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Great Ghosts of Britain

Legacy of a Global Empire

Jun. 4, 2012
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“British” and “Empire” were once inseparable on any word association test, but the character of the globe-spanning realm on which the sun never set has long been in dispute. Some call it a vast and callous system of exploitation while others maintain it brought democracy, railroads and the suppression of noxious customs. After all, the Brits broke Indians from the habit of tossing widows onto their husbands' funeral pyres.

The son of African immigrants to the U.K., Kwasi Kwarteng, has written a critique of the empire that is nuanced and, if not entirely free of the passion that will juggle facts to score points, provides a thought-provoking and plausible appraisal. One could add that he is a legacy of the British Empire. His Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World (Public Affairs) examines six examples of British rule and finds the legacy not only deficient but—in all but one case—dangerous. Of those six states, Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan and Nigeria remain loose canons on the world stage in the 21st century thanks in part to the Brits. The fifth, Hong Kong, functions efficiently as East Asia's juggernaut of capital, but the last British governor's eleventh-hour commitment to democracy was overturned by a Chinese Communist regime bent on business as usual.

The crown's final representative in Hong Kong, Chris Patten, embodies Kwarteng's thesis that the British Empire was not a highly regimented, top-down structure but an idiosyncratic hodge-podge whose components were cobbled together by men of remarkably similar background but often radically dissimilar temperament and ideals. Like most British proconsuls of the past, Patten was a product of his country's elite schools, articulate and determined to run his own show—often in defiance of his distant overlords in London. The Foreign Office worried that his personal project of transforming the colony's benign authoritarianism into a democracy would anger Beijing. Their concerns were not misplaced; however, the Chinese, whose view of history extends to thousands of years, knew they could bide their time. They simply cancelled Patten's reforms upon his departure. The Hong Kong Chinese merchant class, which thrived under Britain's system, was happy to carry on under the rule of a Beijing determined to preserve the city's position in the global economy.

The problems endured by the five other states were considerably more serious. Kwarteng links wars and civil wars in these places to the often feckless policies of British rule, whose specific provisions were seldom imposed by London but usually improvised by the “man on the spot,” the appointed official whose ranks included many colorful eccentrics. Most of these men would have been entertaining dinner guests, but their particular schemes and hobbyhorses often had dire consequences. Kashmir, still a flashpoint between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan and not unrelated to the Afghan imbroglio, was sold by Britain's governor general of India to a Hindu nobleman. The problem, aside from the nobleman's doubtful character, was Kashmir was mostly Muslim.

The cliché about history repeating itself finds support when Britain's adventures in 19th century Burma are compared to America's 21st century invasion of Iraq. The Brits justified their action by pointing to the depravity of the local ruler when commerce was the driving reason for military action. Dismantling the native administration, Britain was left with a bloody rebellion and few allies on the ground until a massive troop surge stabilized the situation. The proponents of annexing Burma promised the job could be done cheaply. As with Bush's initiatives in Iraq, events on the ground didn't adhere to plan.


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