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Friday 8 February 2008

What I've been Reading

Niall Ferguson: "Empire". I picked this up on a whim while browsing the special offers selection at Borders sometime back in August I think. When I brought it home I was tempted to find some reviews online but decided that it would be interesting to read it and form an entirely personal opinion of it before I let other people's views colour mine which I've managed to do despite the four month hiatus in the middle caused by moving house.

My general impression has been that it is an excellent overview of the rise and fall of the British Empire. It's necessarily shallow throughout as there is simply no way that something as complex a subject as this is can be dealt with in detail in a single 400 odd page book. Despite that, I think Ferguson manages to capture many, if not most, of the important events and driving forces that led to the creation and demise of the what was certainly the largest Empire the world has ever known and he does so in a very appealing and entertaining way. He is at his best when he attempts to explain the likely motivations of the principle actors while putting them in the context of the day. He doesn't avoid dealing with the many horrors that enabled British Imperialism to gain and keep control of many of its subjects and by and large seems to do a good job of putting them in a context so that the reader gets a credible impression of how the Zeitgeists of the Empire at large and the British Homelands developed over time.

My own personal understanding of British Colonial history has been informed mostly by an exceptionally biased standard Irish education, Irish cultural norms and what I picked up in my 10 years in some other former Colonies, (South Africa and Botswana) and which has given me a relatively patchy understanding of what the British Empire really was about and almost no ability to understand how it actually managed to become what it was.The brevity of the book meant that I was surprised by how little of the history of the countries that I was familiar with made it into his story but I can understand why he needed to be selective and I think that the overall value of the book is not hampered by the fact that Ireland gets no more than a handful of pages mostly concerned with the original Elizabethan Plantations, and the lead up to independence while South Africa is almost entirely focused on the economic and ideological fallout from the South African War (the Boer War as it is known here). It seems reasonable to assume that the same can be said about how he chose which parts of the histories of the other ex colonies and the key events in Britain to include and which to avoid.

This book filled in a lot of detail onto the broad outline of British Imperial History that I had and in particular it put some good arguments forth for why it succeeded when it did and failed the way it did. What I found really interesting was his understanding of the decline from 1914 through to the rapid unwinding of the colonies post WWII and his positioning of the emerging economic and ideological imperialism of the United States as key factor.

He makes a good (maybe even compelling) argument that some of the fundamental principles of British Imperialism made it a good thing (eventually) for many of those countries that at one time or another were part of it. He is at times too dismissive of any alternative paths but he is right in claiming that countries that today can claim that these principles still apply to them are, in general, better places to live than they would be without them. In particular he points out that by and large the British Empire tried to introduce some features into the societies that it conquered that are generally now believed to be a good thing:

  • Secure rights of private property.
  • The framework for effective contract law.
  • Stable Government that plays by clearly known and understood rules
  • Honest Government and public service.
  • Moderate levels of Government - small in size (relatively speaking), efficient and with low taxes
  • Free trade (at least within the club)

These claims are to me unarguably correct and pretty obvious when you travel through the former colonies. What the Empire failed to do by its very nature was to build a universal foundation of representative democracy. Where it did do that it has stuck well but that has happened reliably, for the most part, only in the White Dominions. The other major failing, to my mind, is the one that those of us who grew up in post colonial societies most despise the empire for: Its singular failure to introduce universal rights of personal liberty. Arguably you couldn't have built an empire on those grounds, at least not at the time, but Ferguson certainly seems to think that, well, you've got to break a few eggs to make an omelette so that's OK, right? Some might not be so sanguine.

The book seems to me to have suffered badly right at the end due to its timing, in particular his concluding chapter positions him as a sympathizer with, or at the very least not an opponent of, the post 9/11 "new world order" ideology of a new imperial hegemony of the western powers. He certainly believed at the time (2002/2003) that the military actions that had started (Afghanistan) and were likely to come (Iraq) would follow the pattern of mid Victorian British Imperial Gunboat Diplomacy and be successful in the same sort of ways. Certainly my current opinion on the complete lack of moral and ethical motivations that lie behind the "War on Terror" lead me to be dismissive of anyone who appears to be sympathetic to the jingoistic reactionary mood of the first years of the millennium but his rather fawning description of Blair's 2001 "re-order the world" call to arms speech at the Labour Party Conference just after the 9/11 bombings appears to be very simplistic in the light of the damage done to Liberty in the west by those who heeded that call and led their countries into seemingly interminable wars. Ferguson's admiration for the benefits of empire despite what he sees as occasional collateral damage is clear throughout the book but I wonder whether he really believes that a present day empire could survive having to do the sort of things that would be necessary to impose its order on the world as it is today. He fails to even begin to address those issues in his conclusion despite clearly positioning the United States as the new Imperial power if it would just decide that it wanted to take on that role actively. An Empire might be a grand thing when it's all up and running but if you have to decimate populations (or the leadership structures of populations) across the globe to get there that seems to be something that would present a problem given the way the world works today. Or at least so it seems to me, possibly some people still think you can actually just kill enough people and then everything will be fine but I rather doubt it works in a world where everyone can see it happening almost immediately.

Present day ideological problems aside, the one other area where the book left me feeling let down was in his dealings with the unwinding of the empire at its end. He wraps up the chapter on the decline of the Empire right at the point where the rapid de-colonising program was unfolding and he fails to delve into the consequences for those countries almost entirely. He notes than in many cases the de-colonization process was hurried but doesn't attempt to analyse whether there was any correlation between the post colonial failure of some countries and the care (or more specifically the lack of care) taken when they were being "handed back". The speed with which the empire had grown in the late 19th and 20th Centuries meant that many colonies had had little time to develop a society that accepted the cultural norms outlined above and those were repeatedly corrupted, stolen or simply abandoned in cases where the imperial departure was careless. Much of the torment in Africa and the Middle East today can be directly linked to the failure of the decolonising Europeans to establish a sustainable or equitable transition for the states put in place. Not all, to be sure, as it didn't fail in many cases but where it has it has been very bad indeed.

Overall though despite the obvious ideological differences that I have with the author it's a very worthwhile read especially for anyone who's exposure to history has been as biased and censored as my own was, or someone who simply wants a succinct overview of the British Empire written by a fan and it is immensely readable. I'll be looking for more by him. 8/10.

Postscript: Now that I've finished my own opinion I went and looked for others. It appears that he's a fairly controversial but well respected figure within history circles. His Thatcherite leanings are certainly plainly evident throughout this book but I was heartened to see that despite having been a supported of GWB when this book was written he had changed his mind by 2004 so perhaps he is not as ideologically alien to me as I'd feared. In any case it seems that I will have to add "The Pity of War" and "The War of The World" to my reading list now.

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