Wednesday 3 March 2010

In Praise of Empire

The British Empire was a force for good in the world. There, I’ve said it! I’m not the first, though, to swim against the tide on this question. Those who wish an effective counter to all of the past negativity could do no better than have a look through Naill Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World.

Yes, we did make the modern world, not through a self-conscious and ugly imperialism that characterised the French colonial enterprise; no, but simply in the pursuit of trading opportunities, the life blood of a mercantile island nation. In the wake of the traders and the buccaneers our people(stress here on the possessive pronoun!) travelled across the earth, building up the great English-speaking nations; building what was to become the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as a host of smaller nations within this great backbone of liberty and democracy.

The British also in a very real sense helped to create modern India, giving it a political unity it never before possessed in its history; giving it a rail transport system which still functions today; giving it a common language which has managed to unite such a diverse and polyglot nation, allowing it to make an impact on the modern world.

Even in leaving Empire there was often a magnanimity and greatness. There is no better contrast here than with how the British dealt with the communist insurgency in Malaya, while nurturing moves towards independence, and how the French dealt with that in Indochina. And just imagine what would have happened if the French had predominated in North America and, more particularly, what would have happened if they had not been kicked them out of India. Our exit from India was far from tidy but how much worse it would have been going by the French example, the example of Vietnam and Algeria.

The British Empire was also a huge exporter of capital, building roads, railways and industries all over the earth, to great benefit to local economies, as indeed was the introduction of a system of education. Administrators sent out from England were generally scrupulously fair, bringing government and order to places that often had neither the one nor the other.

The system of English common law was another of our exports, still used and valued across much of the world, as indeed was the parliamentary system of government and the economic model of free-trade capitalism.

Paradoxically the British, true to their rather diffident nature, did not value the Empire during its heyday, a point I made in a recent post. I’m not asking for a retrospective attachment to that which is dead and gone, just a better understanding of how important the Empire was and, for all its faults, how benevolent, greater even than Rome at its apogee.

But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth


  1. This is a great contribution, OC; my sincere thanks. Yes, I admit it is a positive spin on the Empire but one that I felt was overdue. The bad is most often emphasised over the good, but British imperialism did have its positive aspects, as positive as the imperialism of the Romans. I could take issue with some of your negative aspects – apartheid, for example, was contrary to the imperial spirit, introduced by a local elite- but I don’t want to cut and dice in this fashion. I will say, solely on a point of information, that the Mughals did not control all of India; parts of the south remained outwith their orbit. So, it really was the British who unified the whole of the Subcontinent under a single system of rule.

  2. Yes, this is why Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad's (the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community) books are full of praise of the British. He repeatedly pointed out the fact that he was able to freely publish his ideas around the world under British protection, which would not have been allowed him under a Muslim government. He points out in his books to Queen Victoria (upon her jubilee) that it was her noble government that gave him and his followers refuge to practice their faith freely under their law. Indeed, this is doubly relevant now that the progeny of those same followers now seek refuge in the UK (the present headquarters of the Community). He also states

    So I can claim that I am peerless in these services and I can state that that I am alone in this support and I can say that I am a talisman and a refuge for this government which safeguards them from calamities and God granted me the tiding saying 'God is not such as to wipe out with chastisement those among whom you dwell.' So this government will soon come to know if it has an inkling of recognizing people that there is no other person who can equal me in exemplifying well-wishing of this government and helping them.

    (Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. Noorul Haq [Light of Truth]. Mustafai Press Lahore, 1894).

    This indicates that at some point it may be the Ahmadiyya Community who are honoured in returning this favour and serving this great island! For an Ahmadi Muslim the above statement resound with a double-truth, since the Caliph and representative of their founder is now literally under British refuge in exile since 1984 when the Islamic Caliphate migrated to London.

  3. Thank you, Rehan. This is quite superb.