The Spectator, the British periodical published continually since 1828, can be read not only for invariably interesting articles about culture and politics, but because it is the product of people who clearly love the English language. In its issue of February 4, 2017, it published two articles that have little to do with each other—one about the ongoing massacres of Christians by Muslim militias in northern Nigeria, the other about a large literary conference in Jaipur, India. Read one after the other, the articles made me think about the British Empire. I thought that this sort of atrocity would not have occurred if Nigeria were still a British colony. What struck me about the second story, which also struck the author of the article, was the continuing hatred of the British Raj by many Indian intellectuals all these decades since 1947, when the Raj ceased to exist. Everything about British rule was bad; everything good in India was rooted in indigenous traditions.
One item in the article sums up this point. In the lobby of the hotel in Jaipur was a book about the traditions of the region. It dealt with the tradition of suttee, the burning of widows on the funeral pyres of their husbands. The British prohibited suttee. The book, published locally, refers to the practice as follows: “The ladies went to their deaths with dignity in the manner of a celebration.” I recalled the account of a delegation of Brahmins who protested to a British official: “You cannot prohibit suttee. It is an ancient tradition of our people.” The official replied: “We British also have ancient traditions. When men burn a woman alive, we hang them. Let us all follow our traditions.” When I was a child, my father showed me on my school atlas how much of the map of the world was colored red, denoting British rule. He commented that the British Empire had contributed much to world order and relatively decent government. He was quite an Anglophile, but he often made the same comment about the Habsburg monarchy, for which he fought in the First World War.
Empires rarely have a single date of birth; they typically develop gradually, one significant event building on others. But if one date were to be chosen as the beginning of the British Empire, it would be 1588, when a smaller British fleet under Sir Francis Drake defeated the huge Spanish Armada, which was poised to invade England and make Queen Elizabeth I subject to the global power of the Spanish crown. It also established the maritime character of the British Empire, as expressed in the famous 1740 hymn “Rule, Britannia—Britannia rules the waves!” The Royal Navy, rather than any land armies assembled for whatever purpose, remained the mainstay of imperial power for a very long time. Imitation is the basic flattery: The Chilean historian Claudio Veliz, in an essay titled “A World Made in England,” pointed out that every modern navy established anywhere (in Germany, in Russia, in Japan) dressed up its sailors in uniforms very similar to those of British sailors! The date when the British Empire effectively ceased to matter can be established more definitely—in 1956 at the conclusion of the Suez crisis. When Gamal Abdel Nasser announced that he would nationalize the Suez Canal, an initially covert alliance of Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt, for the purpose of deposing Nasser and restoring international control of the Suez Canal. That classical exercise of gunboat diplomacy was abruptly aborted when President Dwight Eisenhower announced that the United States would not tolerate it. Supposedly Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sent a telegram to Eisenhower saying only “Over to you!” (Writing this paragraph today, when there is reason to think that American power is going into decline, there is a disturbing question: To whom should such a message be sent from Washington?”)
Piece by piece, British power, both “hard” and “soft,” helped shape the modern world—the guns of the Royal Navy always in the background, but also the technological and social innovativeness of British society. In 1730 James Watt perfected the steam engine, which started the Industrial Revolution in Britain and thereby changed the world. In 1805 Lord Nelson defeated the combined navies of France and Spain at the Battle of Trafalgar, marking the beginning of the end of Napoleon’s ambition to dominate Europe. In 1807 Parliament outlawed the slave trade, and over the following sixty years the Royal Navy very effectively enforced the ban. In 1855 the Limited Liability Act was passed by Parliament, creating a revolution in law by enabling individuals to invest in the capitalist market without the risk of ending up in debtor’s prison. This led to the City of London becoming a prime hub of international finance.
Arguably the most heroic period of the British Empire came during the Second World War. After Hitler’s armies had occupied the Low Countries and France, almost the entire British expeditionary force was evacuated from Dunkirk. In 1940, except for some remnants of Allied forces (notably General De Gaulle’s Free French), Britain was alone in facing the onslaught of the German air force in the blitzkrieg against the civilian population. A famous cartoon, by David Low, showed a British soldier standing on a beach, holding a raised rifle against the sky. The cartoon read “Very well, alone!” Winston Churchill became Prime Minister in that dark moment and made his most famous speech: ”We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall never surrender.” The broadcasts of the BBC were begun with the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. It had become the sound of freedom. “This is London calling.…”
But what is the legacy of the Empire within what used to be those large batches of red on the map of the world? The British Commonwealth of Nations (the adjective was soon dropped), which was supposed to be the successor institution of the Empire, did not seem to achieve much. However, it did have a secretariat in London and periodic meetings attended by the Queen. It was intended to imply a commitment to democracy and the rule of law, but I’m not informed enough to assess the political reality of this commitment. There can be no doubt about the global place of the English language (though its American accent has become more common). English as spoken in the “red” areas of the world is replete with words derived from the languages of the subcontinent—from “guru” to “pukka sahib” to “thug.” And then there are the delightful tonalities of Indian English (accompanied by the distinctive body language, notably the head wiggle)—not to forget the African, West Indian, Singaporean and Hong Kong tonalities.
There are also locations and events in which one can experience the ghosts of Empire. When my two sons were small boys we were on a holiday trip to Britain. Among other sights we attended a Royal Military Tattoo in front of Edinburgh castle, parade exercises performed to the accompaniment of swirling bagpipes. I suppose this kind of exercise was often performed in far-away places to impress the natives with the power of the Empire (I don’t know about the natives, but my boys were certainly impressed). We also went inside the castle chapel, the walls covered with flags carried by Scottish troops into all those far-away battles. My wife commented that Scotland was still a poor country in those times. How did the families of those soldiers feel about their sons going off to die for the Empire? Did they feel proud? Or exploited?
Speaking of bagpipes, I once saw a newsreel of the Battle of El Alamein, in Egypt in 1942, when the British stopped the advance of the German Afrika Korps and began the reconquest of all of North Africa: The film showed a close-up of infantry advancing with fixed bayonets—cheered on by an unarmed bagpipe player. On my first trip to India in the 1970s I was in Bangalore, where my hosts took me to Sunday morning prayer in the chapel of what used to be the “military lines.” There was a sculpture of Queen Victoria on the grounds (I don’t know if it is still there). Inside the chapel were memorial tablets for British soldiers who had died while serving there, in battles or by disease. I was struck by how young many of them were. The service was according to the hymnal of the Church of South India, which the Anglicans joined along with some other Christian denominations. The congregation was mostly Indian, the service was in Kanada (the local language), but the structure was clearly that of the Book of Common Prayer. The Gospel lesson was from Luke 7, the story of Jesus healing the servant of a centurion. I looked around the congregation, and thought, “These are the servants of the centurion.” And I remember visits to little English towns put down in improbable locations—Nassau, in the Bahamas, British since 1718 and settled by African slaves liberated by the Royal Navy; and Gibraltar, acquired by Britain in 1713, “a slice of Britishness on the hip of Spain” (the Spaniards still consider this a national humiliation).
I don’t mean to idealize the British Empire. Even basically decent societies have dark underworlds: I wonder that a Swedish high-security prison is like? Or a nursing home with Alzheimer’s patients in Switzerland? Every empire has been guilty of some atrocities. At the end of the Indian Mutiny in 1858 the British troops who conquered Delhi committed a number of horrible reprisals (including executing rebel prisoners by firing them from artillery pieces). The term “concentration camps” was coined by the British military during the Boer War in South Africa (1899-1902), for the prisons in which the wives and children of Afrikaner guerillas were incarcerated. The term should not suggest that these camps were like those set up by the Nazis, and for once the atrocities could not be ascribed to racism (all the victims were white), but large numbers of women and children died of disease and malnutrition. A particularly revolting atrocity was the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919, when British troops commanded by Colonel Reginald Dyer opened fire on non-violent protesters, killing many of them. Still, British colonialism comes off better than that of other European powers. Yet the British Raj was characterized by a pervasive racism, which in some cases may have been more hurtful than physical violence.
And so we come to the present. The British Empire may have ended in 1956. Since then its disintegration has gone further, to the point where even the continuation of the United Kingdom can no longer be assumed. In a 2014 referendum Scotland turned down independence from the rest of the UK, for now. But in the other referendum in 2016 a majority of Britons voted for Brexit—leaving the European Union. This will turn out to be a painful divorce, but it may reopen the issue of the earlier referendum. Scots voted to stay in the EU, and the Scottish National Party may seek another referendum on independence, perhaps preferring Europe to staying with Little England. The Easter peace agreement on Northern Ireland is also iffy now: Will the border between the Republic, which is in the EU, and the North now become an international border, with unforeseeable consequences?
Leaving aside the question of what the United States will be like after four (or, heaven help us, eight) years of a Trump presidency, the disappearance of a coherent and vocal Britain will be a jolt to the international order, and certainly not in the interest of the United States. I think the debate over both referenda was disappointing. David Cameron’s arguments for preserving the United Kingdom and its remaining in Europe were far too pedestrian—alleged economic gains as against alleged economic costs. As far as I can tell, both sides in the two debates exaggerated wildly in their respective economic prognoses. But as my considerations in this blog indicate, I think a more inspiring—indeed, emotional—case can be and should have been made about the union between England and Scotland, and the importance of Britain remaining in the European Union. One dubious argument in the pro-Brexit advocacy was that the moneys flowing from the UK to Brussels could be shifted to the National Health Service, the popular jewel in the crown of the British welfare state. One commentator (an American, I think) observed that Brexit voters were willing to give up a strong British role in the world to pay for free aspirins and false teeth.