Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

Book Review Editor Molly O'Brien Castro

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


Daniel Gorman, Imperial Citizenship: Empire and the Question of Belonging (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006). UK £55 (hardback), 56€, 243 pages, ISBN 978-0-7190-7529-2 —Trevor Harris, Université François Rabelais, Tours.


Daniel Gorman, concentrating on the early twentieth century, makes the initial point that Empire remained, then, largely a given, with very broad appeal. In the decades preceding the First World War, the empire was characterised by very diverse forms of governance, with no obvious uniform or unifying plan. The question posed was not whether the empire should exist or not, but what kind of empire should Britain have? Indeed: who, exactly, belonged to the empire? Were all imperial subjects equal? Was it individuals or nations who were the basic building blocks of empire? Was the empire fundamentally a community or a natural hierarchy? Should the empire actively seek to reflect its inherent diversity or should assimilation to a common set of aims be the ultimate goal?...

Gorman’s exploration of “the practical problems of defining imperial citizenship” [146] is part of the highly successful Manchester University Press ”Studies in Imperialism” series (general editor John M. Mackenzie), founded over twenty years ago and which now boasts dozens of titles. Gorman approaches his task here through what he calls “a series of intellectual biographies” [7] of some of the main figures in imperial thinking at the turn of the century—Lionel Curtis, John Buchan, Arnold White, Richard Jebb, and Thomas Sedgwick—men who, with the exception of Buchan, are scarcely remembered by many today. Gorman is (therefore) keen to place this particular corner of “the imperial thought-web” [3] firmly in its context, and to practice an intellectual history which returns ideas and actual policy decisions to their original complexity. In doing so, Gorman has written a fascinating study of the intentions and motivations of those who sought to give the empire a new direction—even if, as Gorman himself admits, this is ultimately the story of a failure.

The seven thoroughly documented chapters which make up the study are divided into two sections: the first deals with “theories” of imperial citizenship, while the second addresses “experiments” carried out with that objective in mind. The last chapter, in effect an extended conclusion, draws together the reasons for the failure of the project. It is here that Gorman allots his five protagonists to one of two main tendencies: Curtis, White and Sedgwick are characterised as “centralising social imperialists” (Curtis being a progressive, while the others were reactionaries): Buchan and Jebb, on the other hand, are defined as “cosmopolitan ‘associationists’” [210]. Both approaches, however, as Gorman shows, were equally unsuccessful.

John Buchan—a Tory, clearly influenced by Alfred Milner, though of a much more democratic bent (for example, Buchan was a supporter of the principle of votes for women) —was constantly at pains to stress that imperial citizenship depended on the individual. Driven by his own firm faith, he saw citizenship as a quasi-religion, as a fundamental duty shot through with moral obligations of service to the collectivity. Buchan’s empire was above all to be “an Empire of people not of territory” [96], one in which individuals worked towards a shared, cooperative, experience of civil society. It was Buchan, more than the others, who perhaps embodied the essence of the dilemma faced by those who wished to develop the idea of imperial citizenship: as Gorman puts it, Buchan was wrestling with the “dialectic between the right of some to rule due to their character, and the right of the rest to rebel against that authority” [107]. The position was untenable, and the “dilemma” in fact a paradox. Buchan, in practice, was both an imperialist and a democrat, simultaneously advocating both the centripetal duties of each imperial citizen to “cultural homogeneity” [95] and the rights of the same individuals to voluntary participation. Jebb, the second of Gorman’s two “cosmopolitan associationists,” found himself in a similar intellectual fix, supporting both the idea of tariff reform and that of colonial nationalism. And while he placed much store by the notion of consensus, he remained imbued with Victorian orthodoxy and had “no use for the Irish” [156]...

The main figure among those Daniel Gorman identifies as “centralising social imperialists” was undoubtedly Arnold White. For him the empire had to be a system managed by the State. In essence, there was little if any separation between the imperial and the domestic: the empire was for England, not simply of it [134]. White saw empire as the cornerstone of a British, and specifically English world, in which racial solidarity and assimilation to English norms were key elements. White’s thinking clearly developed along biological lines, as his vehement contributions to the long and acrimonious debate about alien immigration into Britain clearly show: becoming a loyal, patriotic citizen of this English empire was self-evidently something beyond the reach of the Celt or the Jew. The national mission (to civilise the uncivilised), the national culture, national security and efficiency: these were the cardinal objectives. If planned/assisted emigration could help in fostering these, then so be it; if opposition to the parliamentary system and the prevalent “kakocracy” was required, so be it; if bolstering the navy was necessary to protect England from the growing German threat, so be it; if eugenicist policies were needed to rescue the declining English race and set it once more on the road marked out for it by Providence, then so be it. White did not baulk: self-styled tribune of the people, sometime demagogue, he was nothing, as Gorman neatly puts it, if not an “ecumenical contrarian” [115].

Lionel Curtis, the imperial “prophet”, though less venomously than White, occupied a similar, fundamentalist ideological space. His empire was a mock-feudal (complete with its “Round Table” and its “moots”), highly elitist, Anglo-Saxonist, British world. “Freedom” here was to be obtained through British political culture, the gradual acquisition of which would help others to slowly evolve towards fitness for imperial federation with the mother country. World peace would ensue... He was clearly not alive to the fact that the “dominions” were quickly moving towards a desire for full autonomy. At the very least, as Gorman underlines, bringing them into the “round table” idea was, at any rate, training the dominions up for that very eventuality. Surely it was not possible for local and global loyalties to exist and to function alongside each other at the same time? Thomas Sedgwick quickly foundered on the same rocks. His “practical imperialism” may or may not have been practical. His painstaking and elaborate schemes to manage and assist emigration to the empire came to little, brief experiments in a form of social engineering which none the less ran counter to the growing confidence and assertiveness of the dominions and their sense of themselves.

Whether theorists or practitioners, advocates of a unified imperial citizenship do not seem to have been able to find a satisfactory response to the centrifugal economic, political and cultural forces at work within the empire itself. There appeared, prima facie, to be a choice between, on the one hand, Tory/Unionist tariff reform, centralisation and (to a greater or lesser extent) assimilation to a nascent “Anglosphere” in which citizenship was a privilege and, on the other, a permissive, voluntarist, decentralised Liberal approach, where citizenship was more of a right. But such a choice was perhaps never more than an illusion, since in both cases—the nationalist and the cosmopolitan—to be a citizen of the empire was to attempt to live out a political/politological impossibility which would combine local initiative and mature political activity/democratic activism with global obedience to a distant monarch.

In a sense, this same conundrum presses in on the structure of Gorman’s book itself, as the intellectual biographies of “theorists” in the first part of the study shade inexorably into an intellectual history which, while continuing to acknowledge the input from prominent individuals (Jebb/Sedgwick), necessarily begins to demonstrate how they and their “impractical” schemes were subsumed by the unstoppable movement of ideas around them. As the late-Victorian/Edwardian age of anxiety unfolded, it would seem, the impracticalities of an imperial citizenship became ever more obvious. Indeed, the ambivalence surrounding the project (the oscillation between irreconcilable poles of “confidence” and “compulsion” [158]) very definitely became less a question of imperialism (the “colonies” were going their own route regardless) than one of domestic politics. In the end, what Daniel Gorman’s book invites us to think about is less the increasingly spurious debate on the irrelevant solutions being suggested for a problem which was already solved, than the realignment this engendered in Britain itself: here the political culture was durably affected by that debate and continued to be so throughout the twentieth century.


© 2012 Trevor Harris & GRAAT












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