The empire strikes again?

Posted: 20 January 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,


Apparently, the British public [ht: ja] are generally proud of their country’s role in subjecting the world to colonialism and the British Empire, according to a new poll: 44 percent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism, while only 21 percent regretted that it happened. 23 percent held neither view.


The same poll also asked about whether the British Empire was a good thing or a bad thing: 43 percent said it was good, while only 19 percent said it was bad. Twenty-five percent responded that it was “neither.”

I suppose the results are not surprising if, in fact, as the author of the article observes, the “British Empire is not widely taught in detail in British schools.” Therefore, British schoolchildren don’t learn about the numerous atrocities committed in creating and maintaining the empire—such as the Boer concentration camps, the Amritsar massacre, the partitioning of India, the Mau Mau uprising, and the famines in India.

What little they and their parents do learn probably comes from the likes of Niall Ferguson, the author of the 2003 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (on which a television series of the same name, starring Ferguson, was based).

Ferguson actually attempts to come up with an answer to the question, was the empire good or bad? And, no surprise, Harvard’s incorrectly political ignorant gay-bashing bloviating right-wing infotainment war-crimes-apologist historian’s answer is the British empire was a good thing:

Many charges can of course be levelled against the British Empire. I do not claim, as Lord Curzon did, that “the British Empire is under Providence the greatest instrument for good that the world has seen”; nor, as General Smuts claimed, that it was “the widest system of organised human freedom which has ever existed in human history”. The Empire was never so altruistic. In the 18th century the British were as zealous in the acquisition and exploitation of slaves as they were subsequently zealous in trying to stamp slavery out; and for much longer they practised a form of racial discrimination and segregation that we today consider abhorrent. When imperial authority was challenged – in India in 1857, in Jamaica in 1831 or 1865, in South Africa in 1899 – the British response was brutal. When famine struck (Ireland in the 1840s, India in the 1870s) their response was negligent, in some measure positively culpable.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that no organisation in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries. And no organisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world. For much (though certainly not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for relatively incorrupt government. Prima facie, there therefore seems a plausible case that empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.

I suppose the best one can say is, Ferguson understands the brutality of the empire striking back. But, in the name of “global welfare,” his argument suggests he would join forty-plus percent of the British public and be on the side of the empire striking again.

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