To kick off a new debate series here at History Today, we have collected together the thoughts of some of the most prestigious thinkers on the British Empire to have graced the magazine.
Piers Brendon is a writer, whose most recent work is The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (2007)
Piers Brendon: Edmund Burke famously declared, 'The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other.’ What governors and civil servants achieved in the latter stages of the empire was admirable. In India, they did their best to eradicate thuggee and suttee… in Africa they endeavoured to put down slavery… in New Zealand they suppressed cannibalism and the traffic in tattooed Maori heads… in Hong Kong they tried to stop foot-binding and infanticide.
Having said this, its purpose was not to spread sweetness and light but to increase Britain’s wealth and power. Naturally its coercive and exploitative nature must be disguised.
The British failed lamentably in India, as they did in Ireland, in their duty of care… During the South African War the British allowed a sixth of the Boer population, mostly children, to die in concentration camps.
David Cannadine: Despite the evidence of misrule, hierarchical empires and societies, where inequality was the norm, were in this sense less racist than egalitarian societies, where there was… no alternative vision of the social order from that of collective, antagonistic and often racial identities.
Since the British conceived and understood their metropolis hierarchically, it was scarcely surprising that they conceived and understood their periphery in the same way, and that chivalry and ceremony, monarchy and majesty, were the means by which this vast world was brought together, interconnected, unified and sacralised
A. J. Stockwell: The pursuit of an ethical policy is rarely a practical option because politics is the amoral art of the possible, the skill in choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable. At Suez, this argument continued, the nation and its leaders succumbed to a collective hysteria that robbed them of judgement and prevented rational consideration of the intractable problems of the real world and of the national interest in it.
Bernard Porter: Ramsay MacDonald said worthy imperialist causes ‘could easily be hijacked by nefarious capitalist interests'.
Just because the US has the power to impose her will on others (or so we thought until recently) it doesn’t mean that her way of democratizing (or, in the language of the early twentieth century, ‘civilizing’) them is best. Power doesn’t usually come with – for example – cultural sensitivity, understanding and tolerance.
PB: George Orwell, who had seen colonial dirty work at close quarters in Burma in the 1920s, acknowledged that the British Empire was much better than any other. It was vastly superior, in moral terms, to the French, German, Portuguese and Dutch empires.
It was nothing to compare with the bitter wars that the French fought before extricating themselves from Vietnam and Algeria. Thanks to pragmatic policies formulated in London, the Empire experienced what Ronald Hyam recently called ‘a quiet and easy death’.
AJS: Suez was not the first crisis that had divided the nation over the morality of empire. Remember, the slave trade, Robert Clive, the impeachment of Warren Hastings, the Indian Mutiny, the Morant Bay rising in Jamaica, Gordon of Khartoum, the South African War, the Amrits ar Massacre, Gandhi’s salt march, the fall of Singapore, and countless other incidents. Nor did Suez bring closure to this debate which would flare up a few years later over killings in Kenya’s Hola Camp, over the so-called ‘police state’ of Nyasaland and over Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence.
DC: The Empire was a product of pre-modern times, with pre-modern values. It was a deliberate, sustained and self-conscious attempt by the British to order, fashion and comprehend their imperial society overseas on the basis of what they believed to be the ordering of their metropolitan society at home… The social structure was generally believed to be layered, individualistic, traditional, hierarchical, and providentially-sanctioned; and for all the advances towards a broader, more democratic electoral franchise, it was in practice a nation emphatically not dedicated to the proposition that all men (let alone women) were created equal.
The splendid anachronism of its pageantry at the time of George V’s Silver Jubilee and George VI’s coronation was deliberately projected as a powerful and reassuring antidote to the high-tech parades and search-light rallies in Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Red Square and Hitler’s Nuremberg.
PB: Transmitting programmes such as ‘This Sceptred Isle’ and ‘Empire’s Children’, the BBC promotes imperial nostalgia for a humane and benign Greater Britain, which print critics are apt to denounce as a blood-stained tyranny.
Britain’s conquests were necessarily violent and its subsequent occupations were usually repressive. Imperial powers lack legitimacy and govern irresponsibly, relying on force, collaboration and propaganda. But no vindication, even that formulated by Burke, can eradicate the instinctive hostility to alien control. Libertas opposes imperium.
BP: Both J. A. Hobson and Ramsay MacDonald realized that it was not enough to be an ‘anti-imperialist’ tout court, however warm and virtuous that might make one feel inside. There may be good reasons for ‘humanitarian intervention’ in certain circumstances. The problem is to ensure that such intervention is not distorted by selfish national or commercial interests, or negated by the effect of cultural ignorance. We’ve not cracked that one yet.
Text taken from the original articles...
Critics of Empire by Bernard Porter
Suez & the Moral Bankruptcy of Empire by A.J. Stockwell
A Moral Audit of Empire by Piers Brandon
Ornamentalism by Sir David Cannadine