Saturday, July 22, 2006


Was the Empire Worth It?

Richard Gott has always been a bit of a rancorous old leftie but his article today on the allegedly malign legacy of the British Empire is thought provoking. He argues that virtually all our annexations, impositions of settlers and other intervetions have resulted in ongoing suffering of a grievous kind. He cites Palestine where our casual dominion resulted in a form of settlement imposed by the west which he predicts will end with Israel being destroyed as a state. He surveys other examples of failure- Sierra Leone, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, where settlement has borne tragic outcomes; India, where partition caused enormous fatalities plus ongoing problems over Kashmir; Ceylon, where white owned plantations imported workers from India with dire present day consequences; and, of course, Iraq and Afghanistan.

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.

Interesting but, without a parallel universe without one, it's difficult to say whether the British Empire was 'A Good Thing' or 'A Bad Thing'. The truth, as often, is probably somewhere between these extremes. I read something vaguely interesting a while back about how English would now be an obscure tongue spoken only by a few million bellicose islanders off the west coast of Europe if our empire hadn't been 'successful' enough to stop the Americans adopting Spanish or German as their language....

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)?
oops please read 'their' for 'there'.
Niall Ferguson maybe good looking enough to be on TV but he is NOT a leading historian. No more than the late tory MP Alan Clarke was, whose view about the empire being sacrificed Ferguson espouses and whose theories about WW1 are equally discredited.
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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