History 304 Essay

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How the Empire Rocked a Nation:
Britain's Imperial Past and the Counter-culture of the 1960s

Sara Sirianni HST 302 Dr. Blaszak 05 November 2008

In his work, The Lion’s Share, Bernard Porter states that there is no such thing as an imperial culture that had a deep or widespread impact on Great Britain. He thinks that no one in today’s Britain should feel pride or shame for the old empire because it has absolute nothing to do with them. “Culture coloured British imperialism, but was not responsible for it, or significantly affected by it.”1 It is bewildering as to how one can consider Great Britain today and not recognize the monumental legacy the empire has left behind, especially on aspects of culture and identity. Perhaps imperialism is so deeply engraved in the identity of the British that they simply can not see this legacy. Perhaps Bernard Porter can not pull a distinct imperial culture out of British culture because the two are actually one in the same. It is particularly interesting how the metropole reacted to the empire after its extinction. Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you got ‘til it’s gone?” The effects of the empire really became apparent once the days of Britain’s imperial glory were through. The imperial legacy influenced all areas of British society and all people who called themselves British. In fact, Britain’s imperial past had so deeply affected the culture of the metropole that even the counter-culture of the 1960s was permeated by it. As Ralph Samuel observed in 1959, “Britain, on the eve of the Sixties, is a society divided against itself.”2 This divide was a generational one because the current generation of Britain’s youth could not relate to the previous generations of the Empire. The counter-culture of the 1960s was driven by young people who had not been born into the

Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism 1850-2004 , Fourth Edition (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2004) 10. 2 Alfred F. Havinghurst, Twentieth Century Britain (New York: Row, Peterson and Company, 1962) 425.



glory of the British Empire and they rebelled against the imperial culture of their parents’ generation. Thus, the culture of the 1960s that was created had many elements that were converse to those of their parents’ culture. However, the ultimate purpose here is to show that it was actually the empire that was driving their rebellion and that the cultural differences of the counter-culture were not quite as different as the youth of the sixties had thought they were—due to the strength of the imperial legacy. First, the rebellious nature of the counter-culture must be established so that the disparity of its imperial permeation will be more striking. One major distinguishing component of the counter-culture was an antiestablishment attitude. After the world wars, the youth of Great Britain were not happy with the restrictions placed on society and they blamed the establishment for their hardships.3 They rebelled against any form of control by the government or by the people at the higher end of society because of the deep class rifts that the empire left in its wake. The counter-culture did not believe in supporting a social structure that would perpetuate these rifts, but rather in the rights and the dignity of the average human being. Given all of the scandal that was occurring in the establishment at this time, the criticisms of the counter-culture seemed warranted. For example, the utter hypocrisy of the government in condemning the youth culture for their exertion of sexual freedom during a time of such sexual scandal amongst politicians was striking. The Profumo was the major scandal on every British tongue in 1963. The secretary of state of war had allegedly had a sexual encounter with a young girl who may or may not have been collaborating with the Russians. At the same time, another cabinet member was caught in