Political Action & the Language of Imperialism

Political Action & the Language of Imperialism

Earlier this spring, PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sits down with Professor Richard Phillips, a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sheffield to discuss his work on the language of imperialism. His project on ‘the language of imperialism in contemporary political action: anti-war movements’ fell under the Global Uncertainties Research Umbrella and received funding from UKRI.

Thank you for taking the time to chat with me today. You’re a human geographer by training. Can you tell our readers a bit more about what type of thinking and approach human geography involves, and how that disciplinary background influences your work?

For me, being a human geographer is about thinking about places. Sometimes real places, and sometimes imagined places. That’s where my interest in the imagination of empire comes from.

When I think about concrete, tangible settings, I tend to think about relational spaces, such as the sense of the relationships immigrant populations from former colonies living in Yorkshire and Glasgow have with their local communities, and with countries such as Pakistan. What is the experience of being somebody with heritage in a former colony, but who is now living in a town like Huddersfield?

I’ve always researched the places where I’ve lived or taught. When I was working at Liverpool University, I wrote a book there about the 1981 riots, which was an event that was very situated in post-colonial geography. People who’d worked on ships coming from West Africa settled in Liverpool and formed the basis for the Liverpool-born black community. The riots against police racism very much originated in a group of people who were situated in a particular city in the colonial circuit, and within a community which had had particular colonial experiences with police which need to be considered as part of the background to the  .

I think that it’s important to pay attention to specific places, and some places have been paid enormous attention to – like there’s been a lot of work on Hackney, for instance. But there are other places, places like Huddersfield, which have been neglected. We need to remember forgotten places, and we need more work on the experiences of migration from former colonies to the smaller towns of Britain.

What are some of the key themes that have arisen in your research over the course of your career? Can you tell me a little bit more about your research background?

I’ve always researched and taught about post-colonialism and empire, and I’ve been interested in the ways in which ideas of empire have continued to be significant after the age of colonial imperialism ended, and the ways in which those ideas have shaped the ways in which people encounter each other – including the ways in which Europeans understand people who’ve moved from former colonies to Europe.

I did my PhD in Vancouver, where I focused on geographical imagination and empire. I was interested in the ways in which both Canada and the wider colonial world were imagined and depicted in popular culture in Britain and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Within this area, I was particularly interested in the language of empire, and the ways in which Europeans went out into the world and encountered non-European people. Out of this work came my first book,  . That book focuses on ideas of empire and masculinity.  

How did you end up working on your project on the language of imperialism in contemporary political action: anti-war movements in the UK?

During the contested invasion of Iraq, I began thinking about ideas of empire in that context. That idea mattered a lot because at the time Americans were talking about a ‘new American century’. Meanwhile, critics of American foreign policy were describing American foreign policy as imperial. Of course, some people had always described the Americans as imperial, but those ideas became more mainstreamed as the Americans and their allies were invading Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of this century. I was interested in the ways in which ideas of empire mattered to activists, so I started up this project, and began to look at several different activist groups.

What did this research involve in practice?

I identified three different groups of activists, all of whom seemed to gain something in their work from  . At first, we identified the groups, and then we had to get to know them.

One group was the Stop the War movement campaign in England. That group was led by people on the left, especially the Socialist Workers Party, but they branded themselves as Stop the War and led a coalition of other groups. We also looked at a group of Welsh and Scottish nationalist who were carrying on with their own projects, but who were also involved in the anti-war movements. And finally, we got to know some Muslim-identified activists whose work focused on activist response to those fighting the so-called ‘War on Terror’.

We interviewed these activists to explore the ways in which they thought about their projects and to explore the relationships they had with each other. We wanted to explore with them the meanings of ideas of empire that were present either implicitly or explicitly in their activism, and to examine the ways in which these different groups were drawn together around this charged period of anti-war activism.

Did anything surprise you over the course of this project?

In some ways, the language of imperialism they were using seemed to the cliched language of a certain kind of student activism, which I’m not sure drove anyone anymore. So, I began to have second thoughts about whether this kind of rhetoric made any difference at all. However, as I talked to and listened to people, I ended up finding that all of them made a lot of sense, and I felt that they were genuinely pursuing something for the right reasons. Many of these people you would think would have no reason to be politically hopeful, but I surprised myself by sharing their hope and their sense that they and their struggles are worthwhile.

I was also informed, I’m not sure if surprised is the right word, by the relationships between the different activists, and the relationships between some people. On a whole, I felt that the movements were linked, but that individuals weren’t necessarily linked. People were part of a movement, but not necessarily personally connected.

Do you think that coming out of this research project, that there were any key takeaways for people working in activist spaces?

 I think that when people reach outside of their bubbles, which is what happened in the anti-war movement, albeit tentatively and temporarily, it’s always really worthwhile. Even though I’ve said already that I feel that the connections didn’t always cut too deep or last too long, there were some profound moments involved in connecting people which were worthwhile. Even where it doesn’t bear political results, which arguably it didn’t when we invaded Iraq with disastrous consequences, there was long-term value in bridging between different groups and forming connections.

In some of the things you’ve written about this project, you mention having to navigate the complicated and changing social dynamics within this activist cohort. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?

Even though the anti-war coalition looked like a big, broad coalition, it turned out to be a series of very small, and in some cases quite peripheral, groups. The British Muslim Association, for example, might have had a thousand members. Meanwhile, there more than 3 million British Muslims. So that small group presented themselves as speaking for something that was much bigger than they were. They seized a moment. And there was a desire on the left to try to work with Muslim groups. People look for leaders and for organisations, because it makes people feel reassured that they’ve been inclusive when they’ve spoken to something with a name like the Muslim Association of Britain. Now, that movement has spoken to Muslims. But activists must be very cautious about the organisations they work with here, because sometimes small groups – some of whom are very political – can claim implicitly or explicitly to represent the views of whole populations.

As a consequence of that realisation, in my own work I try to work less with organisations which claim to speak for entire groups, and I now work more with individuals and family groups.

How did this work inform or influence the work that you’ve done since?

It’s made me think more about political rhetoric and headline language, and it has made me want to explore new and more nuanced ways of speaking and expression at a grassroots level. I still work on those same post-imperialist themes, and I’ve recently been doing a lot of work on empire and sexuality, but now I tend to look at how people who aren’t leaders of organisations speak when given the chance to explore their own.

Photo by Randy Tarampi on Unsplash