Martin Adeney: from interviewing three prime ministers and the baggage left by the British Empire

Martin Adeney, author of Baggage of Empire

Martin Adeney, author of Baggage of Empire - Credit: Archant

Martin Adeney discusses his book, Baggage of Empire

I was born one of Twilight’s children: the last generation to be born in the days of the British Empire before it came to a close in the 1940s.

But in my new book, Baggage of Empire, I trace how it has continued to influence our attitudes, our institutions and the stories we tell each other. Just look at the Brexit debate.

I had a privileged insight. I was born to British parents in the Middle East just before the Battle of Alamein.

I spent 25 years as a journalist charting the fortunes of politics and business, most prominently as industrial editor of the BBC in the years of trade union ascendancy and the Thatcher government.

Later I worked for an imperial icon, ICI – Imperial Chemical Industries.

The book brings together some of this experience, together with stories and impressions of the people I met – the three prime ministers I interviewed and such different figures as Robert Maxwell, Arthur Scargill, Alan Sugar, and the 18-year-old Richard Branson.

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There are also lighter recollections.

When I was on the Nine O’clock News most nights reporting outside some wintry industrial dispute, the late Terry Wogan started a campaign called SMASH, Send Martin Adeney Somewhere Hotter. Sadly, it had little effect, but it cheered me up.

Another reason for writing was irritation – always a powerful driver.

In this case irritation at the way the seventies and eighties are being explained and interpreted by people who weren’t there. So I have attempted as far as possible to go back to my own words and notes at the time to give a contemporary glimpse of the way it felt to us then.

But the underlying theme is how we all struggled to escape the grasp and influence of Empire, and in particular the belief that British was automatically best and we knew how to order and make things better than anyone else.

As a boy I lived in Southampton, which still styled itself the Gateway to the Empire.

I first encountered this attitude standing on the shore to watch the arrival of the American liner, United States, which had just wrestled the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for the fastest Atlantic crossing from our Queen Mary. As we watched, the man beside announced, with British disdain, that she might not hold together; she was only welded not riveted as British ships traditionally were.

A few miles down Southampton Water, we watched the pride of British aviation, the Princess flying boat powering up to take off.

Sadly she became another great British failure; her engines too feeble for her weight. Alongside over-confidence came regular disappointment.

As the years went by I charted both collapse and renewal as the great cities that had depended on Imperial trade and great industries that had focused on Empire markets struggled to adapt or didn’t.

And other great Empires came crashing down – the trades union empire, and the empire of coal which once had employed every tenth working person, and the Merchant Navy.

The book is informed by my own journey but I hope it stimulates others of the Twilight children to find echoes and ponder and discuss their own equally relevant experiences. Hampstead and Highgate are full of people who started their lives, as we used to say, “abroad”, in the old Empire.

And what is the thread which binds our Twilight generation together?

In part it is the experience, and indeed the expectation, of dealing with decline and disappointment.

We share a perception that for all the astonishing material prosperity that most of us enjoy, things were somehow better in the past, and we, the British, were taken more seriously.

But along with that recognition, there remains a remarkable self-confidence, often an over-confidence, nurtured by our imperial successes, that we can indeed stand out from others.

Whether it is the example of our institutions, exported to other shores, our industrial flair or the strength of our culture enabling us to absorb whoever is fortunate enough to set foot on our shores.

The hangover has been apparent, wherever I worked, on both sides of industry, among both sides of the argument over community relations, in the press, in the old empire itself in its immediate aftermath. It has been weighty baggage.”

Baggage of Empire: Reporting politics and industry in the shadow of imperial decline (Biteback Publishing) is available at £12.99.