Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, By Jeremy Paxman

Could this be Paxman's finest hour?

Amol Rajan
Sunday 13 November 2011 01:00

The sub-titles of history books are usually more useful to readers than the main titles, which simply give a general location to the book's content.

We have had so many histories of the British Empire recently that there is something admirable in the plain name of Jeremy Paxman's book, Empire. Niall Ferguson, who was in the vanguard of renewed interest in Britain's empire, called his masterful book on the subject, published in 2003, Empire too. But whereas Ferguson's sub-title was How Britain Made the Modern World, Paxman's is What Ruling the World Did to the British. Does that mean they cover different terrain, with Paxman's work more of a reflection on the lingering affect upon our national psyche? Not really.

His book is, in fact, just a history of Britain's empire, to which the reflection on the sub-title comes as an afterthought. This repeats the structure of Paxman's book On Royalty, which was a generalised history of monarchy, particularly in Britain, to which his vanquished republicanism, and new affection for the House of Windsor, was finally attached. Thankfully, Paxman is a magnificent historian, and Empire may be remembered as his finest work.

It is full of moral fervour without going in for the tedious pro-imperial or anti-imperial tosh of so much contemporary discussion. There is horror at all the tyranny of the British, whether the slave trade, the Opium Wars, or what particularly riles him, the violence done to Indians: especially following the Indian Mutiny, the Bengal famine, and at Amritsar. There is deep and patriotic affection for the bureaucrats whose small daily chores were what made ruling the world possible; and unrelenting scorn for the alleged heroes of the imperial enterprise, who owe their fame more to schoolboy fables than muddy, violent reality. Churchill is delusional, Clive of India "scheming and devious", General Gordon "half-cracked".

This tale of sinned against and sinning is told with great pace, a sharp eye for details, and prose that is clear and cogent. When finally he turns to the question of Britain's post-imperial character he reverts, inevitably, to Dean Acheson's suggestion that having lost an empire, Britain is yet to find a role. With this, Paxman is once more his lugubrious Newsnight persona, berating our ignorance of the empire's lasting effects. This book is a declaration of war against such ignorance, which after all is what Paxman has dedicated his life to. He must keep writing.

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