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
Sunday 14 August 2011
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?
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Which country would be hardest to invade?
- 2 The man who filmed the Freddie Gray video has been arrested at gunpoint
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
- 5 Royal baby girl born: Duchess of Cambridge's second child will be a princess thanks to Queen
Grace Dent on TV: Peter Kay's Car Share made me genuinely LOL
Avengers: Age of Ultron set to make box office history with $84.5m US opening
The highly NSFW poster for Gaspar Noé's Love makes Nymphomaniac look like 50 Shades
Red Dwarf returns: Craig Charles quits Coronation Street to return to comedy sci-fi series
New on Netflix UK May 2015: From Fast & Furious 6 to World War Z and Grace and Frankie
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils