Reviewed by: Ashley Jackson
Author: Bill Schwarz
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £35
This is an extremely significant book, a deeply impressive work that examines the pedigree of ideas of ‘whiteness’ and the ‘white man’ that crystallised in British society in the decades following the retreat from empire that took place in the 1960s.
In this first volume of a proposed trilogy, Schwarz opens at the moment of perceived racial and national diminution articulated by Enoch Powell in his famous 1968 ‘rivers of blood’ speech, demonstrating how his words struck a chord with many Britons unable themselves to adequately express a growing sense of loss and defeat.
The speech stimulated identifications with whiteness that became deeply controversial and politically potent. Driving this new racial politics, Schwarz argues, were “unappeased memories of Britain’s imperial past”.
From this point of introduction, beginning with an interview with Powell in which he attempted to articulate what he referred to as “the thing” – “unable to name the disorder he saw all about him” – Schwarz works back into 19th and 20th-century history to reveal the mythical foundations on which notions of the ‘white man’ (that were called forth by this sense of loss) were based.
Examining the founding of the so-called ‘white colonies’, Schwarz contends that it was in this experience that contemporary meanings of racial whiteness first cohered.
These colonial nations – ‘white men’s countries’, as they were popularly known – embodied the conviction that the future of humankind lay in the hands of white men. “The systems of thought which underwrote the ideas of the white man, and of the white man’s country, worked as a form of ethnic populism which gave life to the concept of Greater Britain.”
At the heart of the ‘sickness’ in British society that Powell and his supporters perceived lay the impact at home of the rapid end of empire overseas, especially the psychological ramifications, driven home by mass ‘New Commonwealth’ immigration.
Suddenly, whiteness became “a more intensely immediate phenomenon” to people with no experience of the frontiers of empire or the ‘white’ colonies, but versed in a jumbled national narrative of white superiority, easily able to draw upon racial encoding that equated whiteness with order, blackness with disorder.
As this narrative had developed during the 19th and 20th centuries, the dominating story of whiteness had been heroic and masculine, one “in which the settler made history by conquering native and nature alike”. But by the 1960s, in a world turned topsy-turvy, national and racial order appeared to have descended into disorder.
“Whiteness had come to signify defeat and desperation, not only in the colonies but in the metropole.” Identification with whiteness did not disappear in the moment of decolonisation: it “came alive again, fuelled by memories of what whiteness had once represented, recalling the empire as a lost racial utopia”.
Even today, these currents still flow in definitions and imaginings of Britishness. In historian Stephen Howe’s words, this is all part of the “decolonization of the mind”, a process yet to be completed.
Ashley Jackson is the author of Churchill (Quercus, 2011)