Bloomsbury £25

Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World, By Kwasi Kwarteng

The men who made an empire, and left the world in the pink

When Kwasi Kwarteng was selected as the Tory candidate for the safe seat of Spelthorne in 2010, he was described (by his team and by a local newspaper) as a "black Boris".

Perhaps it takes someone who resembles London's mayor in both intellectual self-confidence and occasional mischievous perversity to present his central argument as being immensely controversial: that the raison d'être of the British Empire was not to bring the benefits of liberal democracy to its grateful colonies. Apart from the historian Niall Ferguson (whom Kwarteng quotes), one would have thought it hard to find anyone, nowadays, who believes that this was the Empire's purpose. Or does this still count as a "daring" view in Conservative circles? One must hope not.

Either way, Kwarteng takes an amusing and mostly well-written tour d'horizon through six former colonies, making a good case that Britain frequently found itself unintentionally in possession of new territories through the actions of individuals whose policies had either not been thought through in Whitehall, or not sanctioned, and which were often semi-reversed by successive "men on the spot" whose governance of these far-off regions granted them power and authority "usually reserved for the Almighty".

The men who painted the map of the globe pink made great Boys' Own heroes – General "Chinese" Gordon at Khartoum, Lawrence of Arabia, who was largely responsible for making the new states of Jordan and Iraq pro-British monarchies – but some of them had such strange upbringings that quirks of character were almost to be expected. Lord Kitchener's father, for instance, was so averse to bedlinen that he insisted his family use newspaper instead of blankets.

Their motivations were varied. Some, like those of the Colonial Secretary Lord Moyne, were noble. "There is no doubt that in the minds of many coloured people we are fighting ... [for] the equality of all races in contrast to the Nazi idea of the Herrenvolk," he wrote in 1941. "I feel that we must be very careful to live up to what is expected of us."

Others were short-sighted or thoughtless to the point of lunatic irresponsibility. Kwarteng is far from alone in believing that Burma, the final conquest of which was undertaken for no better reason than that Lord Randolph Churchill fancied the idea, may have had a far less tragic post-independence history had the country's monarchy not been exiled – an illogical reversal of traditional British policy of supporting "native princes". Likewise, Kashmir's troubles owe much to Britain's decision to "sell" the Muslim-majority state to a Hindu dynasty in 1846.

Kwarteng displays an encyclo-paedic knowledge of the public schools that he argues did so much to build the empire. They are both the heroes and the villains of this story, as Kwarteng clearly admires the character of their products but thinks that their self-confident individualism led them to take too many decisions without reference to the centre; the results of which are the messy legacies of empire that he details in his book.

But one good thing did come of the empire, of course. It gave us Dr Kwarteng – Eton, Cambridge and the Tory benches, and self-proclaimed "black Boris". We can all agree we need one of those, surely?

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us