March 15, 2015

Finest Hour 159, Summer 2013

Page 54

By Andrew Roberts

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain, by John Darwin. Bloomsbury, hardbound, illus., $35, member price $28.

Such has been the tenacity of the Marxist interpretation of history that twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, books are still being published to explain phenomena like the British Empire in terms of dialectal materialism, bourgeois exploitation of the proletariat, and so on. How refreshing it is, therefore, when as distinguished an historian as John Darwin of Nuffield College, Oxford, writes something as thoughtful, well-researched and persuasive as Unfinished Empire, which explains the half-millennium-long explosion of Britain across the globe in terms that genuinely make sense.

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Of course Darwin doesn’t for a moment deny the vital importance of the capitalist ethic in the process, readily acknowledging how the British Empire “was a largely private enterprise empire; the creation of merchants, investors, migrants and missionaries and many others.” Yet there’s no tone of sneering negativity. Indeed in examining the apogee of the Empire, which he puts from the 1830s to 1940, he argues that the British succeeded “because they exploited the opportunities of global connectedness more fully than their rivals.” The exploitation was of global connectedness, not subject peoples.

Maps of the world emphasizing the extent of Atlantic commerce in the 18th century, the submarine cable system connecting the Empire in 1929, the huge levels of foreign investment up to the outbreak of World War I, and so on, all underline Darwin’s point that although it was haphazard, the Empire came about as the result of the deployment of unimaginable amounts of energy, risk-taking, far-sightedness and self-confidence. “The hall- mark of British imperialism,” he concludes, “was its extraordinary versatility in method, outlook and object.”

With one major exception—the government replacing the East India Company when it got into trouble around 1860—the State generally stayed out of the way, except to guarantee the freedom of the seas for trade. With government regulation kept to a minimum, private enterprise built the greatest empire the world had ever seen (and doubtless now will ever see, in this post-imperialist age).

Darwin looks carefully at the various accidents of history and geography that also led to British success overseas in the five centuries—almost to the day—that separated John Cabot’s landing in Newfoundland in June 1497 from Chris Patten leaving Hong Kong in June 1997. Britain’s offshore position—close to but not attached to Europe, not far from the Mediterranean and Africa, athwart Scandinavia’s sea-lanes and an ocean-width from the Americas—meant that she was extremely well-placed strategically and commercially. So long as she maintained a strong navy, she could escape the expense of a large standing army, which most of her continental rivals were forced to maintain.

Coming relatively late to imperialism, the British found a useful trail that had already been blazed by the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, who had explored the trade routes and supplied much of the apparatus of empire that Britain went on to perfect (and very often purloin altogether through naval superiority). Every invention in the particularly inventive Victorian age was put to use, and in particular, as Darwin shows, “Railways turned the British, hitherto mainly a sea power, into a land and sea power, a huge increase in capacity.” The author’s deep familiarity with all the key sources of this vast subject allows him to pluck examples for his arguments from across the centuries and continents, being as much at home with Lord Salisbury’s South African goals and policies, say, as with Winston Churchill’s unfortunate prediction of December 1924: “Why should there be a war with Japan? I do not believe there is the slightest chance of it in my lifetime.”

Britain’s pluralistic society—which always included a deeply anti-imperialist minority—her relative religious tolerance, her flexible political system, her open markets, free trade policies and ever more sophisticated financial instruments, as well as the City and docklands of London itself, meant that she was perfectly adapted to run an empire that Darwin sees as “less a recognizable bloc with borders and limits than a vast archipelago, strewn across the world.” Some possessions were jewels, while others were “a sprinkling of minnows acquired for no discernible reason but hard to abandon.” It was also vital that no fewer than 19 million Britons were willing to emigrate between 1815 and 1930—twice as many as from any other part of Europe. (The Italians came next with 9 million, but most of them wound up in America.)

On top of the directly-ruled jewels and minnows, Britain also enjoyed hegemony over a widespread informal empire which, in places like Argentina, Uruguay, and Egypt, were important to her. This “invisible” empire formed the template for the kind of influence that the United States has enjoyed in many places around the world since 1945.

Nor did the Empire fundamentally alter Britain: Darwin takes issue with those historians who argue that Britain was “constituted by empire,” which he calls “a modish but vacuous expression.” Because Britain had been a strong, well-funded fiscal-military state long before acquiring an empire beyond Europe, she was able to enter her post-imperial phase without suffering any collective national mental breakdown. For Britain, the Empire was “only a phase, an exceptional moment.”

Darwin is unsparing about the violence and the failures; it’s encouraging to see the Attlee ministry and its viceroy Lord Mountbatten rightfully blamed for “at least one million” deaths in the Partition of India, rather than the fraction of that figure often attributed by historians to that terrible period. Best of all, though, is the thought that Darwin’s book might at long last herald the victory of the post-Marxist phase of imperial historiography. And not a moment too soon.

Mr. Roberts is author of numerous books on British history, among which our favorite is his pithy and potent early work, Eminent Churchillians. This review was first published in the Daily Telegraph.

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