I've never heard of him either.
If you recommended one of his books for the uninitiated to start with, which one would you recommend?
The Player of Games is the one everybody always seems to recommend. It gives some pretty good insights into how the Culture works but it's a pretty straightforward story so it's not overwhelming. Consider Phlebas is good too, and most of it is from the perspective of the Culture being the bad guys, sort of. Both of those are really good books.
I think he might not be as well known in the US. I did buy a couple books when I was over there but they were well hidden away.
He's a good author, but I don't like the sort of colonialist old-britania ideology pervading the culture books
I'm not so sure that's really his ideology at all. If anything, he's pretty critical about the Culture being flawed, despite being a utopia for the people living in it. I mean it's obviously influenced by imperialism and it mirrors the idea of spreading "freedom" and "civilisation" that British colonialism dressed itself up as, but I think he focuses a lot on how amoral the Culture is as a civilisation, especially in the methods it uses to annex other civilisations.
I don't know. For all I know, you could be right and he could have a hard-on for the ~good old days~, but I've never really got the impression that he was putting the Culture and the things it does forward as good things.