Imperialism still has a critical role to play in the understanding of contemporary politics and conflicts in the 21st century, according to a study.

Ongoing research led by Ilia Xypolia from the University of Aberdeen has investigated the role of imperialism by tracing the roots of the conflict in Cyprus during the interwar years.

The findings will be shared as part of an event entitled Is imperialism still relevant for the world today? Lessons from Cyprus on 5 November for the general public. The event is part of the ESRC's flagship annual Festival of Social Science.

This strategy was instrumental in shifting the identity among Cypriots from a religious to a national one. The study has traced this emergence of a specifically Turkish identity among Muslim people on the Mediterranean island, and how this affected relationships between communities.

"Our research sheds new light on the Cyprus conflict and adds to the debate on the relationship between imperialism and nationalism. The divide and rule policy of the British supported the emergence of a nationalist movement. It acted as counterweight to the majority Greek Cypriot nationalist agitation that demanded the end of imperial rule," said Dr Xypolia, from the School of Social Science at the University of Aberdeen. 

"The message is that imperialism is still relevant in helping us understand how the world works today."

The aim of the Aberdeen study has been to explore the role of British imperialism, defined as a country extending its influence, in Cyprus during the 1920s and 1930s. It is the first research of its kind to draw on archive material from all the concerned parties namely Britain, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece to examine the Cyprus conflict in depth.

This interwar period was characterised by an authoritarian colonial regime yet little has been written about this period, according to Dr Xypolia. The objective of the British governors of the time was to turn Cypriots into obedient subjects of the British Empire. 

However, Dr Xypolia's study highlights how their divide-and-rule policies were instead 'instrumental in establishing Cyprus’s competing nationalisms'. She says: "Cyprus had a history of peaceful co-existence of peoples on the island until British rule."

The research highlights how Greek and Turkish nationalism on the island developed at different times and at different speeds. For example, the enormous shift among Muslims from a religious and ethnic identity to a national Turkish one took place from 1923 to 1939.

The imperial policy of the colonial British power introduced divisive mechanisms, says Dr Xypolia. "Emerging intercommunal hostilities were exploited to maintain the colony and deny the island’s political independence," she adds.

The study highlights how ongoing political conflicts today in the empire's former territories have their roots in these separation policies. A significant legacy of imperialism was the 'politicisation' of cultural differences which made them the base for discrimination, according to Dr Xypolia.

"The Cyprus issue is still seen as the world’s most intractable conflicts," says Dr Xypolia. "Colonial rule may have come to an end in 1960. But the current deadlock and obstacles to peace can be traced back to imperialism and its legacy. The Cyprus constitution is nothing more than a product of a neo-imperialist framework."

Professor Jennifer Rubin, ESRC Executive Chair, said: "The Festival of Social Science is one of the largest co-ordinated endeavours undertaken by a science community and demonstrates ESRC's commitment to public engagement. We know social scientists and economists value the opportunity to talk with the public to make an impact with their work. These events should inspire young people to pursue a career in social sciences and raise awareness about the impact made to wider society."