In teaching, over many years, various aspects of the history of Britain's empire, I have nearly always urged on my students that there is one big question we should not spend time discussing. That is whether the British empire was a Good Thing or a Bad one. The injunction was for two main reasons. First, such essentially moral questions are not, in the main, the historian's business and may indeed impede a properly historical search for understanding and explanation. Secondly, Britain's global imperial entanglements are simply too huge and varied a phenomenon to admit of a single evaluation. A balance sheet aiming to encompass 17th-century Puritan settlement in New England, 19th-century capital investment in South Africa or China, 1950s police behaviour in Kenya and even the present-day embroilment in Afghanistan would be, even if possible, fairly meaningless.
My appeals to bypass moral evaluation have usually been in vain – and maybe rightly so. Even the most austerely detached of historians cannot wholly avoid ethical judgement. And, like it or not, history students join a far wider public sphere in yearning to draw lessons for the present. Nowhere is that yearning stronger than in relation to the legacies of empire. Britain's recurrent "history wars" have nearly always revolved around their meaning.
A new focus and sharpness to these battles is heralded in Ndiku Mutua and 4 others v. the Foreign and Commonwealth Office: the recent court victory by elderly Kenyans seeking compensation for their alleged torture during Britain's suppression of the 1950s Mau Mau revolt. In July, they defeated the government's plea that it could not be held liable for official actions at the time. Whatever the outcome of the substantive case for damages and apologies to follow, the judgement promises to open a new era in Britain's dealings with its late-imperial history. The case's significance extends well beyond the 1950s Kenyan Emergency. As a result, the Foreign Office has been forced to reveal the existence of a vast archive of previously undisclosed colonial administration files from former UK territories across the world. These "migrated" archives, as HMG peculiarly describes them (as if the files had decided of their own volition to fly north in winter), will prompt reappraisal of many aspects of Britain's withdrawal from empire. This will include episodes and policies of official violence and repression in Palestine, Malaya, Cyprus and elsewhere, as well as in Kenya.
We may speculate that light will also be shed on such other dark corners of the decolonisation story as alleged manipulation of electoral processes, or covert attempts to influence politicians and parties. Potentially, almost every part of the narrative of decolonisation will have to be rewritten. Elsewhere, we have had important new findings on the role of British official repression and atrocity in imperial history: from Matthew Hughes's work on the 1930s Palestine revolt, through Benjamin Grob-Fitzgibbon's broader analysis of Britain's "dirty wars" in his Imperial Endgame, to Richard Drayton's sharp critique of the way in which, in his view, imperial history-writing has suppressed such themes.
Although long in the making, Richard Gott's book arrives felicitously apt to this moment. Britain's Empire takes us much further back than the Kenya of the 1950s. Covering the era from the 1750s to the great Indian revolt of 1857-8, its twin themes are the ubiquitous and almost continuous character of anti-colonial resistance and rebellion, and the equally consistent pattern of savage, brutal, sometimes genocidal British repression. There was no enlightened civilising mission, no "liberal empire", urges Gott, but rather a shameful record of cruelty comparable to the exploits of Genghiz Khan or Attila the Hun, or those of the 20th century's worst dictators.
Jeremy Paxman's Empire also promises squarely to confront present-day concerns. Its subtitle and first pages pose a fascinating and important challenge: "We think we know what the British Empire did to the world. But what did it do to us?" Paxman also, rather surprisingly, suggests that the issue has been ignored: "by and large, no one has much to say about empire". Well, that rather depends on where one's looking. It might be true to say that school history teaching has neglected the subject, or Paxman's own world of broadcasting - except for occasional colourful, often kitsch, exercises in nostalgia.
Senior politicians, too, have rarely tackled empire's legacies, even as those legacies haunt so much that they do - from Afghanistan and Iraq to Liam Fox and mysterious companion flitting around various former colonies to equally mysterious purpose. But on multiple other levels, including not just serious research but cuisine and pop culture or the Mau Mau case and Scottish devolution debates, imperial afterlives are hotly contested.
"What the empire did to the British" – including how it made Britishness - is indeed a huge theme crying out for the kind of punchy, penetrating but entertaining treatment at which Paxman is adept. Yet his book lets us down badly here: very little of it actually lives up to the subtitle promise. Instead, we get a sharply written, often witty retelling of some familiar old stories. And though there are allusions to the dark side of imperial misrule and atrocity, which is Gott's main theme, Paxman seems more concerned to recall horrors committed on "us" by the "natives", and to reassure that most of those who ran the empire were not really such bad chaps after all.
Gott's unblinkingly severe gaze across the empire's history is far from being a wholly novel perspective, but is much at odds with what remains the mainstream view – let alone the way in which politicians like Michael Gove apparently want imperial history to be taught. It contrasts starkly with the other highest-profile recent overview of empire : the Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng's Ghosts of Empire (Bloomsbury, £25). Kwarteng's book received largely positive attention when it appeared. It is indeed being absurdly overpraised by reviewers who have failed to note either how unoriginal are its arguments – its central thesis about empire's hierarchical, aristocratic character is taken from David Cannadine's 2001 book Ornamentalism – or how liberally its pages are spattered with small but annoying errors. Kwarteng holds a Cambridge PhD in history. He definitely should, indeed does, know better than this. His Cambridge thesis was on the rather more arcane topic of England's 1690s Recoinage Crisis: perhaps he should have stuck to that.
Gott's book is thus a welcome, even necessary, corrective. Yet, sadly, it too has multiple shortcomings. One of the most basic is shared with Kwarteng. Wide-ranging historical surveys like these are, necessarily, based in the main on secondary sources - the work of other historians. On some levels, they can only be as good – or bad – as their choice of sources. Here both Gott and Kwarteng are gravely at fault. Neither's endnotes and bibliographies indicate that they have even glanced at almost any of the most important modern works on British imperial history.
On this front Paxman's, the most lightweight of the books, actually scores better. His bibliography does at least suggest that he – or his researcher – has read a lot of the key literature, even if the harder questions it raises don't surface much. Gott's evidential base is a disconcerting mishmash. Sometimes he relies heavily on largely superseded works, sometimes on superficial accounts in cases where a large, relevant, more specialist literature exists. Sometimes he gives no source at all for a particular claim; and where he does, he never gives the relevant page numbers in the book. Thus one can't, without great difficulty, follow up on his references – which is what notes are supposed to be for.
Perhaps more problematic still is that Gott so rarely engages with his sources, or with arguments about why things happened: what his actors thought they were about, or what the wider contexts or significance of their actions might have been. Some of the conflicts he covers were of great historical importance, others utterly inconsequential – and there's very little discrimination here between them. Thus, for instance, in his treatment of Ireland, Gott gives roughly equal space to the 1798 revolution, which was on any account a central passage in Irish history, and to "Captain Rock's rebellion", which never actually happened (nor did Cap'* Rock himself ever exist). Gott has given us a chronicle, not a history: one damned, bloody thing after another. It is a very great pity for a book which promises so much to fall so far short.
Stephen Howe is professor of the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University