Jeremy Paxman has written an excellent book, but it is not the book that he set out to write. His central argument is that, since the empire had a formative influence on modern India, it must also have had a formative influence on modern Britain. If it influenced the colonised, it must have influenced the colonisers.
But that, surely, is a fallacy. For the British empire was, for most of its history, an elite project. There is little evidence that it ever enthused the British people, except perhaps in the decade following Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, when Beatrice Webb found ‘all classes’ to be ‘drunk with the sightseeing and hysterical loyalty’. Yet, in the one general election in which imperial questions were squarely at the forefront — that of 1906, which was dominated by Joseph Chamberlain’s appeal for tariff reform as a means to secure closer ties between the Dominions and the ‘Mother Country’ — the voters responded by giving the Little Englanders of the Liberal party a landslide majority. The hold of the ideology of empire upon the British people had been short-lived, and, once over, was rapidly forgotten. It had been rather like a party at which the drink had flowed so copiously that one could hardly remember having been there at all.
It was precisely because empire had never been a popular project that we were able to surrender it so easily without the traumas that assailed the French in Algeria or the Belgians in the Congo. ‘Think imperially,’ Churchill begged the Dominions before 1939, but neither they nor the British people were willing to do so. ‘I think I can save the British empire from anything,’ Churchill told his private secretary sadly at the end of his life, ‘except the British.’
Paxman believes that ‘the only place which has yet properly to decolonise itself is Britain’. But that is because we have not in modern times been colonised. Indeed, Paxman quotes a 1951 Colonial Office survey in which 59 per cent of those questioned could not name a single British colony — ‘although one man did come up with “Lincolnshire”.’ The only effect of empire that Paxman can posit with any confidence is on immigration; but the Huguenots, the Jews and the Irish would have come here even without the empire, while the immigration of Poles and Romanians is a consequence of the European single market, not a hangover from the Raj.
‘England without an empire!’ Joseph Chamberlain had declared in his last political speech in 1914, ‘Can you conceive it? England in that case would not be the England that we love. It would be a fifth-rate nation, existing on the sufferance of its more powerful neighbours.’ Paxman believes that it is because of the empire that we have found it so difficult to play ‘a more useful and effective role in the world’. But perhaps the British people did not seek such a role. Exhausted by two world wars, they preferred to remain ostriches rather than lions, rejoicing that they continue to live in a relatively peaceable kingdom, and resenting such ties with foreigners that the political elites have decided are good for them. So Paxman’s ostensible theme is based on a misconception.
Fortunately, however, he does not stick to it. Despite its subtitle, his book is less about what the empire did to Britain than what Britain did to the empire. What really interests Paxman is not so much Britain, but the empire and how it came to be. The history of empire is of course a well-worn story, and he does not pretend to add anything new to it. His gift is to clothe what are essentially conventional views in exciting language. Professional historians have been much concerned with explaining imperialism, but Paxman eschews explanation for vivid description. He writes with wit and penetration, and every page of Empire can be read with relaxed pleasure.
It is impressionistic history at its best, and enlivened by interviews, perhaps the most remarkable of which is that with the great-grandson of the Mahdi, God’s elect, whose Muslim forces drove the British out of the Sudan in 1885, killing Gordon in the process. The great-grandson was an Oxford-educated former Prime Minister of the Sudan, and regarded his ancestor as ‘a sufi who denied the material world’. ‘I forgot to ask him,’ Paxman reports drily, ‘quite how that worked with the Mahdi’s reputed 70 wives.’
Paxman’s view of empire is, as one might expect from his acidulous performances on Newsnight, sardonic and critical, more Lytton Strachey than John Buchan; and it is true that among the empire-builders was a fair share of murderers, predators and rogues. ‘If our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people,’ declared the great Lord Salisbury, ‘the empire would not have been made’.
But Paxman gives insufficient credit to the transformation of empire, a relationship based on domination, into Commonwealth, a freely chosen relationship of equality, something which no other imperial power has been able to secure, and now a powerful force for democratisation in Africa and Asia. Most stable third-world democracies, after all, were once part of the British empire, and the idea of parliamentary government has proved by far our most successful export.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 15, 2011