In defence of … Empire

The Muse bids me consider the good, the bad and the necessary forms of power

Two decades ago, the subject of empire, which had long fallen under the pall of apologetic navel-gazing in academia and in political discourse, experienced something of a revival. On Home Counties coffee tables in around 2003 emerged books such as Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World and, a couple of years later, his follow up Colossus: The Rise and Fall of American Empire. Both were made into TV series, leading to rather bitchy comments from my own tutors at Oxford over exactly how much of a sell-out he had become. Ferguson moved on soon to NYU and latterly Harvard, where he continues to be a proponent of sorts, of the imperialist revival.

He was not the only one however. A far more academic book, though still accessible, from a few years later in 2009 was John Darwin’s After Tamerlane, which charted the Asiatic land empires over the period 1400-2000 and took a nuanced view on empires, their existence, longevity and, buried amongst the prose, their benefits. The obvious point being that:

[A] propensity in human communities has been the accumulation of power on an extensive scale: the building of empires. Indeed, the difficulty of forming autonomous states on an ethnic basis, against the gravitational pull of cultural or economic attraction (as well as disparities of military force), has been so great that empire (where different ethnic communities fall under a common ruler) has been the default mode of political organization throughout most of history. Imperial power has usually been the rule of the road.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the process of soul-searching brought on by the foreign policy of George W Bush generated much writing, with 2010 alone producing three prominent volumes in the shape of Empires in World History by Jane Burbank and Frederick Cooper, The Rule of Empires written by Timothy Parsons and Empire for Liberty by Richard H. Immerman; this unsurprisingly coinciding with the accession of Barack Obama, probably the most forthright anti-colonialist (and perhaps anti-British) man to occupy the White House since Grover Cleveland in the 1890s.

However, after that burst of activity, Empire has again experienced decline in the perceptions of the liberal public – not least through the sophistry of race relations which re-emerged through the 2010s, accelerated by Trump’s election, BLM and in my world, the absurdity of movements such as #RhodesMustFall (though I am glad to report that as of this moment, Rhodes’ statue still looks down majestically from its cupola on the High). Iraq and Afghanistan have gone the way many feared; perceived Russian and Chinese aggrandizement continues. ‘Empire’ has not had a good innings. Yet the lessons about why they are good, bad or necessary are still overlooked, and I feel obligated to rehearse them once more.

First, Empires bring peace; and their decline brings conflict. Whilst this may sit in cognitive dissonance with how history is taught today, the reality is that for a majority of peoples governed under imperial structures, lives were more stable under this regime than what they might otherwise have. This is not only empirically true – Spain and North Africa for instance were largely left in peace for three centuries between the Punic Wars and the Crisis of the Third Century, despite not being Roman “heartland” – but also logically. See also China, Byzantium, the British and French empires and even the dysfunctional American equivalent (though as Ferguson says, Americans just aren’t very good at empire). Ethnically-focused nation states must be more prone to friction with neighbours than an empire which is first and foremost self-interested in minimising that friction. No successful empire has ever seen greater violence and destruction in its borders, than its alternatives.

Secondly, Empires bring prosperity. Much like any political system, the proof is in the pudding and there are very few examples of empires which successfully exist for long based only on coercion. Even the Empire in Star Wars, for instance, would have had more adherents than resistance and the Jedi should probably have asked themselves why they were in such a minority for so long – probably because their own scattergun and slightly racist alternative proposition could not even persuade Ewoks, let alone the merchants, professionals and other middle classes of the Empire that their mess was better. Most complaints about empire comes from self-indulgence, and nowhere was this more plainly set to rights than in Monty Python, whose sketch in The Life of Brian was a thinly-veiled lampoon of anti-colonial opinion across Asia and Africa:

Lastly, empires bring diversity. Given the propensity to celebrate everything “D&I” these days, it is worth pausing to think about how much empires, rather than nation-states, and created and sustained true multi-culturalism. Ultimately, empires are agnostic about the culture they carry, and as they expand absorb ever greater amounts of what they oversee. It is notable for instance, the Prime Ministers such as Thatcher and Blair were eminently more parochial than similar bourgeois classes a century earlier, whose relatives would have grown up in India, the Sudan and elsewhere serving as bureaucrats and engineers. Whilst Europe has provided some remedy to this parochialism, it is not complete: since the decline of empires in the 1960s, modern (western) nation states and their governing classes know less about the world around them than ever before, leading to everything from half-baked trade pacts like the WTO to neo-conservative adventures in the Middle East. The borders of empires are soft and porous; the borders of nation states are hard – and with it hardened views on identity and inclusion.

Coming from a family that emigrated under the auspices of Empire from China to India to Britain, I take a personal pride in the system that allowed for this to occur. Britain offered an attractive cultural and civilisational prospect, of course, and its contemporary weakness in this needs addressing; but more importantly it was the infrastructure of empire that served so many millions of people so well, for so long. It gave opportunity, egality, stability to the very poorest in society, at the expense, ironically, of the “home” nation.

Empire is here to stay, not just because of legacy but because its really quite a popular system. The definitions may vary over time, but the principles of expansion and peaceful, productive dominion of a periphery by the centre will remain permanent. A decade ago I argued that we were witnessing the emergence of a new “community of empires”, given the way not only Russia and China, but also India, Brazil and others were run. Some of this has come to pass, others are slow burning. But before we continue to trample the legacy of empires, we should remember why they appealed; since they are an inevitability, perhaps it is better we embrace their positives rather than engage in futile self-flagellation.

The Lessons of History – why confabulation may be worse than amnesia

It is normal for any society to look back to their past for paradigms of “greatness”. In Will and Ariel Durant’s masterful work The Lessons of History, they wrote that:

To break sharply with the past is to court the madness that may follow the shock of sudden blows or mutilations. As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction.

In other words, a grasp of history is important and as a historian myself, I am quite skeptical of those in public life who clearly do not have or act on such a grasp – Tony Blair in the build-up to the Iraq War being a case in point.

But what is the right history to look to? What of the rich tapestry of our past really tells us about the tenets of our national character? History will always be twisted to aid politics; but the current ahistoricism amongst the governing classes has I believe reached something of a new low – and it matters for policy. Reaching for the correct memory is as important as having memories at all.

Britain, for instance, has an imperial history which as a nation it has yet to move on from despite the best efforts of the PC brigades. The signs of it – from the remnants of actual empire (now reduced to the Falklands and Gibraltar) to the permanent seat on the UNSC – still pervade much establishment and tabloid newspaper thinking. But whereas many British subconsciously see the height of empire as the regal majesty of the Delhi Durbar, the real Britain was something altogether less dignified. The British character, I would submit, is one of unruly mobbishness at heart which can be seen throughout society from football hooligans through to the Bullingdon Club – perhaps the best representations of contemporary life being the social diversity of rioters in 2011, and the undignified rush to loot cargo from a sinking ship in 2007.


British hooliganism – two sides of the same historical coin

Rather than harking back to formal empire therefore, the British memory should look more to the Gordon Riots, to Clive of India and James Cook, than to parades at Spithead. Because in this riotous assembly, were also the seeds of Britain’s real greatness: as privateers and traders, entrepreneurs and innovators rather than organisers. In the 18th century Britain stumbled across empires in India and America, and created the Industrial Revolution; arguably, as soon as Britain’s organization skills were brought to bear in the 19th century, the Empire started its decline.

America, too, has the Anglospheric trait of tending towards natural lawlessness as shown by moments such as Hurricane Katrina (in contrast to an example like Fukushima). But there is a deeper romance to the American story as told in elementary schools across the land, of idealism, diversity and tolerance. This too, though, is misremembered. America became great not because of its tolerance, but because of its moments of judicious intolerance and plain ruthlessness – against indigenous people, against Britain, and later against Japan and the Soviet Union (the fraught relationship with Britain was the theme of a 2005 paper of mine). Yes, there were waves of immigration which fed into the so-called “melting pot”, but America would be much less of a country today had it been run with the kinder, gentler governance associated with neighbouring Canada for instance (even if this may also be exaggerated).

Some Americans will not like to see this as the basis of their history, but the reality is that the country’s “manifest destiny” – to rule the continent and then the world – was not built on being nice to people. The American Revolution was not mainly a principled stand of Enlightenment values, but an opportunistic socio-economic power grab by one set of elites from another*. There is a reason why Andrew Jackson, until recent events, was held high in the pantheon of bank notes. And this memory, tinged with a harsh edge and violence, is every bit as important for the country as self-congratulatory myths about the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln. Just as Britain is more Clive than Hardinge, so America is more Jackson than Lewis and Clark.

Jackson Lewis Clark

Andrew Jackson,  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

As an example of how these falsified memories impact policy, let us take the rhetoric surrounding immigration, an issue applicable to both the US and Britain. The common liberal mantra is the fallacy that “this country was built on immigration!”, a cry heard around hipster cafes from Primrose Hill to the West Village. Factually true, but rather irrelevant. Yes, there has been plenty of immigration in the past, although few have come close in scale to what has occurred in recent years. Yes, immigrants by and large contribute enormously to skills, ambition and demographics in both these countries. But it is not immigration itself which has been good; it is appropriate amounts of immigration when building on a platform of strong host culture. It is an “and”, not an “or” – the tired, poor, yearning huddled masses in the US would be nothing had not the violent ruthlessness of mostly white, protestant Anglophone Americans established a country of enormous land and resources. In other words, there are two pillars to this story of progress, not one:

  1. preserve a coherent indigenous identity;
  2. then add immigration as needed.

But the one-dimensional appreciation of history from those that dominate the media and education misses all this. Immigration is put on a pedestal in and of itself, as though it somehow generates positive impacts on a standalone basis. National identity is practically a dirty word – or has been captured by cynics who believe it can be watered down to nothing by adding foreign elements into the mix via the “we were all immigrants once” fallacy. To do this is the sow the seeds of destruction for any nation-state. Just as Blair had no regard for the longer sweep of history in the Middle East, so also the likes of Corbyn or Pelosi for their own country (although strangely Bernie Sanders actually did – and consequently struggled with certain corners of Liberaldom).

But the point is this: whether we are talking about British lack of self-discipline or American violence, these are not actually bad characteristics. People should not be judging these with opprobrium – they can be positives which lead to other strengths. Anglo-American consumerism and short-term thinking helps the whole world in terms of innovation and just plain growth. If Americans did not love spending money so much, the rest of us would not have iPhones. A planet of Germany’s and Japan’s would achieve nothing. Finding a place in the world is partly about adapting – but only on the basis of recognizing what one’s inherent strengths are. Politicians should not be complaining about these characteristics or still less, try to change them. They should be trying to harness them in productive ways – opportunism becomes enterprise, violence becomes robustness. The world certain needs all of these.

I will finish on a macro view. A former boss of mine once asserted that there are three types of competitiveness in the corporate world: price, quality and innovation. Capture one, and you will survive; capture two, and you will succeed; capture all three and you will rule the marketplace. Countries are not dissimilar, and it is no surprise that the one nation which comes closest to an adequate level of all three is also the only hyperpower – America. Historically, even during the Industrial Revolution, Britain was not known for quality, but rather for inventiveness in products and processes. Since emerging, Germany always had a superior record on pure quality, but they have rarely created anything completely new. Nations have their place; national identity will be a determinant of it.

Britain, post-Brexit, needs to thoroughly reflect on which of these features it possesses and how it pursues them (in my opinion, clearly led by innovation not quality)**. It may seem obvious to say that she needs to see herself as an underdog, yet shockingly few statesmen have really digested this fact. America, in this period of potential decline, also needs to rediscover which qualities it still has. Problems like the rise of China and the new “community of empires” will not solve themselves. But for either country to successfully confront their dilemmas, a closer examination of the collective, subconscious social memory is needed; for without it, we face the insanity Durant outlined so long ago.



* Perhaps this will be a major point of debate, but as something of a historian in the era (see eg my 2005 paper on the Anglican Bishop Controversy) the American Revolution was by and large a moment when local elites, separately in Boston and Virginia, found Britain a convenient scapegoat for directing local discontent against. By the 1740s, ports such as Boston and the southern backcountry were facing, for the very first time in colonial history, economic stagnation and the rise of an underclass. A war (The French & Indian) put this on hold, but by 1763 the Boston families and the Tidewater oligarchies needed to stir a conflict for their legitimacy. They got one with Britain, and this, much more than tiresome debates about Lockean Liberalism vs Republicanism (rf Bailyn, Pocock et al), or “taxation without representation”, lies at the heart of the rebellion – and partly explains the surprisingly strong loyalist sentiment throughout the war.

** I will also add that one of the only intelligible and plausible post-Brexit British identities I have heard comes from a potential future guest blogger here, namely that Britain could become an Israel – in other words, a medium-sized maverick which punches above its weight simply through unpredictability. Better not decommission those nuclear weapons, in which case.