Caribbean & Latin American Vistas Between Two Empires in Retreat, the United States & Great Britain.
Caribbean & Latin American Vistas between two Empires in Retreat, the United States and Great Britain. Interview with Victor Bulmer-Thomas. By Fernando Gómez Herrero (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Victor Bulmer Thomas & Fernando Gómez Herero (Conversation, Zoom Planet, August 17th, 2020).
Caribbean & Latin American Vistas between two Empires in Retreat, the United States and Great Britain. Interview with Victor Bulmer-Thomas. By Fernando Gómez Herrero (email@example.com).
Victor Bulmer-Thomas (VBT) is a noted Caribbeanist and Latin Americanist with significant experiences in influential university circles and metropolitan think thanks and thus he is an exceptional interlocutor to come to the Zoom planet and talk about a series of themes of pressing actuality in the U.K. and elsewhere. In this interview, he is addressing some possibilities for vistas of Caribbean and Latin American dimensions afforded in the United Kingdom in the last fifty years and the job is getting harder, he tells us. VBT defends to this day the validity of what is still called Area Studies, or the provision or coverage of foreign area or region expertise, mostly in the social-science modality here, also in relation to areas or regions of the world not considered to be an immense geopolitical priority. VBT was the Director of Chatham House (2001-2006) following his post as the Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at London University (1992-8), where eye-catching endeavours took place under the rubric of "The Americas." VBT has also had editorial experience in relation to the prestigious Journal of Latin American Studies for a decade (1986-1997). He has authored or edited more than 20 books on various Latin American and Caribbean topics, with a focus on the field of historical economics: The Economic History of Latin America since Independence (3rd edition, 2014) and The Economic History of the Caribbean since the Napoleonic Wars (2012) among them.
In this conversation, he talks about his latest projects having to do with the impact of Brexit and the possibility of the un-making of the United Kingdom, quite tangible in his view, as well as his country-by-country sequel to the Economic History of the Caribbean since the Napoleonic Wars. The distant foreign parts and the immediate inside of a peculiar nation-state configuration, the home country and the international order, or disorder: are these the two sides of the same coin? Few words are said about the manufacture of (foreign) area or region expert knowledge (so-called Area Studies) for the various audiences, the uneven projections of the general mass media, government policymakers and experts and the cultures of scholarship, the social sciences and the maligned humanities, in university settings in Britain and elsewhere. I remain thirsty for more, bringing the "languages" into the equation.
There is also here brave acknowledgement of the inevitable legacies of post-imperialism and post-colonialism in relation to the long shadow of the British Empire and also the United States, which VBT calls an "Empire in Retreat." The thorny notion of "national identity" is caught up in the nation-state and also in the double imperial legacy of the Anglo world (U.S. and U.K.). VBT signals the unravelling of "British identity" about which he feels relaxed, and even optimistic, in that the white majority and the BAME minorities will have a menu of options. In relation to the U.K., he underlines the nascent English nationalism in the vicinity of Brexit vis-a-vis the real possibility of the independence of Scotland and the union of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland, and to a lesser degree Wales in the next decade or two.
Besides the Economic History of Latin America (2 vols, with John Coatsworth and Roberto Cortés Conde, Cambridge UP, 2006), I bring attention to the New Agenda for the United States and Latin America, written with James Dunkerley, in 1999, as one significant road taken in relation to the now defunct initiative of "the Americas" at the University of London. Do we still want to take it against all odds? The union of the North and the South, the "Latin" and "Anglo," in the old terminologies, and the Caribbean sticks out in between, may still be uncommon practice in some circles, but there is no doubt that such "mixing" is already happening in myriad ways in different walks of life, official and otherwise. The Caribbean space is one possible in-between area in the Americas subjected to forces of convergence and divergence, the local and the global for short, and these forces also operate in Europe, with or without Brexit Britain and in other parts of the world. Can we learn something positive from these foreign relations? This interview is an invitation to (re-)consider big vistas in these profoundly unsettling times of covid, herald of the dawn of what appears to be the new China era. The reconfiguration of the jigsaw puzzle of areas, regions and studies and practices has already started.
The book presentation of Empire in Retreat at Chatham House mentioned in the interview is available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MSY5pY0vQNg.
This is a good complementary link with the podcast of Geopolitics and Empire in which VBT talks about the Empire in Retreat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iMLZxNxjM4.
Fernando Gómez Herrero: What highlights of your life would you want to bring forward (training and professional trajectory, key interests, themes or topics, publications, institutional / political events, etc.)?
Victor Bulmer Thomas: I think the most important was being sent as an eighteen-year-old, before University, to work as a teacher in a secondary school in Belize. That was a very formative year for me. Among my pupils was one who is now the Prime Minister of Belize and another who is the foreign minister, so I was very privileged to work with such a talented group of pupils and it gave me a chance to experience not only life in a Central American country but also a Caribbean country because Belize is both.
FGH: Why your choice of the Caribbean region within Latin American studies, an area or region of limited visibility and a field of studies of relatively small impact in the U.K.?
VBT: I have never really worried about the question of how important the region or area was in the U.K., although it is worth remembering that we are talking about the 1960s and Latin America, and to some extent the Caribbean (because of Cuba), was considered quite important. This is the period when all the new centres of Latin American Studies were being established. However, in my particular case after teaching in Belize I had three months to travel before going to university; I went to South America and I remember standing on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia at the age of nineteen and saying “this is the region of the world that I want to work on.”
FGH: What has happened in this field of inquiry in the last fifty years? It appears impossible to make a decent living doing it now in the U.K. and elsewhere…
VBT: It has definitely become more difficult, but it is not impossible. You still have some centres of area expertise such as the Institute of the Americas at UCL, with which I am now associated; you also have The Centre of Latin American Studies at Oxford, with which I was also associated for many years. It has definitely become harder, but the demand for expertise on particular areas or regions of the world is still very great in my view.
FGH: Quick synthesis of your latest projects: one on Brexit and the other still the Caribbean region. You have passed to me a few pages on both. Why these two projects now?
VBT: Let us take the Caribbean first of all. My first book that dealt with Latin America and the Caribbean was an economic history of Central America. It was called The Political Economy of Central America since 1920. It did not include Belize. It was just the five republics that are conventionally thought of as Central America. And then some years later I wrote an economic history of Latin America, the twenty republics as conventionally defined, called The Economic History of Latin America since Independence. So always on my mind was the plan to write a book on the Caribbean - the Caribbean as a whole, not just the English-speaking Caribbean - and that I published eight years ago, The Economic History of the Caribbean since Napoleonic Times. Now this book offered a thematic approach to the region. As you probably know, in small countries, there is a particular desire to know about your particular country.. So I have done a follow-up book which will be published next year by a Jamaican publisher; it looks at each country over the last two-hundred years in terms of economic history and the transition from slavery to post-slavery. It is called From Slavery to Services: the Struggle for Economic Independence in the Caribbean. It covers the 16 independent countries as well as the 18 non-independent ones - 34 countries in total.
The Brexit book, which is called Brexit and its Consequences: the Unmaking of the UK and the End of English Imperialism, is of course quite different for me. I have never worked on the U.K. before - apart from my time working as an economist on the Scottish economy in the 1970s. However, I am partly of Welsh and Irish heritage, while my wife (a Belizean) is partly of Scottish heritage. So, I have always had a strong interest, if you like, in what is sometimes called the Celtic fringe and I began my academic career in Glasgow. Now I have seen the rise of English nationalism and the impact that had on the Brexit vote and it got me thinking how the United Kingdom came into existence in the first place. I think there is a really important story to be told here because I can see the historical forces driving the U.K. apart, leading to the ‘unmaking of the United Kingdom’ in the book’s title; these forces are strong and probably irreversible - especially in the case of Northern Ireland and Scotland. We are not talking about tomorrow or the next few months, but the next years or the next decade, if you like. However, I see that as the defining feature of British and Irish history in the next ten years and I would like to contribute to that because no one else as yet seems to have written a book of this nature.
FGH: Are you sensing an immediate impact of Brexit on your general pursuits, scholarly and otherwise?
VBT: Not yet, in my particular case. I am not on the front line in terms of, for example, seeking grants from Brussels for a particular research project, but the U.K. is still de facto a member of the European Union until December 31st, so you would not really expect the full impact to be felt until next year and the years after. I see the impact not as sudden or dramatic, although it will be fairly dramatic from January 1st unless things change very quickly. It is more likely to be a slow process of separation of the U.K. from the European Union and that will have profound implications for British politics and the relation between the four nations..
FGH: And of Covid?
VBT: For me personally no, because I can work very easily at home. Also the British Library has reopened so I am able to go there to do research and the London library, of which I am a member, has also reopened (they have been very good at posting out books to members throughout the whole pandemic as well). However, if you are asking about think tanks and universities, yes, this absence of direct contact is having quite a profound impact - not all negative, I should add. I mean, if you take the case of Zoom meetings at Chatham House and other think tanks, they are getting much bigger audiences than they would if they held them in house. Apart from anything else, if you go to a Zoom meeting for one hour, it is one hour; if you go to a meeting at Chatham House that lasts an hour, chances are you could be spending four or five hours travelling there and coming back. So some of the impacts are actually quite positive. However, financially, it is putting a huge strain on these institutions, and for the young students, who are at university, it is clearly going to deprive them of the full university experience.
FGH: Do you still adhere to the Area-Studies model of knowing the world or not at all? The Americans have done it, perhaps less so now, following formulas or theories such as the containment theory, Samuel Huntington americanised Toynbee, whilst Fukujama spoke of the end of history and the triumph of the liberal West. What has happened since? As a Caribbeanist, you look at your region, which must still be put inside a wider framework. Do you still find the Area-Studies model valid?
VBT: I do personally yes. There is no doubt that it is not as popular as it was fifty years ago but I certainly do adhere to it. And when I was Director of Chatham House, one of the first things I did was to establish new research programmes, two of which had an area focus (Africa and the Americas). So I think that area studies is an important approach because the alternative is so dismal. For example, in economics, there are those who say “there is one economic theory and it applies to all countries at all times”. That approach, which you might call ‘the IMF model’, can get you into terrible trouble and can lead to major policy mistakes with very worrying results. So think there is always going to be a place for Area Studies and the Area Studies model.
Ander McIntyre, photographer @copyright.
FGH: How do Caribbean and Latin American dimensions fit or fare in these official models or visions?
VBT: It depends on which country you are talking about. I mean, in the U.K., the problem is that there isn’t a lot of interest at government level in either Latin America or the Caribbean. That’s a long-term trend, which has just continued throughout my whole adult life and I can’t see that changing in the immediate future. Obviously, if you are looking at it from the point of view of the United States or China, or the European Union, it is different. And you will find in those countries the Area Studies approach still has quite a lot of traction.
FGH: You are a serious social-scientist, do you have serious traffic with cultural studies, postcolonial studies, race-and-ethnic studies, subaltern studies, even the maligned “humanities”?
VBT: Well, they are not malign to me, Fernando, and remember that my first degree was Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford, where I specialized in Philosophy. So, I have a great affection for the humanities. I also have a lot of affection for subaltern and postcolonial studies (less so for race-and-ethnic studies as ‘race’ is scientifically a meaningless term while ‘ethnicity’ is much-abused). I think these are very useful fields of academic research and I enjoy a lot of what I read. With cultural studies I have some problems, because when it is done indifferently, it is extremely bad. The dangers with cultural studies are over-simplification through excessive generalisation and lack of supporting evidence. Cultural studies in the right hands is very good. Stuart Hall is the obvious example. He is quite outstanding and illuminating.
FGH: Hostile environment for the “languages” in Britain indeed: what would take for the Anglo world (U.K and the U.S.) to take “the languages” seriously?
VBT: It comes and goes. When I was at school, they were not taken seriously. You were expected to spend some hours learning French, but no one bothered very much if you could not order a cup of coffee after five years of learning the language. Then the approach became more serious, particularly during the Labour government between 1964 and 1970, and with the entry into the European Union, or the European Community as it was then called, people did really start taking the study of European languages seriously. The focus later on changed to Russian and then Chinese. But at the end of the day if you haven’t mastered a language by the time you leave school, it is going to be very difficult. The problem is, as the curriculum has expanded into other areas, the resources devoted to languages have shrunk. So they have now become more and more marginal. I do not think this is because of the UK’s declining geopolitical role. What matters is what happens at school: the resources provided and the priority given to make languages much more important (not the case at present). I do not think there is something uniquely wrong about the British that they can’t learn a foreign language. If you look, for example, at Scotland, the study of Gaelic is increasing - albeit from a low base. Now there are specialized schools where your children can become bilingual in Gaelic and English. Welsh revived massively after Welsh teaching was made compulsory and, of course, the use of Irish in both the North and the South of the island is still strong.
FGH: What would you like to tell us about your administrative and intellectual experience at the School of Advanced Study, University of London?
VBT: The School of Advanced Study was a brave attempt to preserve the University of London at a time when the big schools and colleges were going off and becoming either autonomous or independent. What we did was we brought together the ten institutions which were by definition federal, including the Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS - where I was Director), the Warburg Institute and the Institute of Historical Research. One of the institutes was the Institute of United States Studies (IUSS). I had always wanted to merge IUSS and ILAS. However, I was unable to do so because the IUSS Chair was Margaret Thatcher and there was no way in which she was going to let the United States be taken over by Latin America. My successor as Director of ILAS, James Dunkerley, was able to do it because by that time Margaret Thatcher had stepped down as Chair of IUSS. I should say it was not really a merger. It was essentially a take-over by ILAS of IUSS - a sort of reverse imperialism if you like - and it led to the creation of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (ISA).
FGH: What was the rationale behind that togetherness, almost like some “Monroe Doctrine” carving of a big piece of reality to study and analyse? And what happened because it does not exist anymore?
VBT: The rationale for ISA was that the Americas was a good place for Area Studies because there was so much overlap between those who worked on the United States and those who worked on Latin America. You could handle ambitious projects in which you were looking at the relationship between Latin America and the U.S in areas such as trade, investment, migration and drugs. I think the logic made sense. The two previous institutions (ILAS and IUSS) shared a lot of physical space and library resources. Yet, despite the logic, what happened was very unfortunate. James Dunkerely’s successor, Maxine Molyneux, inherited the Institute for the Study of the Americas and did a terrific job, but the School of Advanced Studies (SAS) kept on cutting her budget to the point that ISA became unviable. So she accepted an offer from UCL to start a completely new Institute of the Americas, which it was assumed would be the old Institute but just in a new location. Instead of being in Senate House, it would now be in UCL. However, SAS did not accept the transfer and hung on to what remained of the Institute for the Study of the Americas (now renamed the Institute of Latin American Studies). Both institutes suffered in the process, but I think the Institute of the Americas at UCL at least has been able to maintain a very good teaching programme and attract quite a lot of students, studying North and South America as well as the Caribbean.
FGH: Bridging university settings and think tanks, there is the “U.S. and the Americas” programme at Chatham House: the sharp focus is on the super power and the soft eyes are for everybody else… That’s the way it is…
VBT: It was not what I had in mind when I set up the Americas programme at Chatham House in 2001. We already had programmes for Asia, Europe, Middle East and Russia. I added an Africa programme and an Americas programme and within the Americas programme there were three components: one for the United States, one for Latin America and one for the Caribbean. My plan was eventually to establish two separate programmes, one for North America (essentially the United States) and the other for Latin America and the Caribbean. Of course, I left before I could do that. I regret that, but these things happen. You can’t do everything in six years. After I left the decision was taken to change the name of the programme to ‘US and Americas’ with a US specialist as its Head and obviously that meant from then on the focus would be almost exclusively on the U.S. Now, belatedly, a Latin American initiative has been established within the US and Americas programme and it is doing good work. However, I do hope that it soon becomes a separate programme with its own Head and covers the Caribbean as well as Latin America.
FGH: We are obviously quickly looking at the shifting configurations of programmes, studies, foreign affairs, modern languages… I suppose one noted moment would be Castro Cuba and the “Calibanesque” tradition of dissenting from metropolitan centres… Is there anything that I am missing of the Latin American readings of global affairs?
VBT: Sorry. In what sense exactly?
FGH: If we are looking at foreign affairs, it is always a typical reading in the vicinity of the superpowers. Clearly other nations are minor contributors or participants. We seem to be always looking at the big fellows in the room. The small fellows are given less time or even typically neglected altogether. So, I am wondering if the situation has remained the same in the last fifty years or not, whether other fellows have been articulating other discourses that are not easy to access...
VBT: That is a very good question. The perennial problem is how to strike a balance between the larger players on the geopolitical stage and the others. After the U.K. lost its influence in the Latin American and Caribbean region, there seemed to be only one player ( the U.S) with rare exceptions such as the Soviet relationship with Cuba. However, starting in the 1970s, the European Union did become quite important in terms of trade and investment and you began to see quite an interest in the dynamics between the U.S., Europe and Latin America in terms of how superpower competition might bring benefits to smaller countries. Today, of course, we have China as well. And it is a very interesting picture because it requires understanding not just of Latin American relations with China, but also of China’s view of the world and how it sees Latin America fitting into all that. So, if you just ignore all that, and leave Latin America out of the picture, then I think one will be missing a lot. So, there is still plenty of room to examine these issues in my view.
Geopolitics and Empire image, link included above.
FGH: How was Chatham House in 2001-2006 when you were director compared with today, nearly 20 years later, and we may have my interviews with Robin Niblett & Jim O’Neill possibly in the background (https://www.fernandogherrero.com/blog-1)?
VBT: There are a lot of differences. There is no doubt about that. The situation in 2001 was difficult. There was a Labour government which had just started a new think tank because it considered Chatham House too old-fashioned and largely irrelevant for the purposes of promoting international relations or helping to formulate foreign policy. There was a big image problem and that had to be tackled along with a complex financial situation. However, resolving these problems was relatively straightforward. Reflecting on it now, however, I realize - although I did not articulate it perhaps at the time - that the big issue facing think tanks (not just Chatham House, but think tanks generally) is whether they want to have influence or independence. If you think back to the establishment of Chatham House, a hundred years ago, the founders had zero interest in independence. They were interested in influence. They wanted to be at the table with the government, helping to formulate policy towards foreign countries and doing it in a way that would reduce the risk of war, promote peace, etc. They weren’t interested in independence. They would never attack the government or anything like that. In my own case I wanted Chatham House to be independent. That requires financial autonomy in order that you can then have academic and intellectual independence. Of course the price you pay for that is that you may not have much influence. There is a trade-off. There is no doubt at all about it. Now, since I left, I think Chatham House has gone back to its roots, if you like, which is more interest in influence than independence. I am not saying it is right or wrong. I am just saying it is a different approach to what I wanted to do. It has been in some respects very successful because the convening power, the “poder convocatorio” [in Spanish in the original], is extremely high in Chatham House. So, you can attract high-level speakers, you can get very interesting audiences, and gain the ear of government and business. But it lacks a certain independence, I would say. That’s the trade-off.
FGH: In essence, what are think tanks for? What is their essential social function? Following up on what you have mentioned, I suppose that we can pluralize the options. Is it about the provision of handmaiden’s tale of power and privilege? Or about the dishing out of foreign-policy suggestions to the state, in the gentle manner of the menina to the infanta in Velázquez’s famous painting? Or is it instead about the best navigation ideas for good business options of noted shareholders and stakeholders in the spirit of the corporate section in Chatham House…? What else?
VBT: All those examples you provide I would fit under influence. Those are ways in which Chatham House tries to make itself relevant to the key decision makers, whether it is business or government. If you are more focused on independence, you are looking at ideas which might be horrific to the business community, or run totally counter to government policy, but which nonetheless capture the imagination of broad swathes of the public and eventually perhaps enter the political discourse of the future; that is a very big difference.
FGH: Who would be willing to give money for such an endeavour in our contemporary times?
VBT: I think there are people and organisations. The budget of an institute like Chatham House is large, but it is not enormous. I mean, you are not talking hundreds of millions of pounds. I think it is possible to fund an institution like that, but that is not what is going to happen because the Chatham House of today is not interested in that sort of think tank. They want one which is more like the one in the 1920s, which is maximising influence, and it does it very well. I do not want to say my way was right and the current way is wrong, I am just saying there are two different approaches and that is what you might expect when you have different directors and chairs.
FGH: Arnold Toynbee did his history and his foreign relations with Chatham House, his big history of civilizations whilst collaborating with the British government, also John Maynard Keynes. Who is doing today this type of work today?
VBT: Clearly, Toynbee was a one-off. You are never going to have someone given so much leeway. He was there from early 1920s to early 1950s. I guess he became almost untouchable. So, you will not get another Toynbee. The question is, can you attract people like Keynes with heterodox ideas that then gain an audience among not just like minded people but those who might be initially sceptical or critical. And, yes, the answer is you can do that. It is possible.
FGH: I attended your presentation of Empire in Retreat: the Past, Present and Future of the United States (Yale University Press, 2018) at Chatham House. Cutting through those who see “Empire” as unacceptable form of denigration or recrimination versus the apologists of “a force for good” no matter what, the global superpower is not what it used to be. I buy the argument of the book, I do not think many could doubt that the U.S. has inflicted great harm and pain and I suppose it has also done great things… Two years later. What has happened? What is going on? You passed to me the pages of your valedictory speech at Chatham House… I wonder if you would want to tap into your mood and mode. You use the word “empire” and you say that you remain “optimistic” about the U.S. as a nation in the same way that you say that you are “optimistic” about Brexit and Engish nationalism…
VBT: I will answer the question, but I will step back a little bit. I have seen the US as an empire for a very long time. And that will be of no surprise to you, from your knowledge of Latin America and the Caribbean. The US even officially called itself the American Empire for several decades at the start of the 20th century. So, we should not be embarrassed for using the term in relation to the United States. But I think the key point about empires is that they come and go. They don’t last forever. And so the question I have to ask myself, and I began to ask myself this when I was at Chatham House, is “well, if the US is an empire, when will it start to retreat and why?” And the hardest part was “why?” So I began by asking what kind of empire it is. And that’s why in the book I talk about the US starting as a territorial empire before becoming a semiglobal empire based on the control of institutions. And once the U.S. loses control of institutions, its empire starts to retreat. I do not use the word “decline,” because that has very negative connotations. I think it makes more sense to describe the empire as being in retreat, because it is losing control over regional and global institutions. In the last two years, that process has accelerated because it is no longer just a question of the US losing control over institutions where it is a member; President Trump has deliberately given up some of the control that the US previously had by withdrawing it altogether from many institutions. I see the time since the book was published  as simply accelerating this imperial retreat. That is the main lesson I draw. I stand by every word in that book. And I would write it now exactly in the same way, but clearly if I were to write it today I would be able to give more examples of how that process of retreat has accelerated.
FGH: Is your analysis in the book mostly descriptive, are you providing a pure diagnosis, or is there evaluation and axiology? Are you passing judgment, are you saying “empires are bad,” in other words, are you mourning or perhaps celebrating this passing away, or perhaps as a social scientist you try to stay neutral? Who can doubt the tremendous interference of the U.S. in the Caribbean and Latin America?
VBT: I try to be objective. I mean, I can’t pretend I am a fan of empire. I am not. Empire is a very negative thing and I would say that of every empire that I have ever studied, whether it is the British, Dutch, French, Spanish, US or Ottoman Empires. To me, on balance, I think they have all been negative because they are forced to see the colonial subjects as somehow second-class people and that brings with it all sorts of problems of racism, discrimination and so on. Having said that, the element of judgment is simply that the U.S. is an empire. You can’t prove it is an empire by writing a book about it. But I hope a reasonably open-minded person will accept at the end of reading the book that yes, on balance, it is a fair description of the United States. Then, of course, the question is to a large extent a narrative: this is an empire, this is what happened during its period of rise, this is what is happening during its period of retreat, and the reason why I can be optimistic is because when empires disappear, the underlying nation-state can survive and may even prosper. My optimism does not mean that optimism will always prevail. I can think of some cases, perhaps the Ottoman Empire is the best example, where the nation-state did struggle for a time. But in the book I make the point that it makes a huge difference whether the empire is retreating for internal or external reasons. And because I believe the internal reasons are the more important ones in the case of the US, I think the nation-state that emerges can be a positive thing.
FGH: I enjoyed reading your pages on “Brexit and Its Consequences: the Unmaking of the United Kingdom and the End of English Imperialism.” This is an ambitious retroactive reconstruction of the history of English nationalism as the dominant force in the isles in the last thousand years, tied up to the legacy of British imperialism, dominated by England, peaking in the 18th and 19th centuries and providing a sense of “British identity,” that is now perhaps unravelling… Is your account a history from above as it is circumscribed by the nation-state, the U.K., the dominant history of the most powerful groups?
VBT: I haven’t written the book yet, so obviously my view may change. However, I have always thought that the United Kingdom is a very strange animal. And if you ask how it came together, you have to understand what was there before. There were four nation-states whose peoples essentially hated each other. And so why would they come together to form a single unit? Well, there must have been something very strong to make them do so. And that’s when I come to the glue that holds it all together. First, the British Empire. Then, the Commonwealth. Then, the European Union. And now that the glue is gone, it is not obvious why these countries should share a common identity anymore.
FGH: You say that elite British groups (James Dyson could be one name) wanted to break free from the EU and thus link up with more dynamic areas in the world, but there is also the City of London, and papers such as The Times and Financial Times… wanting globalism and not wanting that type of break-up. That elite-group analysis needs to go deeper and see the different factions. Or, would you say that now with Boris Johnson the business class wants to break free from the EU?
VBT: No. I probably phrased it badly because clearly the British elites were very divided like the British masses. I am not sure that the counterexamples that you give are right because if you take the City of London, within that you have the hedge funds, many of whom do want to break free and the hostility towards the European directives that come from Brussels is very strong among the more buccaneering elements, if you like, of the City of London. And, similarly, with The Times, it is after all owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has campaigned for forty years against the European Union. With The Financial Times, I agree with you. That is a very pro-European newspaper and its readers are generally pro-Europe.
FGH: You speak of BAME groups having it difficult to buy into some notion of English nationalism in the immediate present and near future due to its racism and at least in the pages that you sent me it seems to me that you walk on this as though on egg shells… It is a complicated matter. But when you look at English nationalism as the dominant force controlling or trying to control British nationalism (or British identity), the racism factor does not seem to be going away and it is not easy for these BAME groups or sectors to find themselves reflected in the (mirror of) English nationalism. Such misrecognition if you like is going to continue.
VBT: Well, it depends. Back in the 1950s, it was very hard to be Black and British. Of course, most people who were Black in this country were British, but if you tried to explain that to a white audience, they would look puzzled. They would assume that somehow if you were British you had to be white. Nowadays everybody accepts that if you are Black you can be British. You may choose not to describe yourself that way, but there is absolutely no problem if you do and most of the iconic examples of successful Black people do describe themselves as Black British. But they do not usually describe themselves as Black English. And the reason is that the image of England is still associated with whiteness. Now that is because English nationalism has been captured to some extent by right-wing proto-fascist groups. If we reach a situation in ten or twenty years’ time, when the United Kingdom is broken up, and therefore there is no British nationalism, other than a legacy of the past, then English nationalism will have to reshape itself; at that point there is no reason why you cannot be Black and English in the same way that today you can be Black and British. That’s a dynamic that we will have to see how it plays out. We cannot just say automatically now that that is going to be an easy transition because we don’t know.
FGH: In those pages about Brexit you speak of “British identity.”Do you find the talk of “identity” useful at all when addressing the four-part configuration of the U.K.?
VBT: I do. And I think what makes it interesting is how it was artificially created, particularly after the Union with Scotland. In 1536, when the English parliament declared that Wales was now in a union with England and no longer a colony, there was no attempt to create a separate identity other than English. There was nothing like an English-and-Welsh identity nor was there a new name for the enlarged state.. However, when the union took place with Scotland in 1707, it became necessary to change the name of the country, to Great Britain, and then to create something called British identity. And British identity acquired popularity above all because of the British Empire. So it is empire that gave meaning to British identity. Later on the Commonwealth tried to play that role and finally the European Union, although it was much more difficult for British identity to work its way through the EU. So British identity is an interesting example, not because it is a natural thing, but because it was created. That is not necessarily a bad thing. But I am interested in the processes by which you create identities and obviously now we are seeing the creation of an English identity. I do not like the form it is taking at present, but hopefully that will change in the next ten to twenty years.
FGH: In relation to the English identity or the English nationalism, a major or dominant force in the U.K., you speak of no reason for pessimism since, I suppose the dynamic of English nationalism may turn out to be different from revanchist, nostalgic or amnesiac that one sees in other parts of the world…
VBT: Well, it depends. I am relatively relaxed about the break-up of the UK. I am not for it or against it. I am just saying I think it will happen. If it happens, I am quite relaxed about it because presumably it is what the Scots and the Northern Irish, and perhaps the Welsh, wanted. If that is what they want, I am happy with that. Now, what remains is of course an English nation-state. It is something we have not had for a very long time. Whether that turns out to be a cause for optimism or pessimism, at this stage it is very difficult to predict. What I am saying is that it won’t necessarily be a pessimistic exercise. It could be an optimistic one. But we just don’t know at this stage. I am not trying to predict the outcome if you like of what the English nation-state will be.
FGH: Would a comparison with the “Latin” world (Latin America and Spain) do any good, which you do not do in these pages? Leading historian of Spain, John Eliot compares Scotland and Catalonia…
VBT: There might be. But I think the parallels should not be pushed too far. Take the case of Northern Ireland for example. A hundred years ago, what you might call the ‘natural process of history’ was aborted as a result of partition and the subsequent civil war. I cannot think of any parallel with that in Latin America. But I am more than willing to look at it. People make the comparison between Scotland and Catalonia: I am not sure about that. If only because Scotland does have a route to independence that Catalonia does not have. Catalonia would really have to engage in outright rebellion to become independent. Scotland does not have to do that. It simply has to persuade the Westminster Parliament again to allow a binding referendum on the issue of independence which is very different. So, I am always willing to learn from the outside experiences and it is good of you to ask me about that because I need to think about that. But right now I cannot think of any obvious parallels.
FGH: Does it make sense to speak of the gradual decline of the Anglo zone (US and UK)?
VBT: Yes, but not in an absolute sense. I think it is more a relative decline. Clearly the role of the UK and the US is going to be less important going forward. In the case of the UK that has been true for a very long time. It’s been true of the US for a much shorter time but long enough for us to see that the US is less and less crucial to what happens on the world stage. So, you have to conclude, if you put the two together, that the role of the Anglo world is in relative decline. Yes.
FGH: Would that mean the emergence of other areas?
VBT: Yes, for sure, because if it is a relative decline, then other areas must be growing in importance. I don’t buy this argument that China will only be dominant for forty years because of demographics and then somehow retreat to what it was before. That’s wishful thinking on the part of the Anglo-world elites if you like. At some point India will surely emerge once again as a great power, although that is not going to happen in the short term. And who knows if there were to be much deeper integration in what remains of the European Union, it is quite possible to see the EU as a much more powerful actor on the world stage going forward. I mean, in that sense, Britain leaving has made it easier because the most difficult member of what is called the awkward squad has now left.
FGH: Do you see the Caribbean and the Latin American [dimension] changing their profile or visibility dramatically?
VBT: No. I do not see that in my lifetime. Obviously we all hope it happens but the trends have been against it rather than in favour for some years now. Of course, if you look at the cycles in Caribbean and Latin American history you’ll see that things can change and sometimes can change quite quickly. But right now, I would be less than honest if I said I saw that coming any time soon. After I am dead I have no doubt at all that some of these trends will re-emerge, but that is not going to happen very soon.
FGH: Do we have enough strength to say something about higher education in Britain, present and immediate future?
VBT: I do not want to sound like Victor Meldrew [fictional character of the BBC One sitcom “One Foot in the Grave,” created by David Renwick and portrayed by Richard Wilson. The character epitomises the archetypal grumpy old man], but it is not looking good. There have been very negative trends in higher education for a long time - at least forty years. And they seem to be getting worse not better. So, the ability to carve out genuinely independent research programmes is more and more difficult. There is still space for individual researchers who have reached a position of prominence as a result of their previous work. They are allowed to do what they want without too many administrative and teaching pressures, but the trends have been quite worrying for the last forty years and I do not see that changing soon.
29 August 2020 / FGH / Culture Bites