Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British by Jeremy Paxman

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Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British by Jeremy Paxman

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Category: History
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A lively look at the rise and fall of the British Empire, and many of the personalities involved, with some soul-searching questions as to Britain’s post-imperial role in the world.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: October 2011
Publisher: Viking
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0670919574

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In the 21st century, the British Empire may be an anachronism, something for which hand-wringing politicians and church leaders may be ever ready to apologise. Many of us have grown up just as the last imperial remnants were crumbling away. Yet its legacy is everywhere, and for better or worse will always be part of the very fabric of Britain. As Jeremy Paxman demonstrates in this excellent overview, published as a curtain-raiser to his series on the subject, it is never very far away from us. After a period of trying to distance ourselves from it, we seem to be on the verge of coming to terms with the simple truth that it was not so bad as it has sometimes been painted. Moreover, it should be remembered that even if Britain emerged from the Second World War battered and broke, it still possessed sufficient imperial presence to become one of the Permanent Five on the United Nations Security Council.

Obviously, not even the most ardent apologist can unreservedly defend the imperial tradition. Since the Seven Years War of 1756-63, sometimes considered the first 'world war', and the point at which the British recognized the extent to which their destiny lay not in Europe but elsewhere, the saga has been plentifully strewn with fools and racist tyrants, the characters we might prefer to forget ever existed. The white man was convinced of his superiority and of that of his religion, too readily convinced of the woeful inadequacy of other races. General Gordon was a 'half cracked fatalist' who paid the ultimate price at Khartoum, while General Baden-Powell was a juvenile ego-maniac who in his early days of service in Afghanistan might witness 'the hanging of recalcitrant tribesmen with the casual indifference of an occasional visitor to a provincial theatre'.

During the last days of empire Prime Minister Anthony Eden, beset with health problems after a botched operation for gallstones, was 'a man whose physical condition almost precluded measured judgment', and it was Britain’s misfortune that his final months in office coincided with the Suez crisis of 1956. And it is duly obsered that Charles Dickens, whose radical credentials were generally impeccable, wrote that he was so incensed at the horrors inflicted on the British during the Indian mutiny of 1857, that if only he had been Commander in Chief, he would have done his utmost 'to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested…and to raze it off the face of the Earth'.

Yet against these negative images, he shows that it was the British who put an end to the slave trade when other European powers would have had it otherwise. He also pays due tribute to the unselfishness and hard work of missionaries, unsparing in their efforts to protect local people against exploration and help them gain their independence. Some of them developed a genuine affection for the country in which they went to work, notably Annie Besant, who moved to India in 1893, took to wearing Hindu mourning dress in grief at what the British had done to the country, and spent some years encouraging Indians to throw off the shackles of colonial rule.

The process was inevitable, and the crowning moment of humiliation came, not with Suez, but during the war when Japanese soldiers inflicted on the empire its greatest humiliation of the century with the surrender of British troops at Singapore. However, as Paxman reminds us, the Japanese were invading as part of a plan to establish an empire of their own, and their brutal occupation of the territory showed how benign British rule had been.

In the hands of many a lesser author, such a book would have either been hagiography or diatribe. This is a very fair-minded, even-handed assessment. Mistakes were made, and cruelties were inflicted, but on balance most successive governments had little reason to feel ashamed of their role.

Now there may just be a scattered handful of imperial outposts left across the globe, the most conspicuous being the (still somewhat disputed) Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. Maybe, as Dean Acheson said in 1962, Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. Paxman concludes that in general we are neglecting the history of the British empire, at a time when our imperial past still has the power to influence current British foreign policy, for example in the decisions of Prime Ministers to send troops to war, and in the way in which we view adventurers from the past. If we can come to terms with what was done throughout the world in our country’s name, he says, as a nation we might 'find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world'.

Anybody who has read and enjoyed any of his previous books, all superbly researched (the bibliography alone accounts for over thirty pages here) and enlivened with his customary dry wit, will find this equally entertaining and thought-provoking.

Our thanks to Penguin/Viking Books for providing Bookbag with a review copy.

For further insight into Britain’s imperial past, may we recommend Running the Show: Governors of the British Empire 1857-1912 by Stephanie Williams.

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