Imperialism has been a fact of historical life, at all times and throughout the world. So why is the British variety singled out? Jeremy Black has raised his head above the parapet, not so much to defend the Empire as to ponder why it arouses such animosity
If there is one subject that is guaranteed to provoke an eruption among contemporary progressives, it is the British Empire. In the era of statue wars, identity politics, and the “decolonisation” of university curricula (even policing the ethnicity of authors on reading lists), the Empire remains a unique source of antagonism. There exists a widespread belief that the British variant of imperialism was particularly violent and repressive and thus uniquely in need of condemnation. There have been calls for Nelson’s Column to be pulled down, because Horatio’s views did not reflect modern social mores. An undergraduate student in one of my classes recently insisted that he could discern no differences between the British Empire and the apocalyptic death cult of Islamic State.
Of course, some scholars have offered a more nuanced and thoughtful take on the Empire and its legacy. My own colleague at the University of Edinburgh, Harshan Kumarasingham—a New Zealander of Sri Lankan heritage—is currently doing his best to explore the legacy of British constitutionalism throughout the Commonwealth. Niall Ferguson offered a famously provocative interpretation in his classic Empire. And now Jeremy Black, of the University of Exeter, has had a quite ingenious idea for tackling the problem.
Black is probably the most prolific historian on the planet. He has authored more than 100 books (!) and continues to add to his oeuvre with energy. He has written on a mind-boggling array of topics, from 18th-century Britain to global military history to cartography. He has written a pair of books about James Bond. Black is always a pleasure to read: argumentative, stimulating, and engaging. He writes for serious periodicals, including Standpoint and The New Criterion. He is a well-travelled and in-demand lecturer who has delivered talks across much of the world. I recently listened to a pair of lectures he gave at the wonderful New York Historical Society and was struck by his sheer range. Black is not your ordinary academic historian. His wide-ranging expertise marks him out as a throwback to a less narrow age of university scholarship. And that makes him the ideal figure to write this important book.
Black has raised his head above the parapet, not so much to defend the Empire as to ponder why it arouses such animosity. His views are made clear in the first sentence of the introduction: “Empire reflects power, its existence, and its use.” Imperialism has been a fact of historical life, at all times and throughout the world. So why is the British variety singled out? Black argues that when progressives whip themselves up into a frenzy about the British Empire, often they are really attacking the modern United States. Britain is “the ostensible target”, but the thing they are actually angry about is the power of America. For decades, the US has provided an inexhaustible source of material to power the protests of university students and bien pensant intellectuals. These people are typically not suited to thinking strategically, show little historical (or political) awareness, and cannot accept that one indispensable component of world order is hard power. Throwing a rhetorical jab at the US, or the British Empire, is a straightforward means of validating what Black describes as “theatrical” emotions.
In the cause of knocking down the embodiment of the contemporary West, America, these critics berate the British Empire. British imperialism is treated as a precursor of American imperialism. Given that the Americans succeeded to leadership of a liberal world order crafted by Britain, there is truth to this. But a certain kind of progressive reserves special enmity for the world-systems which have disseminated the liberal capitalist model around the globe. The British world-system and its American successor are the blueprint for the planet: economically, politically, and legally. They advanced the rule of law and prosperity. As Black argues, the reality is that Britain and the US have been more liberal than other imperialist powers. “Judging Britain or, indeed, the United States as an imperial power harshly frequently involves a lack of comparative rigour.” British and American imperialism have, in historical terms, been markedly less repressive than that associated with Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, or pretty much anyone else. Nor is empire a phenomenon of the Anglosphere. As Black shows, states behave in an “imperialist” fashion as a matter of routine. In contemporary Asia, for example, India, Indonesia and China all act in a recognisably imperialist manner.
It is striking that similar hostility to that shown to the US has not been reserved for the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, or radical Islam—to name merely three alternative contenders for world order in the post-1945 world. Xi Jinping has seized huge amounts of personal power, locked up millions of his fellow Chinese, assembled the most technologically sophisticated system of state surveillance of one’s citizens ever devised, boasted of his ambition to demolish the liberal world order, and threatened military actions which, if followed through, would commence a series of conflicts which could kill tens of millions. And yet tweets emanating from Donald Trump are invested with far more gravity.
Hostility to the West certainly serves important unifying and political myths around the world. In modern China, for example, the experience of helplessness in the face of Western powers is a foundational justification for the drive to national assertiveness. It is crucial to the Communist Party and its account of both the past and the future. In Africa, governments need to sustain national myths of liberation. In India, much popular discussion of national history centres on the relatively short period of British imperialism. There is only a limited grasp of the country’s history more broadly, including far longer periods of Indian imperialism within Asia. This blindspot is telling. As Black points out, the “cutting edge of historiography” is not the work done by obscure academics but the ways in which large, dynamic societies tell themselves stories about their past. These are, inevitably, self-serving. What is remarkable is how completely some in the West have aligned themselves with these narratives.
The tendency to denunciation over “imperialism” is now approaching Maoist levels of feverishness. When the academic Bruce Gilley published an essay which argued that colonialism brought some benefits to the ruled in Third World Quarterly in 2017, half of the editorial board resigned because his article did not denounce imperialism as “a crime against humanity”, and the editor received serious threats of violence. Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor at Oxford, and Doug Stokes, of Exeter, have encountered similar problems. This is where presenting the past “in order to satisfy current mores”, as Black puts it, has left modern culture. What is sad is that historians have often been the ones leading the charge, a grave indictment of the profession. Alarming numbers seem to spend their time wishing that people in the past would not have thought, said, and done what they did. That is a bizarre conception of history, one that has led us into deep trouble. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of the British Empire. Jeremy Black’s book offers a compelling and timely discussion of the place that imperialism occupies in the modern imagination.
Imperial Legacies: The British Empire Around the World
By Jeremy Black
Encounter Books, 199pp, £20