The Point
Last updated: 27 June 2022. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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The British Empire: Was It All Bad?

The Point is a socialist online platform that opens itself up to a wide and broad - even 'heretical' - range of viewpoints from all those who would describe themselves as progressive lefts. It's in that spirit we offer this argument from Rob Dewar.


The getting of the British Empire, a process riven through by greed, treachery, inhumanity and violence, (whose earliest roots lay deep within the institution of slavery), and its ultimate historical legacy, are two very different things.

It may be argued that the genuine legacy of British colonialism is a largely positive one (although, for such an argument to stand, there must exist a willingness to explore the negative consequences of Empire also), having gifted many now independent countries in the world with much to be proud of: in many cases, their existence as single, national sovereign states, for one (I think in particular of India, and of many African countries); and after that, of having bequeathed to them the rule of law; an end to the local, indigenous, slave trades; the pacification of once warlike regions; one or another form at least of democratic government; the opportunity for peoples to engage safely in peaceful pursuits, and thus, via more secure trade, for many to improve their material lot; along with the spread of basic healthcare, and of improved methods of agriculture, and often, of basic education for all who wished it.

All this is possible, because the colonial legacy usually included an infrastructure sustaining these advantages, an infrastructure which almost certainly would not have developed in many parts of the ex-colonial world, had the British not brought their rule to these regions.   

Then there's the popular contemporary view of the British colonial legacy, in which it was all bad: no exceptions, no debate. 

In this viewpoint, regions such as India (a collection of, quite literally, hundreds of princely states before the sub-continent came gradually under British rule; many at war with one-another almost all the time; all ruled by more or less despotic rulers; many districts prey to bandits and robbers), would have been far happier doing without such advantages as the rule of law, an end to the internal slave trade, the pacification of warlike regions, the institution of the semblance of democracy, and the opportunity, through more secure and wider-reaching trade and commerce, for people to work to improve their lot.

Just as the popular contemporary view of the British Imperial legacy would have it that how much happier, before the British arrived, were the peoples of Africa and India, when they were still subject to cruel, despotic rulers; frequent victims of the famine and destruction that accompanied endemic warfare; at risk (should their homelands be overrun by foreign conquerors) of becoming enslaved and sold to cruel masters far from home; prey to bandits and robber-gangs; and free to wallow in the blissful ignorance that accompanies a total lack of wider educational opportunities.

But then, this is how history so often works: invariably, it is a vicious, cruel process in which conquest is visited by a greater power upon weaker entities, by peoples whose arrogance and presumption of inborn superiority to the conquered peoples is, today, repellent, and this, without any advantages accruing to the conquered peoples: only a transfer of the absolute power over them, by one or more indigenous regimes, to an alien regime greater and crueller and more violent than all the rest.

If the British Empire of such contemporary ill repute was different to all the great empires that preceded it, it is not so much in its getting, and often, not in its keeping, either (I think of the brave defence of their religious freedom against an ever more aggressive and officially sanctioned Christianisation process, by the people of northern India – Hindustan, which gave rise to the Indian Rebellion of 1857; I think too of the MauMau rebellion in Kenya, which was put down with even more brutality than that of its progress): no, where the British Empire was arguably different to the rest was (1) that it officiated over its own demise as a matter of imperial policy; and (2) in its tangible, material legacy to the ex-colonial peoples.  

As to (1), it was this controlled demise, which of course was the consequence of a more or less rationally applied policy agreed upon at the highest levels of British Imperial government, of the granting of freedom to ex-colonial subject peoples, which differentiated the British Empire from, say, that of France (think of the agonizingly drawn out battle by Metropolitan France to hang onto Algeria: the tens of thousands of deaths: the legacy, a shattered Algeria, a country that was to lurch into a long-drawn out civil war between more or less moderate forces of government and the forces of Islamist extremism); or Portugal’s African empire (in particular, Mozambique and Angola), which was abandoned almost literally overnight, in such haste, and in a condition of such disarray, that almost immediate civil wars, that were to last the next 2 decades, broke out, with hundreds of thousands of avoidable deaths their consequence.   

As to (2), that is, the tangible, material legacy of the British Empire to the ex-colonial peoples; a legacy which was beneficial in so many ways for so many (though not all) of the peoples within the Empire: perhaps the most obvious of these benefits, was the bequeathing to newly independent sovereign states, of well-embedded institutions of government that promised at last the possibility of serving all the peoples of these countries, and not just their elites. Along with well-trained, well-functioning civil services, the British Empire bequeathed a form of democracy, at least, to its ex-colonial possessions: that is, theWestminsterparliamentary system, which is still honoured (though more in abeyance than in operation) in even such ill-ruled and ill-managed countries as Zimbabwe.

Where this democratic legacy has taken root most successfully, is of course, in India, where it supported even the development (for several decades) of a democratic socialist state (Even today, despite the siren-songs of super-capitalism and of corporatism, elements of the democratic socialist tradition are still embedded within Indian institutional life: the Indian railways, for example, are still state-owned; the cost of rail travel is still heavily subsidized).

Then too, the Westminster parliamentary system has taken root successfully in most of the once-British Caribbean island nations, and after them, more or less successfully, in certain ex-colonial possessions in Africa, such as Kenya and Botswana.

However, the British Empire bequeathed more than civil services and a form of democratic government to its ex-colonial possessions: in many instances, it bequeathed a solid foundation of infrastructural development – of manufacturing, processing, and the institutions that encourage and regulate peaceful national and regional trade and commerce. Operating within perhaps that greatest of all imperial legacies – the rule of law – the pursuit of trade and commerce by the peoples of the ex-colonial possessions held a promise (and in many cases did indeed fulfill that promise) of improving the material lot of many more citizens than would ever have been possible within the traditional, pre-colonial cultures.

One might mention also, as part of this tangible, material legacy of British colonialism, the creation of nation-wide basic health services (more or less developed, region by region), and the opportunity of acquiring an education along European lines that would equip some at least of these independent countries’ people with the skills and patterns of thinking necessary to grow their country’s wealth through participation in a global economy.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

I remember as a child seeing my first Maasai moran (young Maasai cattle-herder), when my family visited Maasai Mara in 1959/60, and he stood as proud and straight, a pair of spears in one hand (for there were lions, then, in that land, to guard against), as a true lord of the land, not (as today, with his shades and his cellphone, and his ill-thought out items of Western garb) like a neglected child of global European cultural and social influences.

There is a beguiling allure, to at least some of us, of a world in which Europe had never intruded, and in which that world’s peoples had been permitted the freedom, over time, to evolve and apply their own answers to the ages-old human problems of achieving justice, equality, and brotherhood.




External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

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