Professor Andrew Thompson

Research interests

Much of my research has focused on getting British and Imperial histories to speak to each other, and on bringing the empire back into the story of the making of modern Britain. My first book – Imperial Britain. The Empire in British Politics, c.1880-1932 (Longmans, 2000) – was a study of the importance of imperialism as a political cause in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century, and sought to show how grass roots and extra-parliamentary movements mobilised around the empire and how they interacted with imperial interests and ideas in the country at large. My second book – The Empire Strikes Back? The Impact of Imperialism on Britain from the Mid-Nineteenth Century (Pearson, 2005) – was a more wide-ranging study of the range of attitudes people displayed toward the empire, and the different types of experience they derived from it. Inter alia, it argued that the empire markedly extended the boundaries of an increasingly pluralistic British society, that there was never any single or monolithic response to imperialism, and that the meanings ascribed to it were not only multiple but vigorously debated and contested. Together with Professor Jeremy Black, I co-organised a conference on ‘The World: A Deep History of the Tory Party and its Views of Britain’s World Role’ in 2013. 

Another strand of my interest relates to imperial migrations: both the emigration of people from the British Isles to the ‘new’ world before 1945, and the immigration of people from Britain’s colonies and former colonies after 1945. The migrant as ‘everyman’ is arguably a defining feature of our own times, but migration is as old as humanity itself, and, it was during the nineteenth century, the most intensive period of migration in human history, that 100 million people moved around the world, with perhaps as many as one in every ten people affected by this experience. Many of these migrants were European and many settled in Europe’s overseas empires. Many were also African and Asian contract and indentured labourers working in plantations, mines and on the railways in European colonies. Migration, then, was crucial to the making of European empires, but those empires, in turn, left their imprint on the migrant experience and the political economies and racial ideologies that informed that experience.   

My latest book – Empire and Globalisation? Networks of People Good and Capital in the British World, c.1850-1914 (Cambridge, 2010) is a study of the 2 million or so migrants who left Britain every decade from the 1870s to the 1920s, and the ways in which co-ethnic networks of these migrants, and the rick information flows that passed through them, influenced patterns of trade and investment.  In so doing, the book provides a fresh look at the economic, social and cultural ways in which the mature British empire promoted a recognisably modern process of international integration or globalisation, and the pitfalls, as well as the benefits, that this process entailed. It also seeks to relate debates about globalisation in the past to debates about globalisation today, and argues that many of the characteristics of, and difficulties associated with, globalisation in our own times have their origins in the imperial forms of globalisation pursued by the British before the Second World War.

The question of how our colonial past may still be shaping our post-colonial present is, moreover, not only of interest to academics – the churches, humanitarian and human rights organisations, the media and politicians have all grappled with and expressed views on this subject.  Arguably the biggest challenge to Britain since the Second World War has been the transformation of the ethnic complexion of its population. How do we manage the raft of contentious religious and racial issues inherited from an imperial past? Hence another stand of my work explores the experiences of immigrants from the so-called ‘new’ Commonwealth - the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean - during and after decolonisation. A project on ‘Asian Britishness’, undertaken  with the Institute of Public Policy Research and Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council, involved interviewing 1st generation Asian migrants and talking to them about their identities, and in particular the ways in which they felt themselves to be ‘British’. This then led to an invitation to speak to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit on the subject. I am also currently working with my colleague Dr James House, at the University of Leeds, on immigrant welfare in Britain and France during decolonisation.

My most recent project is a forthcoming companion volume for the Oxford History of the British Empire series, entitled Britain’s Experience of Empire in the Twentieth Century.  Written by specialists from various fields, the chapters in this volume range widely across social attitudes to empire, and the place of the colonies in the public imagination, to the implications of imperialism for demography, trade, party politics and political culture, government and foreign policy, the churches and civil society, and the armed forces. The volume also suggests that, almost half a century after the end of formal empire, the legacies of empire are not only very much with us but may have yet have fully to unfold.