Kwasi Kwarteng is a young Tory MP and it is right and proper that he should begin his analysis of the British Empire with a quotation from Disraeli. The fact that he is of Ghanaian origin shows merely that we live in an unpredictable world:
In the European nations there is confidence in this country …. While they know we can enforce our policy at the same time they know that our Empire is an Empire of liberty, truth and justice.
Kwarteng finds it remarkable that Disraeli said nothing about democracy or economics. This would indeed be strange if he had been either a democrat or a believer in free trade; in fact he was neither. Indeed the paradox of the British Empire stretches back and includes the mystery of the man who is widely regarded and almost always quoted as one of its principal founders. Disraeli remained an enigma, not least to himself.
Kwarteng is frank about the scope of his book. There must be something bizarre about an account of the British Empire which contains nothing about Australia, Canada or New Zealand, nothing about the Caribbean, and nothing about India except for an able analysis of the Kashmir problem. This selection can be justified only if the author uses it to produce an analysis which can be defended as a general truth about the whole Empire. Kwarteng sets about his task skilfully and concludes that the generalisation about the Empire can only be that there is no generalisation. He answers that there was no overriding policy, no coherence, no strategic direction.
The power of each colonial governor was essentially anarchic and the result was full of contradictions. For example whereas we decided not to annex Kashmir but sold it to an Indian Hindu prince, down the road in Burma we abolished the ruling dynasty in favour of direct rule under the Queen-Empress. Sir Mark Young moved towards a more democratic Hong Kong but that movement was reversed under his successor Sir Alexander Grantham.
Such contradictions are noted in a detached spirit by Kwarteng, who concludes that there was no underlying philosophy to the British Empire as compared to its rivals in France and Russia; it consisted simply of a series of opportunistic moves which resulted from a change of Governor or of government in London. From this mix of often conflicting policies certain stable factors emerged; for example the dominance of the English public schools and leading universities in the selection of the civil servants of the Empire. Britain itself changed much more quickly than the imperial civil service, creating a mismatch between those who did the governing and those who appointed them. This did not mean, as with other empires, that wealth and birth always came to the top of the heap. One third of the members of the Sudan political service, for example, were the sons of clergymen. Rather than an imperial elite they formed a ‘clerisy’ noted for its education and cultural value.
There are many such fascinating insights in this book; but its limited range makes one or two generalisations suspect. There is ample analysis, for example, of Lord Lugard’s doctrine of the dual mandate and indirect rule in Nigeria, but nothing is said about the agonising life and death of the Central African Federation, which ended in decisive defeat of the whole scheme despite the protests which convulsed the Tory party in the 1950s and 60s.
Ian Macleod receives one passing reference in Kwarteng’s index; yet his reign at the Colonial Office marked an upheaval in colonial policy which proved decisive. Thirty years later Chris Patten introduced a move towards democracy in the governance of Hong Kong. It was a modest move in the direction already taken by most of our other colonies. This was one of the few occasions when I remember the Cabinet indulging in something like a philosophical discussion.
Kwarteng dismisses this attempt as ‘schoolboy politics’. That is certainly how it seemed to the Chinese government and to some businessmen in the colony. But against the background of established British policy how could we have done other than back the Governor’s judgment? The result is evident today in the quiet continuous pressure in Hong Kong for further steps in the same direction.
The ‘Arab Spring’ has dealt a heavy blow to those who argue, whether in the context of China or the Middle East, that their inhabitants have no particular interest in political democracy. The crowds in Hama or Damascus are not demonstrating for a particular religious or political option. They want what we have got, namely reasonable freedom under the rule of law. So long as this remains true the British government must be right to wish them well and work for their success in that aim.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 17, 2011