There was nothing liberal about the British empire, claims to the contrary notwithstanding. In Ghosts of Empire (2011), Kwasi Kwarteng argues that “Britain’s empire was not liberal in the sense of being a plural, democratic society. The empire openly repudiated ideas of human equality and put power and responsibility into the hands of a chosen elite, drawn from a tiny proportion of the population in Britain. The British Empire was not merely undemocratic; it was anti-democratic” (p. 2).
Kwarteng (who in his writing, in my view, demonstrates a characteristic right-of-centre approach to the positioning of history of Western civilization) adds that people inevitably ask how racist the British empire was. He says the question is difficult to answer satisfactorily, given that issues of race differed widely across the empire. “There is clearly more to understanding the British Empire than racial politics, important though this was” (p. 2).
In terms of administration itself, he contends, “while there was a great deal of racial arrogance among the administrative class as a whole, notions of class and hierarchy were as important if not more so. In this respect I am happy to follow the work of David Cannadine, whose Ornamentalism (2001) put class very much to the foreground of analysis of Britain’s empire” (p. 2). As with Cannadine, Kwarteng notes that his task is to cover (in Cannadine’s words), the “world-view and social presuppositions of those who dominated and ruled the empire” (p. 2).
The book seeks to enter into the mentality of the empire’s rulers: “I argue,” the author comments, “that individual officials yielded immense power and it was this unrestrained power that ultimately led to instability, disorder and chaos” (p. 5). Officials often developed a given line of policy, only for their successors to pursue a different approach, leading to chronic instability.
Class in British imperial society was predominantly based upon money and education
Kwarteng notes that to a considerable extent class in Britain was a synonym for money and education. Once admitted to one of Britan’s ‘decent’ public schools, of which there were about fifteen, and after a degree from either Oxford of Cambridge, or perhaps after a stint in the army, a young man who wanted to could make a career in the colonies.
The author also credits the fifteen or so leading public schools, and to a lesser degree the universities, with cultivation of “the elite swagger and famously lofty sense of superiority” that characterized the administration of the empire. The sense of superiority was as much an expression of cultural superiority as purely social snobbery. A feature of the sense of superiority was the extent to which native princes and rulers were made to fit into the pattern.
In many cases young men chose careers in the colonies because they were elitists seeking to wield power without undergoing the need to win votes. They were not motivated by liberal ideas of democracy, in many cases choosing careers in the empire precisely because they were not democrats.
“The empire stood for order and the rule of law, but we must not pretend that its character was something other than what it was. The imperial administration was highly elitist, stratified and snobbish. It was the very opposite of the plural and liberal institution that some recent historians have portrayed” (p. 7).
In the classic Greek sense, the British empire was an aristocratic empire, and it openly celebrated the concept of ‘rule by the best people.’ There was a meritocractic element to the system; selection for the imperial service was based on rigorous exams or interviews, but the selection was confined to a narrow range of schools and universities.
Chapters in the book include:
- Iraq: Oil and power
- Kashmir: Maharaja’s choice
- Burma: Lost kingdom
- Sudan: Blacks and blues
- Nigeria: ‘The centre cannot hold’
- Hong Kong: Money and democracy
Class and status were integral to empire
The empire has been evoked to support many causes. “Subsequent generations of politicians, historians and campaigners have made the British Empire in their own image, promoting it as a vehicle for whatever cause they happened to espouse” (p. 391).
Perhaps the key to understanding the empire is the idea of natural hiearchy. Class and status were absolutely integral to the empire, “and notions of class were important in forming alliances with local elites, the chiefs, the petty kings and maharajas who crowded the colonial empire” (p. 391).
The author adds, however, that despite hierarchy and class being central to the imperial system, the empire did bring justice and order to often anarchic parts of the world. Kwarteng sees the empire as among the institutions in history that demonstrate a “mixed legacy; they are neither wholly good nor wholly bad; and these must be understood within their own terms and in their own context” (p. 393).
Kwarteng finds it noteworthy that in the colonies themselves, distinct rules of precedence applied which were unrelated to status in the metropolis. There was a predisposition toward strong individuals capable of imposing their will on circumstances. The individualism that arose was anarchic, giving rise to a form of imperial government that lacked policy coherence and strategic direction.
Often strong-willed officials reversed the policy of decades. Such reversals, which gave rise to confusion and instability, occurred in Burma, in the Sudan, and in Hong Kong. In its individualism, snobbery, and audacious self-belief, Kwarteng concludes, the British empire was not the precursor of the world of the twenty-first century.
“Its values and the mental world of its administrators, educated in the languages and culture of ancient Greece and Rome, could not be further removed from the largely Americanised world we now inhabit. The British Empire, in its scale and ethos, was completely unlike any system of government that the world has known. It is highly unlikely that such an enterprise will be undertaken by any nation, no matter how powerful, ever again. The phenomenon of British imperial rule must be understood on its own terms” (p. 397).
Exploitation, slavery, and extermination
Kwarteng speaks of the British empire as an institution with a mixed legacy, neither wholly good of wholly bad. With regard to the legacy of European colonialism in general, Harald Welzer in Climate wars (2012, p. 1) suggests it is helpful to look closely at the legacy, instead of encouraging ‘democratic amnesia’ with regard to it:
“The pitiless brutality with which early industrial countries satisfied their hunger for raw materials, land and power, and which left its mark on whole continents, cannot be seen in the landscape of the West today. The memory of exploitation, slavery and extermination has succumbed to democratic amnesia, as if the countries of the West had always been as they now are and their superior wealth and power were not built upon a murderous history.”
The passage brings to mind a detail that Branko Milanovic (2011) (p. 110) shares, namely that it was “around the end of the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth centuries that income differences between the rich world of West Europe, North America, and Oceania [the islands of the Pacific and adjacent seas, sometimes including Australasia and the Malay archipelago: Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Second Edition], and the rest of the world (Africa, Asia, and Latin America) exploded. This was indeed the period that saw the birth of what we today call ‘the third world.'”
Harald Welzer continues (Climate Wars, 2012, p.2):
“Whereas the past asymmetrical history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries has been translated into luxurious living standards in Western societies, its violent still weighs heavily on many parts of the second and third worlds. Quite a few post-colonial countries have never made it to real statehood, let alone achieved prosperity; many have continue to experience the old exploitation under different conditions, and the signs often point towards further decline rather than significant improvement.
“Climate change resulting from the insatiable hunger for fossil fuels in the early industrial countries hits the poorest regions of the world hardest – a bitter irony that flies in the face of any expectation that life is fair.”
A Nov. 29, 2013 Independent article is entitled: “Revealed: How British Empire’s dirty secrets went up in smoke in the colonies: Thousands of confidential papers were destroyed as British rule neared its end in many colonies.”
A Feb. 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Privately educated elite continues to take top jobs, finds survey: Privately schooled people still dominate law, politics, medicine and journalism despite signs of progress, says Sutton Trust.”
A Sept. 26, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: The racist ideas of slave owners are still with us today: The surge in hate crime since the Brexit vote is one legacy of an overlooked period of British history.”
A Sept. 27, 2016 CBC article is entitled: “Prince William gets lesson in colonialism, cultural genocide at Black Rod ceremony: ‘The current Crown approach of deny and delay cannot continue,’ Grand Chief Ed John tells Prince William.”
An Oct. 7, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Britain’s view of its history ‘dangerous’, says former museum director: Neil MacGregor, once of British Museum, says Britain has focus on ‘sunny side’ rather than German-like appraisal of past.”
A March 11, 2017 Toronto Star article is entitled: “Museums as newsrooms, university profs as journalists: A look at how museums could be a source of trusted civic information, as well as the roles of universities and ordinary people as newsrooms shrink.”