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David Cannadine sees the British Empire as a spectacular and colourful extension of the social order of the home country

What, in its heyday from the late 1850s to the early 1950s, did the British think the Empire they had conquered and settled, governed and administered, gone along with and collaborated in, actually looked like? To be sure, it was a global phenomenon of unrivalled spaciousness and amplitude, which in its reach and range was both local and international, particular and general, and as such it undoubtedly formed one ‘entire interactive system’. It was also as much a part of the tangible world as it was of the intangible imagination, and in both these tangible and imaginative guises, it represented – as Peter Marshall has very properly observed – a deliberate, sustained and self-conscious attempt by the British to order, fashion and comprehend their imperial society overseas on the basis of what they believed to be the ordering of their metropolitan society at home. And it cannot be sufficiently emphasised that that society from which these powerful imperial impulses and imaginings originated and emanated was deeply conservative in its social attitudes and in its political culture. The social structure was generally believed to be layered, individualistic, traditional, hierarchical, and providentially-sanctioned; and for all the advances towards a broader, more democratic electoral franchise, it was in practice a nation emphatically not dedicated to the proposition that all men (let alone women) were created equal.

Thus the imperial metropolis: and thus, unsurprisingly, the imperial periphery. To be sure, it was made up of varied dominions and diverse realms. But there was a homogenising convergence about their social structures, and about perceptions of them, which were seen by turns as being rural-aspirational (the dominions of settlement), caste-based and princely (the Indian Empire), chiefly and traditional (the crown colonies of rule), and Bedouin and tribal (the Middle East). It was further tied together by a shared sense of Britishness, and this ordered imperial society was graded, reinforced, generalised and proclaimed by an elaborate system of honours and titles, and by a pervasive cult of imperial royalty, which surged out from the metropolis to the periphery, and back again. And all this was brought alive, made real, and carried along from past to present to future by unrivalled and interlocking displays of regular ritual and occasional spectacle. In these ways, and by these means, the British exported and projected vernacular sociological visions from the metropolis to the periphery, and they imported and analogised them from the Empire back to Britain, thereby constructing comforting and familiar resemblances and equivalencies and affinities.

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