understandable, given that these are no longer relevant terms in current use in international relations or politics.

          However, there are examples in the 21st century of the 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 2012-13 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 brought up in a court case against the British government by a group of former Mau Mau detainees in Kenya, some of the 41,000 Kenyan claimants who had been subject to beatings and abuse at the hands of the former British administration in Kenya. One such note found in the newly released documents from the attorney general in Kenya in 1957 even admits, ‘If we are going to sin, we must sin quietly’.[23]

          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 then held at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) on the 20th February 2015.[24] At this conference, the 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.[25] 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’.[26]

          Looking specifically at the impact of this on British identity, it must be acknowledged that the structural violence (as defined by sociologist Johan Galtung) imposed by the British administration in the colonies is widely unknown to the British public.[27] 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.[28] Furthermore, 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.[29] 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 Commonwealth

          The Commonwealth is another organisation still in existence today that stands as a symbol and remnant of the former British Empire. The voluntary association now comprises 52 member countries (50 of which were once British colonies) that together represent 2.2 billion people, a third of the world’s population.[30] While now entirely independent of the UK government, the Commonwealth was originally created by the Balfour Declaration in 1926 to accommodate ‘the autonomous communities within the British Empire […] as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’ (italics added).[31] The two words italicised in this extract of the 1926 Declaration demonstrate a desired continuation of the possessive, imperial vision through the new structure of the Commonwealth. Two further examples of this underlying and residual imperial connotation is the lasting position of Queen Elizabeth II as the Head of the Commonwealth, and the annual Commonwealth Day still held on every second Monday in March.

          The Commonwealth Day is a direct successor to the former Empire Day, which was founded in 1904 by Lord Meath with the aim of nurturing a ‘unifying and homogenous imperial identity’.[32] It was celebrated in schools throughout the empire, originally on the birthday of Queen Victoria and later on that of Queen Elizabeth II, as an opportunity to demonstrate pride in belonging to the British Empire. In the context of decolonisation, in 1958 it was renamed as Commonwealth Day and, although still celebrated annually with a service and address from the Queen in Westminster Abbey, it is now a little known event among the British population. The Queen’s annual addresses in the 21st century and the Charter of the Commonwealth adopted in 2013 make no reference to ‘empire’, ‘colonial’ or ‘imperial’ whatsoever and the organisation seems understandably intent on distancing itself as far as possible from its imperialist origins.[33]

          In terms of the Commonwealth’s role in identity formation in Britain, the organisation no longer plays a prominent role in contemporary British society. Its former Deputy Secretary-General Krishnan Srinivasan asserts that ‘declining British influence in the association inevitably led to diminishing British interest’ and that the Commonwealth’s ‘departure from centre-stage in the British public’s consciousness […] affected the vision of national identity; how the British people saw themselves in the post-imperial mode’.[34]

          Despite the low profile of the Commonwealth in 21st century Britain, the continued existence of a structure that closely replicates the former British Empire and which maintains several of the same historical symbolic elements, is an example of what Andrew Mycock refers to as:

‘enduring transnational constitutional links and extended frameworks of UK sovereignty which have ensured that the pluralist dynamics of empire have extended into a purportedly post-empire era’.[35]

          That such conspicuous links to Britain’s imperial past exist in the structure of the Commonwealth, but are not explicitly acknowledged, is an example of the institutionalised selective memory suggested by Aleida Assmann, which manipulates and suppresses unsavoury elements of the past, singling out and elevating others ‘to legitimise such institutions and to ensure their continuity by providing for them an honourable past’.[36]


          The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came into existence as a national institution in 1922 around the time of the empire’s greatest territorial extent, and the BBC Empire Service was created in 1932, initially aimed at communicating news to white English speaking populations located in the empire’s outposts. With the addition of broadcasts in Arabic and German to non-imperial territories in 1938 it was renamed the BBC Overseas Service and, with the addition of several more languages, in 1965 it assumed its present-day name: the BBC World Service. It now reaches an audience of 246 million people per week in 29 languages (increasing to 40 languages in 2017) and for decades was funded by a Parliamentary Grant-in-Aid from the FCO, and since 2014 by the UK taxpayers’ Licence Fee.[37] Given the BBC World Service’s scale, historical origins and funding structure it can therefore be considered a significant public diplomacy actor in Britain’s soft power strategy.

          Historian Simon J. Potter has suggested that the BBC was an initial attempt to use broadcasting as a tool of empire building and cultural imperialism, to transmit British cultural unity across the internal boundaries of the empire.[38] Historian Thomas Hajkowski has extensively analysed the role of the BBC in reflecting, defining and projecting British national identity, historically in the 1920s-40s using ‘repeated attention to the empire to express and reinforce British national identity by praising imperial values and telling imperial tales’ and encouraging ‘British listeners to understand themselves as […] members of a diverse yet unified nation’.[39]

          The BBC today can still be considered a prominent influence on British identity formation. While imperial history and post-colonialism are much-studied fields 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 or WWI and WWII promotes a ‘fake nostalgia’.[40] Therefore, the BBC’s representation of the empire to its audience in the UK is one of the main 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, with the majority of relevant programmes instead highlighting immigration from the colonies to the UK. The only significant BBC programme since the turn of the century to deal with Britain’s imperial past is Empire, a five-part documentary series broadcast in 2012, co-produced with the Open University and presented by Jeremy Paxman.[41] 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, failing to argue strongly enough and being a ‘wasted chance we need to take’ to acknowledge the darker sides of the empire.[42]

          But the Empire series stands as a lone example of such a documentary broadcast on the BBC in the 21st century.[43] Regardless of the reasons for broadcasting so little on the subject of British colonialism, whether due to political sensitivity or embarrassment, by doing so, the BBC contributes to the knowledge gap that allows misinformed and uneducated imperial nostalgia to linger in Britain. 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.’[44]

          It is understandable that this ‘selective historical amnesia’ in the media would contribute to distorting the narratives of British national identity. The absence of substantial criticism of the empire in the public sphere allows space for sentimental nostalgia, which is evident in the 2014 poll that revealed that 59% of Britons felt proud of the empire.

London 2012 Olympics

          Opening ceremonies of the Summer Olympics are televised to hundreds of millions of people around the world. Ever since Moscow’s seminal opening ceremony in 1980, the ceremonies’ idiosyncratic artistic programmes have been seen as valuable soft power opportunities for host countries to achieve two ideological objectives through double-signed coding. Firstly, to symbolically project soft power to advance their trade and foreign policy goals through what Joseph Nye describes as ‘the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals and policies’ and through ‘attraction rather than coercion or payments’.[45] Secondly, to forge internal cohesion through a national narrative, which will increase the host country’s citizens’ sense of an imagined community, and will act as a tool of identity construction and what semiotics specialist Chris Arning calls ‘auto-communication’ to the domestic audience.[46]

          London’s 2012 edition of the Olympics’ opening ceremony was watched by an estimated 900 million viewers globally.[47] Rich with cultural symbolism, it was deemed a powerful, multi-layered expression of the nation’s collective identities that ‘spoke to the nation on behalf of the nation’.[48] The ceremony was domestically applauded by most Britons:

‘The Britain that the country has become was best summed up in the opening ceremony[…]It managed to not only unite a nation that has often had trouble summing itself up, it was also a brilliant advert to the rest of the world’.[49]

          Despite the general consensus that director Danny Boyle’s artistic creation had been successful in pinning down Britain’s identity, not all were so impressed and many criticised the conspicuous absence of references to the empire or colonisation in the narrative of Britain’s history. The ceremony’s tribute to multiculturalism through the portrayal of Jamaican migration to the UK on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948, without mention of the colonial background behind it, was denounced by sociologist Ben Carrington as ‘imperial British history without the Empire, blacks arriving from the colonies in a story without colonisation’.[50] Similarly, sociologist Eric Taylor Woods questioned:

‘Is Britain suffering from collective amnesia? How could the opening ceremony ignore the huge span of history between the industrial revolution and the First World War, when Britain irrevocably changed the course of global history? […] It seems that the ongoing controversy over the meaning of Britain’s imperial history, as to whether it should be celebrated or mourned, has led many Britons to prefer to wilfully forget Britain’s engagement with the world altogether.’[51]

          This reluctance to acknowledge the country’s imperial past was visible yet again in the Olympics’ opening ceremony, arguably the most public and global representation of British identity of the 21st century, demonstrating that this collective amnesia still persists.

3.2 Shared = diluted

          Two significant markers of British identity were successfully exported throughout the world during the colonial period and have endured even beyond the decolonisation process: the Monarchy and the English language. They are currently shared at an official level with 143 million people via the Monarchy and approximately 1.5 billion people via the British Council’s continued promotion of the English language. That these two remnants of the empire persist worldwide greatly dilutes the ability of these two markers to act as defining symbols of contemporary British identity. This dilution feeds into the British identity crisis by causing a shortage of recognisable features around which the British population can construct their own distinctive narratives.

The Monarchy

          The role of the Monarchy serves as an important national symbol and representative of the UK, but simultaneously also serves as a complicated reminder of Britain’s imperial past. In addition to her role as the monarch and head of state of the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth II is also still the constitutional monarch of the three Crown dependencies (Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man), the 14 British Overseas Territories (including Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, the British Antarctic Territory and various other islands) and the 15 Commonwealth realms (including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among others), whose combined population numbers 143 million people.[52]

          The role of the monarch in each of these cases is ‘almost entirely ceremonial’, rather than political.[53] However, in the words of the Queen and Royal Family’s official website, when describing the role of the Monarchy in the UK: ‘the Sovereign acts as a focus for national identity, unity and pride’.[54] The difficulty with using the Monarchy as a conduit of national identity in Britain lies in the fact that this significant symbol of British cultural heritage is shared, or even diluted, with 32 other territories across the globe.

          Andrew Mycock states that this ‘symmetric sharing’ and ‘overlapping’ of the Monarchy’s role in multiple countries demonstrates the enduring political and cultural legacies of the empire, which continue to ‘compromise nationalised articulations of Britishness’ and complicate the narratives of British identity.[55]

The British Council

          Another official UK body of soft power through public diplomacy is the British Council, created in 1934 with a Royal Charter mission to ‘promote a wider knowledge of the UK and the English language abroad and develop closer cultural relations between the UK and other countries’.[56] One of the first British assets that most people overseas will encounter in their lives is the English language, as a global lingua franca and an official language of 54 sovereign states around the world. The British Council’s 2013 Influence and Attraction report acknowledges one significant legacy of imperialism and the Commonwealth to be the shared language of English, which acts an important ‘gateway to cultural connections and influence’ and ‘the strongest predicator of trust in the UK’.[57] A key cultural relations activity of the British Council and its principle revenue source is in fact its English language teaching and examination activities in over 100 countries. Furthermore, the British Council’s 2012 Trust Pays report demonstrates that the increased trust resulting from engagement in cultural activities or interactions with the UK (such as learning the English language) leads to business and economic benefits for the UK, through an increased likelihood of people overseas to want to visit the UK, study in the UK or do business with the UK.[58]

          Credit for the predominance of the English language as a global lingua franca cannot be solely attributed to the British Empire, owing much to the international popularity of American culture and particularly film in the 20th century. However, the British Council does capitalise on the UK cabinet’s agreement in 1958 that:

‘It should be our aim to secure that, as dependent territories passed from our administrative control, they retained the English tongue as their official language. This would serve as a political link for the Commonwealth and as a means of furthering our trading interests’.[59]

          While the British Council occupies itself with promoting the English language overseas to build the UK’s soft power, the impact of this shared language on Britons in the UK is comparable to that of the shared Monarchy, in that it detracts from a sense of belonging to a unique and defined national identity. Benedict Anderson’s theory of ‘imagined communities’ references language as a key catalyst of nationalism and nation-building: ‘What the eye is to the lover […] language […] is to the patriot’.[60] In nation states where only one language is spoken, which is not an official language of any other nation state, that language can serve as a significant marker of linguistic identity, and an important source in that community’s national identity formation.

          While Britain’s early colonisers succeeded in exporting the English language to an estimated total of 1.5 billion people around the world, the consequences of this are that British English is no longer the standard variant predominantly in use worldwide, and that the British population cannot claim the English language as one of the linchpins around which their national identity revolves, given that it is shared with 53 other states around the world.

3.3 One dominant narrative

          As the question of how to define British identity has gained prominence in recent years, attempts to commodify British identity for the purpose of profit have similarly increased. Its former colonial footprint affords Britain a high level of recognition and familiarity around the world and the British government tries to capitalise on these historic links through tasking two official organisations with the job of marketing Britain externally: the tourist board VisitBritain and the GREAT Britain nation branding campaign. These two organisations attempt to project a single coherent image to the rest of world in order to attract visitors, business and income. In the process of constructing a single coherent external identity, or stereotype, they have necessarily had to choose one dominant narrative (the most profitable) at the expense of diversity. This single dominant narrative feeds into the British identity crisis by silencing and invalidating the multiple other conflicting narratives and voices that constitute British identity, thus contributing to the ongoing confusion the British population encounter when trying to define their own identity.


          Inbound tourism is Britain’s seventh largest export industry, contributing £26.2 billion per year to the economy, and Britain was ranked 4th out of 50 countries analysed in the Tourism section of the 2015 Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index.[61] VisitBritain is the public face of the national tourism agency created in 1969 and, while their tourism strategy does not specifically target members of the Commonwealth, its 2015 report entitled How the world views Britain does acknowledge that strong historic links with the Commonwealth countries of Australia, India, Canada and South Africa are a factor in all these markets’ high favourability and familiarity with Britain. Britain is ranked in each market’s top 5 out of 50 countries for favourability and familiarity, which translates into high proportions of tourists to Britain from these Commonwealth countries, as high as 42% of Australian and Indian respondents, 31% of Canadians and 27% of South Africans.[62]

          Turning to the impact of tourism on identity, Burns and Novelli state that tourism’s supply-side necessarily includes a localised culture and people, thus commodifying social identity as an intangible asset and differentiator in a country’s tourism proposition.[63] Through constructing and marketing a certain external identity for Britain as a tourist destination, VisitBritain plays a role in influencing how Britons are viewed by those overseas. Economist Marien André analyses the link between tourism and identity and lists some of the risks associated with the construction of identity for the purpose of tourism: possible trivialisation or theatricalisation of identity, and the loss of a feeling of authenticity by merchandising heritage and cheapening culture.[64] In other words, the most profitable aspects of British identity become accentuated and dominate the other less profitable contestations to that constructed identity, in order to better market and sell Britain as a tourist destination. As we shall see below in the case of Britain’s nation branding campaign, permitting an official institution such as VisitBritain to choose and construct a vision of British identity for export as a profitable tourist product risks the production of a stereotype, which will inevitably fail to encompass all the diverse narratives that constitute British identity.

The GREAT Britain campaign

          The 21st century has seen a surge of countries engaging in nation branding activities, a sub-field of public diplomacy developed principally by Simon Anholt, in order to measure, build and manage their international reputation at the level of civil society, to differentiate their country and compete in the globalized world. This is nothing new in the case of Britain, which established an equivalent Empire Marketing Board back in 1926. The latest incarnation of a nation brand for Britain is the GREAT Britain campaign that was launched in 2012 by the UK government to capitalise on the interest generated that year by the London Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.[65]

          In this campaign there is a break with the traditional association of Britain with the Commonwealth (except for one country, India), as the target markets of the GREAT Britain campaign are: China, India, USA, Korea, Indonesia, Brazil and Mexico, representing a new geographical focus for the UK and a further step away from the old empire.

          Sociologist Melissa Aronczyk argues that, in developing a coherent nation brand, governments construct and project one national identity to their external audience, a single stereotype that by nature cannot encompass all the diverse internal voices and narratives that represent a population, thereby flattening and invalidating unapproved contestations to that one definition of national identity.[66] This multiplicity of conflicting narratives to choose from in Britain, amidst the current identity crisis in the UK, represents a dilemma for the government and has caused the question of how to define British identity to gain prominence in recent years. The disparity between the external image portrayed and the internal multiplicity concealed by the nation branding exercise is an additional contribution to the confusion in formulating and articulating a single British national identity.


          In the context of Britain’s ongoing identity crisis, this research sought to delve into one historical aspect of that crisis, the country’s colonial legacy, analysing the role that this plays in British identity and questioning the existence of an imperial nostalgia.

          This examination of the 21st century representations of the British Empire, as specifically promoted by eight of the UK’s official bodies, revealed three clear trends: firstly, a historical amnesia and selective memory leading to underlying nostalgia; secondly, a process of identity dilution through sharing key identity markers with former colonies; and thirdly, official institutions’ promotion of one dominant narrative at the expense of others, for the purpose of profit.

          The combined impact of these three trends on British identity formation is an ongoing difficulty in articulating British identity.

          The first trend of historical amnesia is visible in the FCO’s cover-up of unsavoury archives, the Commonwealth’s institutionalised selective memory, and the BBC and Olympics’ omission of colonialism. This lack of critical references to the empire in the collective memory has lead 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 sensation of shame and embarrassment. However, a 2014 opinion poll demonstrates that this patriotic pride for the empire, and even the desire to still have an empire, persists for 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.[67]

          The second trend of shared and diluted identity markers, such as the Monarchy and the English language, hinders and causes a shortage of distinctive narratives with which to build a national identity. The third trend of one dominant narrative, constructed in the pursuit of profit by the official tourism and nation branding campaigns, invalidates and silences the various unapproved narratives that contest the officially endorsed stereotype. The consequence of these two trends is a lack of suitable narratives or available solutions to resolve this question surrounding British national identity, resulting in an unfilled gap in the national identity. 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 such 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?

          Having discovered that the legacy of colonialism presents an unfilled gap or open space in the British national identity, further study would be beneficial to investigate the competing debates that fight over said space. In particular there are two such interesting areas of debate, which fell outside the scope of my research but which would be fruitful continuations. These include: a study of the emergence of populist imperial rhetoric in the Brexit campaign surrounding the June 2016 EU referendum in Britain, at a revelatory moment in Britain’s identity formation; and a study of the political influences and decision-making behind the way colonialism is taught in British schools through the national curriculum, and the subsequent impact on identity formation.

          The existence of these two specific debates in the 21st century 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.


This research paper was written in December 2016 for a course on the Cultural History of Europe, completed as part of the University of Groningen’s Master’s degree in Euroculture: European Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context. A shorter version of this paper has been published in the May 2017 issue of the peer-reviewed journal, The Honours Review, and can be found here.


[1] Daniela Vincenti, “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] Historian William Dalrymple’s has stated that colonial nostalgia is compounded by the fact that ‘our imperial history is not taught in schools – our children go from Henry VIII to the Nazis, omitting that very interesting period in between’. Stuart Jeffries, “The Best Exotic Nostalgia Boom: Why Colonial Style Is Back,” The Guardian, last modified March 19, 2015. Dalrymple’s statement prompted much debate and a study by former history teacher Terry Haydn into the teaching of the empire in the national curriculum in 2016. “Press Release – British Empire Study “prevalent in Most Schools”,” British Educational Research Association, last modified September 13, 2016.

[4] Chris Moffat, “Exploring the ‘Hidden Histories’ of Decolonization at the ICWS,” Institute of Commonwealth Studies, last modified February 27, 2015; Andrew Mycock, “British Citizenship and the Legacy of Empires,” Parliamentary Affairs 63, no. 2 (2009): 340.

[5] Robert Beckford, “Colonial history is British history,” BBC News, last modified August 3, 2002; Eric Taylor Woods, “What the Olympics Didn’t Say about Britain’s Place in the World,” The London School of Economics British Politics and Policy Blog, last modified August 30, 2012.

[6] Gurminder K. Bhambra, “Postcolonial Europe, or Understanding Europe in the Times of the Postcolonial,” in The SAGE Handbook of European Studies, ed. Chris Rumford (London: SAGE, 2009), 75.

[7] Benedict Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism (London: Verso, 1983).

[8] Aleida Assmann, “Transformations between history and memory,” Social Research 75, no. 1 (2008): 56.

[9] Ibid., 70; Ibid., 68.

[10] Bhambra, “Postcolonial Europe, or Understanding Europe in the Times of the Postcolonial,” 75; Ibid., 72.

[11] Nicholas J. White, Decolonisation: The British Experience Since 1945 (London: Routledge, 2014), 64; Ibid., 33-34.

[12] Ibid., 38; Ibid., 41.

[13] Brian Lapping, “Did Suez Hasten the End of Empire?” Contemporary Record 1, no. 2 (1987): 33.

[14] White, Decolonisation, 51.

[15] Ibid., 57.

[16] Ibid.

[17] John Darwin, The End of the British Empire: The Historical Debate (Oxford: Blackwell, 1991), 36.

[18] Will Dahlgreen, “The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’,” YouGov, last modified July 26, 2014.

[19] White, Decolonisation, 3.

[20] William Roger Louis, “The Dissolution of the British Empire,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire: the Twentieth Century, eds Judith Brown and William Roger Louis (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 330; “Overview of the UK population: February 2016,” Office for National Statistics, last modified February 26, 2016.

[21]About us,” Foreign & Commonwealth Office, accessed December 2, 2016.

[22]The Commonwealth,” Foreign & Commonwealth Office, accessed on December 2, 2016.

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

[24]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.

[25] Moffat, “Exploring the ‘Hidden Histories’ of Decolonization at the ICWS.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Johan Galtung, “Violence, Peace and Peace Research,” Journal of Peace Research 6, no. 3 (1969): 171.

[28] Jeffries, “The Best Exotic Nostalgia Boom: Why Colonial Style Is Back”; Dahlgreen, “The British Empire is ‘something to be proud of’.”

[29] Ibid.

[30]Fast Facts on the Commonwealth,” The Commonwealth, accessed on December 2, 2016.

[31]Imperial Conference 1926,” Museum of Australian Democracy, accessed on December 2, 2016.

[32] Brad Beaven and John Griffiths, “The City and Imperial Propaganda: A Comparative Study of Empire Day in England, Australia, and New Zealand c. 1903–1914,” Journal of Urban History 42, no. 2 (2016): 377.

[33]Charter of the Commonwealth,” The Commonwealth, last accessed December 2, 2016.

[34] Krishnan Srinivasan, The Rise, Decline, and Future of the British Commonwealth (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 2; Ibid.; Ibid., 3.

[35] Mycock, “British Citizenship and the Legacy of Empires”: 341.

[36] Assmann, “Transformations between history and memory,” 57.

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

[38] Simon J. Potter, Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922-1970 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); Brett Bebber, “Review of Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922-1970,” Reviews in History, accessed December 2, 2016.

[39] Thomas Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010); Hugh Chignell, “Review of The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53,” Reviews in History, accessed December 2, 2016; Michelle Hilmes, “Book Review of The BBC and National Identity in Britain, 1922-53,” Journal of British Cinema and Television 8, no. 2 (2011): 289.

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

[41] Empire, Documentary, written and presented by Jeremy Paxman, BBC, 27 February – 26 March 2012.

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

[43] For an interesting analysis of the critical reactions to the BBC’s 1972 series The British Empire and Channel 4’s 2003 series Empire, see Neil Fleming, “Echoes of Britannia: Television History, Empire and the Critical Public Sphere,” Contemporary British History 24, no. 1 (2010): 1-22.

[44] Beckford, “Colonial history is British history.”

[45] Joseph Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), x.

[46] Chris Arning, “Soft power, ideology and symbolic manipulation in Summer Olympic Games opening ceremonies: a semiotic analysis,” Social Semiotics 23, no. 4 (2013): 538.

[47] Avril Ormsby, “London 2012 opening ceremony draws 900 million viewers,” Reuters, last modified August 7, 2012.

[48]Influence and Attraction: Culture and the race for soft power in the 21st century,” British Council, accessed October 13, 2016.

[49]Soft Power Survey 2012,” Monocle, accessed on December 2, 2016.

[50] John Horne and Gary Whannel, Understanding the Olympics, 2nd ed (London: Routledge, 2016), 242.

[51] Woods, “What the Olympics Didn’t Say about Britain’s Place in the World.”

[52] This is separate from the Queen’s position as Head of the Commonwealth, a position that does not have any role in the governance of the Commonwealth member countries.

[53]How Commonwealth sees the Queen,” BBC News, last modified April 20, 2006.

[54]The role of the Monarchy,” The Royal Household, accessed December 2, 2016.

[55] Mycock, “British Citizenship and the Legacy of Empires”: 341-344.

[56]History,” British Council, accessed December 2, 2016.

[57] “Influence and Attraction: Culture and the race for soft power in the 21st century.”

[58]Trust Pays: How international cultural relationships build trust in the UK and underpin the success of the UK economy,” British Council, accessed October 13, 2016.

[59] Ronald Hyam and William Roger Louis, The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-64 (London: The Stationery Office, 2000). I: 52.

[60] Anderson, Imagined communities, 154.

[61]Overview,” VisitBritain, accessed on December 2, 2016; “How the world views Britain – 2015,” VisitBritain, accessed October 13, 2016.

[62] Ibid.; Furthermore, the report states that respondents in the 20 countries surveyed identify Britain as: interesting and exciting for contemporary culture; having a vibrant city life and urban attractions; rich in historic buildings and monuments; excelling at sport; and having a rich cultural heritage.

[63] Peter Burns and Marina Novelli, Tourism and Social Identities: Global Frameworks and Local Realities (Oxford: Elsevier, 2006), 3.

[64] Marien André, Tourism and Identity (Brussels: Centre Maurits Coppieters, 2011), 19.

[65]The Great Britain Campaign,” Great Britain Campaign, accessed October 13, 2016.

[66] Melissa Aronczyk. Branding the Nation: The Global Business of National Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

[67] Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? (London: Routledge, 2004).

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