Finest Hour 155, Summer 2012
Ghost Story for America
Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, by Kwasi Kwarteng. Public Affairs, hardbound, illus., 488 pages, $29.99, Kindle $14.99. Member price $24.
By Andrew Roberts
Mr. Roberts’ review was first published in The Wall Street Journal.
Overall, was the British Empire a good or a bad thing? Taken in the round over its half-millennium history—between John Cabot landing in Newfoundland in 1497 and the handover of Hong Kong in 1997—did the Empire contribute or detract from the sum of human happiness?
The standing of the Empire is presently the most contentious historiographical battleground in British public discourse, and Kwasi Kwarteng has tossed a grenade into the struggle.
Kwarteng describes it as “a post- racial account of empire, insofar as it does not regard the fact that the administrators were white, while the subject people were from other races, as the key determinant in understanding empire. There is clearly more to understanding the British Empire than racial politics, important though that was.”
For a Ghanaian, who might have been expected to adopt the classic 1960s left-wing analysis of the Empire as a vast exploitative racist kleptocracy, Mr. Kwarteng instead has written a far subtler and more nuanced critique, one that cannot be ignored by the warring historians of both sides. Kwarteng is also a 36-year-old Old Etonian, holds a Cambridge Ph.D. in History, and is moreover a Member of Parliament for one of the safest Tory seats in the House of Commons.
The Marxist characterization of the imperialist elite as a bunch of cynical asset-strippers does not wash with Kwarteng, who rightly portrays them as amongst the most idealistic group of administrators in the history of mankind. (The author almost glories in his own elitism; it’s hard not to warm to someone who expresses his grateful and filial love to his parents in his book’s dedication, written in Latin.)
Yet neither is Kwarteng the Old Tom that his political and historiographical opponents have tried to make out. He resolutely holds the British imperialists to account for the mess they made when finally relinquishing power over places like Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan and Nigeria. By total contrast, the British often had plenty of better alternatives than the routes they took, yet all too often they plumped for partition, overhasty exits and subsequent unjustified self-congratulation. (He might also have added the Palestine Mandate, but five post-British hot spots seem quite enough to cover.) He does write about Hong Kong, but there the end of empire has not led to bloodshed; indeed it is still hugely prosperous, and anyhow there was no viable alternative to honoring an 1898 agreement to hand the territory back to China.
Kwarteng is an engaging writer, and his pen-portraits of British imperial- ists—both well-known, such as Kitchener, Gordon and Lawrence, and the more obscure, such as Lord Lugard of Nigeria, Sir Henry Dobbs of Iraq and Sir Anthony Grantham of Hong Kong—are subtle and scholarly. What emerges is a picture of well-meaning Classicists from Oxford and Cambridge who in their twenties and early thirties went out to rule over vast areas of the globe with minimal training, muscular Christianity and common sense, as well as a burning desire to do their best for the people in their care. All too often, when flung into deeply complex and dangerous tribal, economic, religious and political quagmires, as Kwarteng ably demonstrates, good-will simply wasn’t enough, especially once Britain’s imperial prestige had been fatally compromised by the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942.
In his introduction to the American edition of this book, Kwarteng states that “No nation faced such similar problems to modern America as Britain at the height of its imperial glory.” He argues that as the world’s preeminent superpower, Britain was for decades the financial and commercial center of the world, and deliberately took on responsibility for the world order, whose Pax Britannica was thus almost an exact pre- cursor to today’s Pax Americana. His message is that America should learn the lesson of the demise of the British Empire, and avoid the paternalism, pragmatism and opportunism that in Britain’s case led to disastrous decline.
This seems like a good prescription for America to follow, but is it? In his recent state of the union Speech, President Obama said: “Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” It was hardly a Churchillian rejoinder, but then it was a very demotic speech, and he is wrong. By almost any set of criteria, the United States’ influence in the world has indeed waned since the Administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, but she still has a good head-start on the British Empire, which was anti-democratic, protectionist, slow to innovate, and largely ruled by the sportsmen of its only two great universities.
America, by total contrast, is—when she is true to herself—a proselytizing democracy, free-market and innovational. And she has over a dozen of the world’s top twenty universities.
Where the British Empire does indeed hold a message for modern America is in the area of self-belief. Many of the Empire’s worst legacies stemmed from a collapse in confidence amongst the British leadership elite in the values and underlying principles that had made Britain the largest empire in history. Anyone who thinks that the same spasm of self-doubt among America’s elite isn’t a significant problem in modern America doesn’t know what they’re talking about.
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