Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
Jeremy Paxman (Viking 2011)
In his previous book The English: A Portrait of a People, Jeremy Paxman was at pains to distinguish the cultural identity of the English from those of the Scots, Welsh and Irish, in order to ask specific questions about English culture and characteristics. In his latest book, Empire (with an accompanying BBC television series first broadcast in early 2012), the subtitle, reasonably enough, implies a more general study of Empire's impact on the British.
For students of English culture and identity, however, this presents us with a familiar problem: the need to disentangle the blithely alternated references to the English and the British, with no prior distinction or terms of reference established to guide the reader. This is a shame in view of Paxman's previous investigations of Englishness, since there do seem to be differing perceptions of the Empire experience within the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, which he does not explore in great depth. As a result, potentially interesting and enlightening distinctions between the impacts of Empire on the English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish go largely unremarked and unexamined.
The book highlights the key stages of the Empire's development, establishment, and eventual dissolution. As Paxman points out, the British Empire evolved in an ad-hoc fashion, the combined product of maritime supremacy and the adventures of quixotic explorers who planted the Union flag in far-flung places, ostensibly in the name of the King, but more accurately for the sake of trade. This led to the exploitation of natural resources and indigenous populations, based on an unquestioning feeling of entitlement.
Unfortunately the book does not live up to its subtitle, in that the impact on the British themselves does not really provide the focus; rather, this is the "Empire-Good or Bad?" question explored through a series of "ripping yarns," the stories of well-known Empire builders--missionaries, adventurers, traders, colonial officers and administrators, and cultural observers-- with a familiar roll-call of names such as Clive of India, David Livingstone, Cecil Rhodes, T. E. Lawrence, and Rudyard Kipling.
Paxman does touch on the subject of how national identities within the UK influenced and were influenced by colonialism. As the Empire grew a British identity was forged, particularly through the army, which Paxman sees as "the most visible means by which the distinctive characteristics of the subjugated Welsh, Scots and Irish were channelled into the British identity." This view of an English-dominated British hegemony is, however, challenged by others such as John MacKenzie (co-editor of Scotland and the British Empire). In a recent BBC History magazine article Mackenzie points to the later development of nationalist movements, particularly in Ireland, despite the disproportionate influence of the Irish within the British army. For MacKenzie there is more mileage in a four-nations theory of Empire, with English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh strands that were never fully integrated into a homogeneous British Empire. Each brought their own cultural, religious and national characteristics to bear on the experience of colonial rule, and each were affected in differing ways.
How, then, can we divine any specific effects on the English? Since these are not always clearly defined in the book, we are often left to make our own assumptions. For example, Paxman is surely describing a predominantly English culture when he highlights the importance of sport, particularly cricket, and the public school system in developing the necessary traits for life as a "decent chap" who would be trusted with leadership responsibilities in a colonial posting, whether military or governmental.
Of course, we should acknowledge the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment and educational institutions in Scotland to the Scottish experience of Empire, but this does seem distinctly different to that of the English. The public school system established (and maintains) a social and political hierarchy in English society that is perhaps more marked than in other parts of the United Kingdom. The fascination with sport and its associated notions of fair play, character, individual courage and the greater good of the team was most memorably evinced --as Paxman points out --in Henry Newbolt's famous poem which conjoined the essentials of cricket with the exigencies of the 1885 war in the Sudan, urging readers to "Play up! Play up! And play the game!" Sport was also instrumental in fostering better relationships between conquered and conqueror than might otherwise be expected: cricket in particular was exported to many countries within the Empire, and remains a significant bonding legacy today.
It is no doubt fair to see arrogance in any imperial endeavour, but again, can we assume that this is perhaps more marked in the English, with their belief that the British (and more specifically they themselves) were here to lead the world culturally, economically, militarily and politically? According to Paxman, "it was their empire that convinced the British that they were somehow special." It is not a massive leap to suggest that for the English, as the dominant force within Britain, this trait might be more marked. This is supported by Paxman's choice of a quote from John Milton for one chapter heading: "let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live."
The potential for a more nuanced view of what we mean by "the British" is highlighted by a newspaper review of the BBC series by Scottish Herald journalist Mark Smith, who notes that the lower-profile scheduling of the programme in Scotland hints at a more ambivalent perspective on the legacy of Empire, or perhaps less appetite to engage with the subject given increasing Scottish autonomy over recent years. This is despite the fact, as Paxman points out, that the Scots in particular were at the forefront of colonial administration, representing one third of governors between 1850 and 1939. In addition, some of the most famous Empire builders were Scots, from missionaries to Africa such as David Livingstone to traders in the Far East including William Jardine and James Matheson--the latter two established a vast trading network based on cotton, tea, silk and many other commodities, not least opium.
For the English, however, a disavowal of the imperial legacy is not so easily achieved. As the leading partner in the United Kingdom, England's conquests of Ireland, Scotland and Wales can be seen as stepping stones towards an imperial project that constructed Great Britain as a by-product, since further global expansion required a greater supply of manpower and resources. Initially, there was what could be seen as an English Empire, and indeed prior to the Act of Union the Scots themselves made abortive seventeenth century attempts at building a Scottish Empire with settlements in Panama, in response to England's establishment of overseas possessions.
As Paxman observes, Britain's tendency to take on a larger international role than its relative size and status would admit continues to manifest itself in recent conflicts such as Iraq and Afghanistan, and is surely a legacy of its imperial past. The multicultural reality of contemporary Britain is a direct consequence of Empire, since post-war immigration to the UK came largely from the ex-colonies. Again, though, discerning English rather than British effects is very difficult in these contexts, and warrants further analysis and investigation.
Whilst an entertaining and thought-provoking investigation of the morality of Empire and the imperial period's importance to the British in general, the book leaves the reader desiring a more thorough examination of how the various sections of British and English society were shaped and influenced by the experience of being a colonial power. We need to know, not just about the cricket-playing, public school-educated colonial officers, but the ordinary foot soldiers who served in the various conflicts, and those at home whose perceptions of themselves and their country were shaped by living in the country that led the world's largest empire. --Steve Cox
Copyright © Steve Cox 2012.