Niall Ferguson: What the British Empire did for the world

From a speech by the historian, given at the Intelligence Squared debate at the Royal Geographical Society

Friday 04 June 2004 00:00 BST

As late as 1939 the British Empire encompassed roughly a fifth of the world's population and about the same proportion of its land surface. It is, of course, impossible to claim that such a large and long-lived entity was all good. Too many diverse agencies were at work - merchants, emigrants, missionaries and soldiers. But it is equally untenable to argue (as people today often do) that it was all bad.

The right question to ask is whether or not the empire was better than the realistically available alternatives - which were, in the majority of cases, either rival empires or relatively weak, pre-modern states.

No one would claim that the piratical empire of the 17th century or the mercantilist one of the 18th century were forces for much more than expropriation, expulsion and enslavement. But by the early 19th century, the British Empire had mutated into the world's first liberal empire.

In the subsequent century, this empire clearly was a force for good in at least two respects. First, it was a source of large volumes of relatively cheap capital for less developed economies. Second, it exported economic, legal and political institution to its colonies that were, on the whole, superior to those that were otherwise available.

Anyone who doubts that, in the final analysis, the Empire was a force for good need only consider the question: would the world have been better off if the British had lacked an empire in 1940? For without the Empire, let there be no doubt, the Churchillian strategy of defying Hitler and his allies would have stood a much smaller chance of success.

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