Saturday, July 22, 2006
Was the Empire Worth It?
In Iraq we absurdly sought to create a nation out of incompatible elements which now engage in murderous civil conflict and in Afghanistan we see the 'fourth Anglo-Afghan war in progress to be followed, as before, by an Afghan triumph'. He concludes:
'It seems that the story of Empire is being re-enacted over much of the globe, bringing violence and destruction on a scale barely envisaged in the imperial era.'
Against this it could be adduced that the empire has not rained devastation upon countries like Australia or Canada and that India, for one, has derived huge benefits from British occupation in terms of honest government, education and infrastructure. One leading historian, Niall Ferguson, has also argued that the empire provided the template for the better aspects of the modern world, like free trade and internatial law and that by being 'sacrificed' by Churchill in exchange for victory in the Second World War, it effectively saved the world from Nazism. I'm unsure about this argument however, and I look not only at the huge suffering our imperial adventures caused but also the deforming impact of its legacy of racism not to mention the occasions, as Gott has indicated, where the empire has struck back to provide something which seems like an avenging moral symmetry. But the argument is important, not just between historians but in the present day as well.
But I can't agree with Richard Gott that "the story of Empire is being re-enacted over much of the globe". It seems to me that empire is completely out of fashion now that the Soviet one has collapsed, unless you count China and/or its aspirations in Africa as an empire and/or a desire for one. Not even the US wants to run overseas countries in the way that an empire would have run them. Isn't what they are up to more what we "rancorous old leftie"s (congratulations – a wonderful phrase; I must remember to drop it into a conversation) in the sixties called cultural imperialism mixed with an understandable desire to secure there sources of raw materials (eg oil)?
Sorry to disagree with you but Ferguson, who is professor at Harvard really is a leading historian. See his biography on wikipedia and you might change your mind. Now whether you agree with him or not is another matter and your privilege.
I think Gott meant that the story is being re-enacted in the sense that its consequences-or 'chickens' if you will- are coming home to roost in so many places.
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