The British Empire, we all know, was the greatest in world history, covering almost a quarter of the world’s land surface at its zenith in 1920. Or possibly a fifth, or a third, of the world’s surface, according to some claims – which says something about the people making such claims. It was also brought to an end – or sort-of brought to an end – by and large, in an orderly fashion. There was neither an irresponsible panicky retreat, as with the Belgian Congo in 1960, nor a grim determination to hang on to the colonies, however bloodily, as with the Portuguese experience in Angola and Mozambique in the 1960s and ’70s. One by one, the colonies were released, for the most part, to agreed timetables from the 1940s onwards, ending with Hong Kong in 1997. All of which orderliness and civilized organization leads some commentators, even in this day and age, to suggest that the British Empire really wasn’t all that bad at all, was it? You sometimes get the impression that these commentators want the Empire to be brought back, and the “civilizing mission” of the British to be picked up where it left off.
It is true that the British imperial experience was quite different from those of its European neighbours, but that hardly makes up for the fact that, like other empires, the experience nonetheless involved a good deal of property theft and exploitation, and, if they resisted, suppression of the colonies’ populations. Not only that, but the Empire insisted on frequently making a grandiloquent show of being smugly pleased with itself – a smugness that survives to this day in the form of what is called the Commonwealth of Nations – formerly just the Commonwealth, and before that, the British Commonwealth – and the quadrennial Commonwealth Games. I suppose we should be grateful that the organization hasn’t gone so far as to call itself Colonies Reunited…
Such smugness and grandiloquence had perhaps their apogee on New Year’s Day 1877, when Queen Victoria officially assumed the title – after much badgering of her ministers – of Empress of India. Nearly twenty years after the beginning of the so-called Indian Mutiny (a term that reeks of condescending dismissal – why can’t it be called the national uprising that it was?), and the overthrow of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the later winding-up of the East India Company, the British colonial authorities were keen to establish exactly who was in charge in the country now. To mark the occasion, the colonial authorities held a Coronation Durbar or royal ceremony (the word is common to Hindi and Urdu, is Persian in origin, and means “noble court”) in the new capital of Delhi. It goes without saying that not a single inhabitant of India had any say over this.
At least one British official dared to voice his queasiness about the tastefulness or otherwise of this event. At the time, southern India was in the grip of an appalling famine, and Richard Grenville, the then governor of Madras, informed his superiors that he’d rather not go to the Durbar (for which funds had been diverted from famine relief), under the circumstances. He was refused permission to stay away, and was apparently told that the failure of the Durbar would be more harmful to the country than the failure of the Monsoon. In the week that the Durbar was held, around 100,000 people starved to death in the Madras area alone. The 1876-8 Famine was one of the worst in India’s history, leaving over 5 million dead by the time it was over. And all this time, much-needed grain continued to be exported, on orders from the then viceroy Lord Lytton, with export orders totalling more than 300 thousand tonnes at the famine’s height. Such events would stay long in the minds of the people who, a decade later, would found the Indian National Congress and begin campaigning for a free India.
Quite apart from the obvious tangible effects of the British Empire on India and other colonies, from the Delhi Durbar to the Amritsar Massacre, there is also a sense in which the Empire and the imperial experience damaged the minds of Britain’s establishment – and in a way that really has not been completely exorcised. During last year’s EU referendum campaign the argument was frequently made that Britain had the fourth or fifth (again, it depended who was arguing) biggest economy in the world, so of course the country could survive perfectly well outside the EU. What’s more, the Leave campaigners often denied that there would be any difficulty in negotiating trade deals with other countries that would be entirely favourable to the UK, with UKIP’s Suzanne Evans simplifying this attitude succinctly in her appearance on Have I Got News For You last month:
I’ll tell you what: I’m having that cake, I want the cherry on top, too, but I ain’t paying for it.
Such an attitude can’t be down solely to the “post-fact politics” age that we seem to be stuck with, either – it goes deeper than that in Britain, with the country’s imperial experience having quite a lot to do with it. Professor Stephen Haseler of the London School of Economics, in his 2012 book The Grand Delusion, reckons British establishment mindsets were solidified by a combination of the imperial experience and victory in two world wars:
Had the country been defeated and occupied it might have been a different story, as the British might have been able to put the imperial past fully and finally behind them. As it was they were not able to do so. And the values and prejudices of empire marched on well into the late part of the twentieth century. Two prejudices of empire stand out and can help explain why, by comparative standards, a particularly exceptional type of nationalism endured in Britain. The first is a superiority complex different in kind from that of most other peoples in developed countries. The British, like the Americans, have a narrative of exceptionalism. But an empire controlling a third of the world on which the sun never sets is heady stuff. And the British came to believe they were not just exceptional, but superior too. Americans tend to believe their ideas, particularly “democracy”, are superior; the British, of this type, vest superiority in the people themselves. In the imperial experience British and English contact with “foreigners” was always minimal. The English did not mix, they conquered, and then they ruled. So the colonial experience – though technically an internationalising phenomenon – hardly encouraged cosmopolitan instincts among the rulers.
The British Empire lasted over two centuries, and yes, it did some good, but it also did plenty that was bad – and bad not only for the colonies and their inhabitants but also for the British themselves, as is evident through the standard of political and cultural debate today. What’s more, though it was technically wound up several years ago, it has never really gone away: millions are constantly reminded of it round about this time every year, with gongs containing the words British Empire being handed out, and by a monarch whose real ideas about the Empire forged in her name we are never allowed to know.