It never ceases to surprise me that less than 100 years ago Great Britain – main topic of conversation: complaining about the weather – once controlled a quarter of the world’s people and land.
In Empire: How Britain Made The Modern World, Niall Ferguson weaves together a compelling narrative of how Britain’s once unrivalled imperial phase came about. The book of a 2002 Channel 4 series, the bulk of the writing is so tightly plotted for television that you can almost see on the page where the camera is expected to cut to the next scene.
It covers the kind of material every schoolboy of a certain age would have known, but the Empire was absent from my history lessons of the mid-1980s onwards, where we skipped merrily from the Tudors to the Great Fire of London to the Russian revolutions and the two World Wars.
Consequently there remain great gaps in my knowledge of my own country’s history, but this book filled in more than a few of them while also helping to explain the background to some of the seismic changes of the twentieth century.
But Ferguson doesn’t just contend that Britain “made the modern world”, in itself I think a fair point given its position of power (once upon a time); he also poses the question of whether the British Empire was a good thing – setting out his stall from the very start that he thinks it was.
He’s more than aware that empire, imperialism and colonialisation are dirty words these days, though any analysis of why this might be is notably absent from the book. Instead he’s determined to perform a balance sheet analysis of the British Empire, one in which he’s pre-programmed to conclude in its favour.
Putting his convictions aside it’s an interesting proposition and good to have one’s ideas challenged.
So, was the Empire a good thing? It’s a contentious issue and has multiple different answers depending on whether you were the coloniser or the colonised, a member of the ruling or the working class.
Ferguson’s rationale is that the Empire opened up trade and brought benefits to the colonies and not just the mother country. These benefits were – surprise, surprise – most pronounced in the white colonies of Canada, Australia and the USA, but India too didn’t entirely miss out.
There’s an argument to be made that Great Britain ‘made’ modern India, by building its rail, telegraph and civil service infrastructure – even perhaps forming an Indian consciousness of a nation state. One the disparate princely states, foreign trading enclaves, etc were rolled into one country it was a lot easier to see the common enemy. So, perhaps, and certainly unintentionally, Britain may have prepared the country for the long road to its current state as a rising global power, starting by giving India’s educated elite the tools they eventually used to win independence.
Ferguson’s piece de resistance in defence of the Empire is that in the mid-twentieth century the British Empire was a far better option for colonised peoples than the imperial designs of Germany or Japan. Empire is predicated on racism, none of the colonised wanted to be ruled by the colonisers, but at least Britain didn’t pursue mass murder as a policy he says.
However, there are plenty of incidents to question Britain’s own imperial record. Ferguson may include them, but it’s the British experience in 1857 or prisoners of war under the Japanese in the Second World War that he gives voice to, not the colonised. Where he also falls short I think is in critical analysis of the after effects of the Empire.
He notes the British ‘cut and ran’ in India, after first partitioning the country, and then again in Palestine, but does so extraordinarily briefly. There’s also no questioning of why Britain’s African colonies were never developed in the same way as India in terms of infrastructure, and what that has meant for the continent over the last century.
Unsurprisingly for an unabashed imperial cheerleader, there’s also no thought on whether, if Britain created the modern world – how far is she to blame for the way it turned out.
The author’s – and this reader’s – preoccupations aside, it’s a well-written, interesting book, albeit one that reminds you of the necessity of reading history with a critical eye.