What evidence is there for the persistence of subtle icons of neo-imperialist influence in British culture today.

 Nick Sherriff

In order to answer this question fully it is necessary to understand certain key terms.   Firstly ‘ subtle icons’ which suggests an air of understatement or covertness, which as I will show later is no accident.   The word ‘icon’ itself is also very important in that it means to be symbolic or in the case of this question more as a representation of  certain social groups.


The second is the phrase ‘imperial influence’ which on first glance does appear to be dated and old fashioned, however as I will show later on it is still very much in operation within modern society today.   Here there are two important schools of thought , one sees imperialism as having direct desendancey from a colonial perspective, as with the British Empire.   The other suggests that this is not a necessity and political and economic dominance can form the basis of imperialism, as with the dominant USA  who has little historic colonial possessions.   Adding the word ‘neo’ brings all these ideas up to date and although some of the ideas may not be specific there is a general neo-imperialistic influence, be that political, media or sport driven. It is also worth noting that the term neo-colonialism is only differentiated from neo-imperialism by its Marxist overtones which lends itself towards an economical perspective.   This is where industrialised countries attempt to dominate third world counties, often regardless of colonial background.   I would also like the ideology of hegemony to be considered as it deals with cultural domination by one class or another which appears to be central to the question. 


In order to show evidence of  this attempt at social coercion, which does seem to fly in the face of democracy, there is an amount of what could be called reading between the lines. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony  was that the leadership by the ruling classes could only be achieved by linking up with ‘popular culture.’   Further research implies that there is a certain amount of give and take across the classes.   He goes on to suggest that popular culture is stratified and takes many forms based around tradition.   In Britain today there is a strong feeling of tradition, be that in the form of religion, media, sports and the military etc.   I agree with Gramsci that it is not possible to rule by force alone, or at least not in the long term.   Here he seems to suggest  a winning over of the masses through the medium of contentment via familiarity.  It could be said that there is  a contentment reached through predictability.   Hence there is something to be gained by the keeping of traditions like Christmas although the Christian element has all but departed for many.  Things may change but it is the base elements that remain, as with the seasons of spring, summer, autumn and winter, there is a feeling of order and place that produces harmony.  It follows then that the government would want to keep with, but moreover promote tradition.   Tradition in itself produces nationalism or at least a feeling of unity and it is this unity that becomes imperialism when exported.   In Britain it is the idea of exporting a kind of Britishness or that the empire is still here in Britain but in a concentrated form waiting to be distributed.  This has a sinister feel to it, as if it was a masterplan and many have picked up on this:


“...hegemony is not a mysterious metaphysical force or  ‘spirit’ lying beyond the control of social agents; it is actively created and maintained and reproduced by real individuals.”




The current Labour government has the slogan of ‘Cool Britannia’ which it is using as a buzz word to entice tourists into the country.   Whilst on the surface this is a positive idea, it could be said that  Britain is suggesting that they are ‘cooler’ or that if you want to be ‘cool’ you have be British.  This then exported around the world via politicians and the media.   I find nothing wrong or sinister in this, as with an interview for employment, when you are told that if you want the job you have to sell yourself.   However to inflict a kind of Britishness upon an other culture is abhorrent, especially when that culture is unable to defend itself because of economic reasons.   This was the case with the British tourist industry who anglicised the Costa del Sol during the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.   At this time the tourist industry moved British tourists in en masse, moved Spanish culture to one side and imported their own culture (Williams1995).   This has since changed or is in the process of changing.   As mentioned earlier the British wanted that air of familiarity, the reminders of home: although they were on holiday.   It is odd but I recall many times during my 12 year service in the Army when men and families stationed abroad would pine for home and return at the earliest opportunity.   Maybe it is a trait of the British that they are insular and feel insecure outside the umbrella of the ‘Empire.’   It is worth pointing out that from a military perspective there is still an ‘Empire’ of sorts, with 36% of the Army and half of the Navy being based overseas (FRFI 1998).


Taking up the military perspective, there is this new concept of ‘ Global Reach,’ employed by the defence review.  This sees the collapse of static locations in favour of a highly mobile and reactionary force.  There is a chivalrous image here which portrays Britain riding around the globe on a white charger saving nations in distress.   This fallacy is carried off with the help of Britain’s alliance with the US.   This has produced the idea for many, of Britain ‘punching above her weight.’   After all Britain is such a small nation.   This global fantasy that the British are the ‘global policemen’ has been self appointed in the shadow of the US but again this is an imperialist  view point.   It  is as though Britain is playing the role of ‘global prefect’ and telling off other countries for misbehaving.   This self-righteous attitude hints at the days of the empire.   In a political statement Tony Blair said:


“Britain must retain its’ role as a global player.”

(G8 Summit.1998.)   


Campaigners such as the Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism (FRFI) publish a monthly magazine which often dismantles government decision and policy only to rebuild them showing elements of  neo-imperialism.   The recent scandal concerning Ambassador Pinochet was covered in the November issue and reported:


“His regime (Pinochet) was a vital ally of British imperialism; it provided covert bases for the SAS during the Maldives war, and it has been an important destination for British arms sales.”



This obvious reference to the Falklands conflict is a good example of Britain extending its neo-imperialist influence over Argentina and Chile.   The very idea that the British still have a colonial hold on the Falklands or Maldives is hard to believe yet the country went to war over it, defending its ‘Empire.’   Another conflict that sees Britain’s persistence with imperialist influence is Northern Ireland, although it could be said that this is more akin to neo-colonialism.   For twenty two years Britain has sought to display dominance over the province even in the light of such vehement opposition.


I feel that it is neo-imperialist ideals that sustains Britain’s permanent seat on the United Nation Security Council, how has such a small country got so much influence?   It is the constant rallying to the UN, deploying troops around the world at a moments notice and lets not forget probably the real reason that Britain packs such a punch, Trident.   After the end of the cold war  why does Britain need a nuclear weapon?   I would argue that Britain keeps Trident so that it can keep its status as a big player on the global scale.


Economically Britain is the second biggest holder of overseas assets after the US (FRFI 1998).   It is generally accepted that territorial growth is a necessity for capitalist societies.   Due to Britain’s shortage of real estate it has sought to impose its economic will on many third world countries.   Britain’s investment into the developing world amounts to the combined total of  France, Germany and Italy.   It therefore follows that Britain would want too get involved in the security of many countries to safeguard its investments.   Some argue that Britain’s economic hold on many countries is holding the back from internal development and others argue that it is imperialism and colonialism that  helps to promote capitalist investment in third world countries. (Warren.1980.cited in Collins Sociology Dictionary.1995)


This year Britain chaired the G8 Summit talks in Birmingham where Blair committed Britain to an international effort to protect the global environment.   Even here Britain is a big player, holding one of only seven permanent seats along with Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US.   Here Britain was describing itself as ‘reborn’ as a world leader in economics, politics and culture.


The European Union also exposes Britain’s’ imperialist ideals with the notion that we are not European and refusing to join - yet.   There seems to be the idea that Britain is better the rest of Europe or at least we do not need them.   This however tends to come from the people and not the government although one cannot be sure until a referendum.   Again from my days in the military there was this idea that man for man, pound for pound the British soldier was better than any foreign soldier.   People often refer to the ‘Bulldog Spirit’ of the British.   This has spread to the terraces of football where at its height British football hooliganism was the revered around the world.   At this time the Union Jack was flown all over Europe as a symbol of British football violence.   Many fans are seen painting their faces in the colours of there country and engaging in mock battles with people from foreign lands.   Although this was one of Britain’s darkest hours it is hard not to think of them defending the ‘Empire.’



In conclusion there are still many subtle icons of neo-imperialism which take many forms, stemming from the highest office in the land to the most minor of individuals.   It is used as a tool to promote stability within society, it is used to allow capitalist growth abroad and as a form of being for the individual.   It is where we as a society have come from and see ourselves going.  It seems that Britain is defending an image of what it once was, that is too say Britain would like the rest of the world to think she still has or could have the Empire.   By striding the globe under the guise of humanitarian aid she strengthens her standing within the global community.   Britain has lost the old ‘Empire’ but I would hazard to say that she has gained a new one in the form of global assets and investments, her status in terms of ‘global reach’ and her integrity as a global player.   Britain lost the ‘Empire’ but carried it on in the form of cultural tradition, so that today the British still feel that they are obliged to intervene and take the helm.   Finally Tony Blair gave a speech to the G8 Summit referring to the US and part of it read:


“...Leaving all sentiment aside they (US) are a force for the good in the world.   They can always be relied upon when the chips are down.   The same should always be true of Britain.” (G8 Summit.1998)




Haralambos and Holborn.1995.Sociology - Themes and Perspectives. Collins.London.



Bocock and Thompson.1992.Social and Cultural forms of Modernity. London.Blackwell.



Jary.1995.Dictionary of Sociology. Harper.Collins.



Ransome.1992.Antonio Gramsci.London.Harvester.



Montanari and Williams.1995.European Tourism.



Toronto Research Group.1998.G8 Information Centre. www.library.utoronto.ca/g7/evaluations



Revolutionary Communist Group.1998.Fight Racism,Fight Imperialism. www.rcgfrfi.easynet.co.uk

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