Tuesday 14 May 2024

Imperial fantasy is a weakness, not a strength


The Institute of Economic Affairs isn’t exactly famous for being a politically-neutral organisation. It has an agenda which it vigorously promotes, based around the idea that ‘free’ markets are the answer to just about everything. Having an agenda isn’t a good enough reason to reject everything they say, but it’s a pretty good reason for reading what they say with a sceptical eye. They recently produced some research on the economics of the Empire, and it makes for interesting reading. It claims, on my reading of it, that the wealth of the UK is not to any significant degree based on its imperial past nor on the slavery which was a part of that past, but would, in general terms, have accumulated anyway, based largely on innovation and enterprise. It’s a thesis which is not universally accepted, to put it mildly. Other interpretations and analyses are available.

It's a conclusion which some on the ‘right’ of the Tory Party, such as Kemi Badenoch, have seized on, though, to validate their own interpretation of the pros and cons of Britain’s imperial past. But even if, as she wishes, we were to accept the contentious conclusion that the UK benefited only slightly if at all, even the report itself notes that that doesn’t mean that it was a good thing from the point of view of the colonised. As the author puts it, “The implication is that colonialism and slavery were not zero-sum games that benefited the colonisers at the expense of the colonised. It was more like a negative-sum game, which hurt the latter without really benefiting the former”. A shortish blog isn’t the place to develop a detailed analysis of the economic arguments; I’m more interested in the political implications for the way we remember our own history and what it means for identity. As the author himself says, “The reader will have noticed that we have avoided promoting any specific narrative about Britain’s (or any other country’s) history or expressing a view of how that history should be collectively remembered today. A cost–benefit analysis cannot tell us any of that and is not supposed to”. That hasn’t prevented Badenoch from trying to use the report to do precisely that.

For those who want to cling to the traditional British view of history, it is important to their political and historical identity that the Empire should be remembered for the ‘good things’ which it did, rather than the bad ones. For sure, the argument goes, the Empire might have destroyed communities, stolen resources, wiped out languages and cultures, and enslaved populations, but look, we gave them Christianity, democracy and the rule of law, the English language and Shakespeare. And cricket. Those who claim that taking an alternative view involves ‘rewriting history’ are themselves rewriting history because, even if it were to be accepted that those things were indeed advantages, they were never the motivation for the initial colonisation. It’s very much a post hoc rationalisation of a mindset which was based on a desire for conquest and exploitation. Even if the IEA were to be proved right about imperialism not being very cost-effective, that would merely show that the imperialists failed to achieve their aims, not that they were somehow acting charitably.

It's also a very arrogant and ethnocentric view of the world. It assumes that the colonised could not and would not have developed their own systems of law and democracy without having them imposed by the colonisers, and it assumes that the culture, values and beliefs of the colonisers were and are superior to those of the colonised. However, presenting imperialism as having been, on the whole, a good thing is absolutely key to the identity and belief systems of Anglo-British nationalists, and they feel threatened by any alternative view. Their increasingly desperate lashing out at alternative views is a sign of weakness, not strength.

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