Review by Chris Murray
25 January 2016, Kingston, CA
British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t
By Bernard Porter; I.B. Tauris, 2015. USD 29.00
When one hears discussion on the British Empire a very distinct set of ideas and images usually arise. The adventurous pith helmet clad Brit working tirelessly with (or against) ‘the locals’ for largely clueless colonial overlords. These overlords, with their monocles and climatically inappropriate dress sipping gin and tonic, were set about largely trying to fleece the locals but, paternalistically, for their betterment. This is ‘The Man Who Would be King’ pop culture image of the Empire. Although not totally without precedent it is largely rooted in the 19th century and seems largely disconnected from the more contemporary issues of racism, exploitation, and decolonization that have emerged from an empire that was still very much convulsing well into the middle of the 20th century. It is equally disconnected form the reality of what the British Empire actually was for most of its history. The latter image, however, is more problematic and changes our perspective considerably raising contemporary issues that trace back at some level to questions of what the British Empire was.
Today the word ‘imperialist’ is hurled around, often with little understanding. In the case of the West (particularly the US) and those they seek to engage with within the ‘third world’ this criticism is especially acute. Human rights and liberal ideas have become tied up in ‘Western values’ and rejected as cultural imperialism by opportunists in ‘non-Western’ countries looking to advance their own repressive agendas. On the other side, there is a divide within the Western world between those who see Western policy as imperialist and those who are disconnected from the term by a narrow understanding of what empire is. They seem unable to find parallels between ‘The Great Game’ of imperial Europe and modern powers. Empire or imperialism is, however, alive and well and the effects (past and present) have considerably more influence than most often think.
Bernard Porter, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Newcastle and author of The Absent Minded Imperialists attempts to convey the potential for parallels and lessons as he takes on the question of what the British Empire Wasn’t. Porter’s most recent book entitled, British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, reads like a comfortable conversation. He is clever, light-hearted, cheeky, playful, funny, and engaging, drawing the reader into what becomes a very thoughtful and astute discussion of a vastly complex subject. Despite the playfulness British Imperial is an incredibly insightful read. Porter remains respectful of academic integrity and provides an annotated bibliography that would be of tremendous use to those interested in the subjects discussed. British Imperial removes a veil and although it reads like a light romp through a history lesson beneath this is an accessible and incisive lesson on how something of the enormity of the British Empire actually functioned.
Porter is able to, for example, provide a rather nuanced approach to understanding the British attitude towards the Empire in the late 19th century as the fates began to turn. He separates truth from propaganda and reminds us that most of what we see of that period is not reflective of attitudes but of propaganda aimed at fostering attitudes thought to be required. This imperial propaganda that Porter works through to understand better the mind of Britons in relation to the empire is not only an insightful approach to the problem but has some telling results. The sudden appearance of imperial propaganda inside Britain in the 19th century suggests a sudden need for it that is often overlooked. Porter’s point in all this is an intriguing one arguing the relationship to the Empire for average Britons was quite distant.
Domestic culture was the confluence of multiple streams of thought and is therefore hard to pin down in a definitive way as it related to empire. The imperial wars of late 19th century seems to be when British opinion first turned against imperialism enough to create a tangible movement. However, it faced financial realities as opposition as well as the geopolitical realities of other European powers stepping in to fill the vacuum if Britain retreated.
With this in mind we begin to understand that, as Porter says “British imperialism stimulated, or provoked, a great deal of discussion from the latter 19th century onwards, on all sides of the argument, in a great debate which was on the whole far more sophisticated than the present day one, and covered many of the problems that seem so new to us today. Chief among these were the problem of ‘failed states’ and the responsibility of the rest of the international community towards them; the challenge of Islam; the management of the world’s natural resources; economic ‘development’ and how it should be pursued in ‘third world’ countries; the dangers of irresponsible monopoly capitalism; ‘universal’ human rights and how they should be distinguished from national and cultural preferences and prejudices; the problems of cultural relativism and multi-culturalism; and how to police a world full of not only villains but well meaning fools”
There is a great deal that can be gained by taking particular heed of the lessons presented in the history of the British Empire. One element often overlooked that Porter reminds us of is the role of capitalism and the private enterprises elements to imperium that largely go unrecognized. These forces combined with the elements of feudalism we are more familiar with within the British Empire to imposed upon government realities not of their will. What we learn is that the Empire was not Britain’s active doing but the result of economics and trade. Political involvement came from private sector demand for the protection of their interests. Although Britain was not keen to shoulder the costs of protecting these risky private foreign ventures she had wisdom enough to see the larger national interest at play. This demanded a large military and defence budget which in turn seems to have fed the cycle of foreign intervention. It is this that often enough led to the ‘gun-boat diplomacy,’ targeting soft targets and a disinclination to become involved on land with the world’s conflicts that so characterize our perception of British Imperial and foreign policy. Porter shows us how all these random currents converged into the confluence of empire that has dictated the course taken by the British. In turn, we see, for example, how these realities shaped Britain’s balance of power strategy in the late 19th and early 20th century.
In another dash to the popular perception of what the British Empire was or wasn’t Porter shows us how Britain’s approach to empire led to almost continuous “little wars” throughout the 19th century and that the British Empire was hardly the effective and efficient ruler of world affairs we sometime like to believe it was. Instead we see Porter draw parallels to contemporary powers such as the US and cynically point out the historical lesson that humanitarian intervention usually occurs conveniently where there is economic interest to be had. What Porter underlines with this point is that imperialism was far more complex and multi dimensional in Britain than it is usually appreciated as being. It was both simultaneously motivated as much humanitarianism as it was by the exploitative. It was also something that was at times well out of the control of the powers that be.
British Imperial lays out a foundation of the Empire (primarily adventurous privateers) that was quite divorced from the ideological imperialism which emerged in the 19th century. It was only then, late in the Empire’s life, that European colonial competition (The Great Game) emerged. However, even then it was largely peaceful in Porter’s mind (until the very end) and mostly economic in arrangement as opposed to militarily competitive. In Porter’s opinion is was the mid 19th century 1840 – 1860 that marked the high water mark of the British Empire and it was from here things began to decline rapidly in the face of persistent crisis. What became apparent during this period was that it was no longer tenable to secure and maintain HMG global economic interests and the strategic interests related to them, like trade routes, informally. Instead it was going to mean increased expenses and enforcement through the conventional imperialism we are familiar with today. In this light the late 19th century colonial wars HMG fought are seen by Porter as aiming to preserve not expand Britain’s imperial interests. Porter, in keeping with this line of thought suggests that all of the early 20th century and interwar brutality can be viewed as “defensive, though they may have been ‘defending’ the indefensible”
Porters final lesson, about the collapse of the Empire, is a story far uglier and drawn out than it is usually appreciated as being. Porter argues that decolonization although spun as the logical result of the growth fostered by Britain (as she always intended) was instead, a slow convulsive battle to maintain advantage. In Porter’s judgment, a combination of lack of will, finance, colonies unready to take up the mantle, white settler elite, a lack of Britain’s international clout, the Cold War, along with Britain’s keen interest in keeping privileged right to resources, military and intelligence bases made the affair a particularly nasty one with many inconvenient truths. In the end Porter argues Britain’s lack of will to pursue policies needed to keep her empire led to a retreat to simply defending commercial rights in the 20th century in the name of free trade. The result has been that imperialism has not ended but morphed into modern free market, free trade, neo-liberal capitalism which, if lessons are ignored, hold the same dangers.
In the end Porter’s work is not about placing blame, he argues that is pointless, it’s about understanding the true lessons of empire, perhaps the most significant being (to echo Graham T. Allison) often times intentions are far divorced from resultants. With this in mind Porter suggests that although historical lessons and parallels are useful, just because something did not work does not mean trying the same thing again will automatically lead to failure. The real lessons of British Imperial is to teach us the uncertainty and chaos inherent in such large systems that has meant that imperialism / intervention hardly ever works as it was intended to.
British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, is a fantastic, insightful and surprisingly easy read given the subject matter. It is one that holds many little acorns of insight that will serve as tremendously valuable to the reader. This would be a book well worth picking up for the next outing or flight as it can easily be gotten through in short order. An all around excellent little read I would encourage our readers to pick up as much for entertainment as for its wisdom.
This book can be found here at I.B. Tauris Publishers
Feature photo / “Robert Clive and Mir Jafar after the Battle of Plassey, 1757” – Wikimedia Commons, 2015
Inset Photo / “Cover photo of British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t” – I.B. Tauris Publishers, 2015
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