The British Empire continues to stir the imagination; a small island between the Irish and North Sea managed to acquire and then to rule a land mass strung about the globe that was larger than the Roman Empire. It did this, as I wrote in a review of Piers Brendon’s book, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, for over a century by a mixture of hokum, hypocrisy and high-mindedness. It required a certain genius, as the author of this most recent study, Kwasi Kwarteng, appreciates.
His book, subtitled Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, differs from Brendon’s in that its range is narrower – he concentrates on six places; Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong – and his focus is on the enduring problems of empire that we bequeathed to these countries when we departed. Kwarteng, now an MP, brings an original perspective to his study: the son of immigrants from Ghana, his father had been educated in an English-style public school in the then Gold Coast in the 1950s; he in turn sent his son to Eton, followed by Cambridge. Thus the author recognises the strengths of the highly elitist English education system, with its emphasis on the classics and sport that shaped so many young men sent out to govern the colonies.
As he writes in his introduction, his book is not about the merits or demerits of the empire; it is about understanding the mentality of the imperialists which led them to govern in the way they did. “Class was central to the British Empire”, he states. Given a class-bound society on the home front, it comes as no surprise that we exported those little snobberies, distinctions and gradations of rank in an expert fashion. Towards the end of his study, Kwarteng includes the “Precedence Table” of Hong Kong society: it is a lesson in petty etiquette that there were 26 different levels of precedence, beginning with the governor and ending with the superintendant of the botanical and forestry department. Not all the countries he analyses were quite so finely tuned to rank but all their administrations were stratified and deeply hierarchical. The empire was not run with a view to bringing democracy to those ruled, whatever the post-imperial rhetoric might say; in the best cases it was run on a system of benign, incorrupt authoritarianism by men who had risen through intellectual distinction and ‘character’ from within a small pool of the best public schools and Oxbridge.
Because monarchy mattered to the British, as “a particular instrument of policy” a royal family under King Faisal was imposed on the newly established Iraq in 1921. The country was governed by a “mandate” – “civilized tutelage”, as Lord Curzon described it – in which “the Iraqis themselves seemed to be a sideshow in their own country.” This led to long-lasting resentment among the religious factions and the eventual murder of the royal family in 1958. Gertrude Bell, who along with Lawrence of Arabia, St John Philby and Calouste Gulbenkian, was one of the more colourful personalities involved in the new country, once spoke patronisingly of “granting independence”, to a local Baghdad dignitary. He corrected her, telling her presciently, “Independence is never granted; it is always taken.”
As always, commerce – In Iraq’s case, oil – lay behind loftier imperial ambitions: “How can Iraq and the international community balance the legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi people with the natural desire of foreign capital to exploit Iraq’s native wealth?” was the delicately phrased question most often raised at the Foreign and Colonial Office. In Kashmir the British were equally obtuse and obstinate, imposing an alien Hindu dynasty over an overwhelmingly Muslim population. As Kwarteng relates, British officials were “never entirely comfortable” with this decision, which has led to permanent post- Partition conflict between India and Pakistan.
The love affair with the Raj can be partly explained by recognition, in the Indian caste system, of a social structure not totally different from the English class system: we were less fatalistic – men could rise through merit – but we also had more innate snobbery: as Paul Scott describes in his fine quartet, The Jewel in the Crown, to be a “Chillingborough man” was to be infinitely removed from the ethos of a grammar schoolboy.
Kwarteng observes that the Empire was ideally suited to a certain type of rugged individualist: solitary, tough, resourceful, gifted at languages and sport, but not a team player. Lord Kitchener in Sudan exemplified this ideal: “He believed in the power of strong-willed individuals to shape the world”. The Sudan Political Service, for which there was rigorous selection, enjoyed a similar prestige to the Indian Civil Service; its elite were not aristocratic – one third were the sons of clergymen – but they “were naturally at home with notions of hierarchy…[believing] that a sense of homage is natural [to the African].” In this way a mere 140 officials were able to govern a country of 9 million. Again, the distinction between northern Sudan and the south was encouraged under the British, leading to a long subsequent conflict.
In Nigeria, it had been the childhood dream of George Goldie, who helped to acquire it by a series of treaties with native rulers, “to colour the map red.” Lord Lugard, a later governor, opined that democracy simply was “not adapted to the mentality or traditions of Eastern or of African races.” He devised the concepts, “indirect rule” and “dual mandate,” both ways of ensuring that the interests of the mother country were kept paramount. The British handling of the dominant tribes ensured the probability of the civil war in Nigeria that ensued when they left.
Kwarteng’s book is a fascinating study, written without rancour and employing a gently ironic tone towards what has been an extraordinary part of British history in the last 200 years. Despite the uneven, often unhappy, legacy left by the political masters, he agrees that we did bring a just legal system and stability to often anarchic parts of the world – along with roads, railways, cricket and the ever-present (and socially divisive) club: the undemocratic empire does not have to be seen in a wholly negative light. What is clear, however, from this account is that imperial officials were slow to understand that post-war Britain was a different place from the inter-war years’ apogee of empire, when young men still in their twenties had confidently acted as judges, administrators and policemen, with a remarkable degree of independence, over huge and remote lands.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK.