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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there