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Imperial Island

An Alternative History of the British Empire

Charlotte Lydia Riley

ISBN 9780674258495

Publication date: 05/21/2024

This riveting new history tells the story of Britain’s journey from imperial power to a nation divided—one that alternately welcomes and excludes former imperial subjects and has been utterly transformed by them.

In the turbulent years since the outbreak of World War II, Britain has gone from an imperial power whose dominion extended over a quarter of the world’s population to an island nation divorced from Europe. After the war, as independence movements gained momentum, former imperial subjects started making their way to her soggy shores. Would these men and women of different races, cultures, and faiths be accepted as British, or would they forever be seen as outsiders? In this deeply intimate retelling of the United Kingdom’s transformation from empire to island nation, Charlotte Lydia Riley shows that empire haunts every aspect of life in modern Britain.

From race riots to the Notting Hill Carnival, from the Suez Crisis to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from the Monday Club and Enoch Powell’s defiant calls to protect England’s racial purity to Band Aid, the Spice Girls, and Brick Lane, the imperial mindset has dominated Britain’s relationship with itself and the world. The ghosts of empire are to be found, too, in anti-immigrant rhetoric and royal memorabilia, in the pitched battles over how history should be taught in schools—and, of course, in Brexit.

Drawing on a mass of original research to capture the thoughts and feelings of ordinary British citizens, Imperial Island tells a story of people on the move and of people trapped in the past, of the end of empire and the birth of multiculturalism, a chronicle of violence and exclusion but also a testament to community. It is the story that best explains Britain today.


  • Riley’s absorbing new book…[is] a history of modern multicultural Britain and the myriad ways in which it has been shaped by empire and imperialism…Riley’s skills as a social historian are demonstrated to best effect in her use of personal testimonies, oral histories and popular culture sources to bring to life the everyday experiences of new migrants…The book is particularly rich on civil society campaigns against racism, and at documenting the political role played by the anti-war left in modern Britain…dexterously handled and carefully sourced.

    —Financial Times


  • Charlotte Lydia Riley is Associate Professor of twentieth-century British history at the University of Southampton. She is the editor of The Free Speech Wars and has written for the Washington Post, The Guardian, New Statesman, New Humanist, and BBC World Histories. She cohosts a podcast, Tomorrow Never Knows, on feminism, pop culture, politics, and history.

Book Details

  • 328 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press