Empire – an inchoate diaspora

The British colonisers took other traditions with them - respect for the rule of law, elected government, independence of the justiciary from the administration, military obedience to the civil power, and, above all, education.

Peccavi! Mea culpa!

Actually, it’s not that bad. Apparently all I did last time out when listing the many reasons why so many people left the UK for pastures new was to miss one important factor: weather!

According to one Russell Green, “the climate of England has been the world’s most powerful colonising impulse.” Mr Green is (or was) an American sportsman, presumably a student of history and obviously a frequent visitor to Britain. He makes a good point, though I could disagree with the “most powerful” description. Personally, I would argue that the greatest reason that drove Brits around the world was the profit motive or, less politely, the desire to make money.

That aside, this simply underlines my basic argument, that the British Empire came about by chance, through the individual efforts and activities of many thousand men and women wanting to better themselves, not some central, predetermined nationalist master plan. Again, in the wise words of author Jan Morris, “Britain acquired its Empire in a fit of absentmindedness”.

There is a tendency in some academic circles to portray the Raj as some sort of international conspiracy as if it was a real life counterpart of SPECTRE in the James Bond movies, like some giant octopus spreading its criminal tentacles around the world. An interesting fact about an octopus: it has a brain for each tentacle, all eight under the instant control by the neurons of its central nervous system. Believe me, the baby British Empire was never that well organised!

When the British began gallivanting round the world, communications were somewhat primitive. When Robert Clive set foot in India, the only way he could contact his bosses back in London was to write them a pen and ink letter (does anyone remember such quaint antiquities?). This letter then went to London by sailing ship, a process which could take as long as four months. Similarly, when London replied, using the same process, it took another four months for that answer to get back to him. By which time, our bold Robert, being the opportunist he was, had already done what he wanted to do in the first place, and got the tee-shirt!

To put it less flippantly, in the words of another eminent historian, Lawrence James, describing one pivotal moment of the British presence in India – it “… was accomplished without any plan and according to no general principle. It was largely undertaken by a handful of ambitious officials and generals who sincerely believed that they could enrich themselves while at the same time advancing the interests of their country and their employer.”

Read that phrase and study it carefully. It sets out the very keystone of the very rise of what became an Empire – ambitious men and women, wanting success and financial security as a result of commercial and economic growth for their organisations and, incidentally, for Britain.

So, rather than the great criminal conspiracy of legend, the British Empire was rooted in an inchoate diaspora. It was the spread of men and women. And men and women are good, bad, and indifferent, and so was the Empire their efforts eventually created. For, in addition to ambition and hard work, and a desire for success, these men and women took other traditions with them – respect for the rule of law, elected government, independence of the justiciary from the administration, military obedience to the civil power, and, above all, education, education, education.

These ideals underpinned not just British influence but provided the structure for the rise of so many countries to proud independence. I have already quoted India as an example; India, once the Jewel in the Crown and today proudly the largest independent democracy in the world. Take education. It should be noted, and never forgotten, that Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual guide of Indian independence, was a British-educated lawyer, a Middle Temple barrister no less. Jawaharial Nehru, the first President of an independent India, was a product of those great bulwarks of the English establishment Harrow school and Cambridge University. Even Chandra Subhas Bose, the most virulently anti-British Indian Nationalist leader, friend of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, and guiding light of the Indian National Army who fought (though not very much) for the Japanese during World War II, also went to Cambridge. So the influences were widespread and far.

(Incidentally some of my young Indian friends suggest that I should add to British contributions to India the game of cricket. Quite right, they’re very good at it.

There are, of course, those who will argue that this case is weakened by the fact that today some of the countries which enjoyed the benefits of British influence or, according to your prejudices, suffered its injustices, are – and I’m trying to put this so as not to offend – not exactly paragons of the civic virtues outlined above. Such views are simply irrelevant. Just as the men and women who created these influences were good, bad, and indifferent, so individual states have the right to be good, bad, and indifferent.

There is an old axiom that people get the government they deserve. I prefer the idea that people get the government they are prepared to tolerate. In the wise words of George Bernard Shaw, “Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.”

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