15793661Establishing some kind of unified field theory concerning British hegemony in the 19th and first half of the 20th century has become something of a grail quest for historians. Perhaps one of the most incisive and exhaustively academic is “The Rise and Fall of the British Empire” by Lawrence James. For as rigorous as James’ study is (700+ pages), it was published some 15 years ago. Current academic and social understanding of empires have continued to evolve from then. For example, when James was published, Hong Kong still had two years of its 99 year lease left.

Into this vacuum enters English historian John Darwin. Having previously tackled imperial attitudes in After Tamerlane and The Empire Project, Darwin uses his experience as a lecturer and researcher to attempt to provide a complete account of the question that has haunted the British establishment since perhaps 1948; What caused the decline and fall of the great British Empire?

I said before that historians looking for a united theory in explanations have discussed this topic in academic journals and publications for years. In an attempt to square this historical circle, Darwin proposes that the reason Britain became an empire at all was because of the “four C’s”: colonizing, civilizing, converting and commerce. It is a neat and tidy grouping that does its best to contain the bloated weight of two hundred years of imperial memory.

However, I give credit to where credit is indeed due. Darwin has an excellent moment of real keeping early on when he states:

“Nor was it just the modern world that was created by empire. This suggests that the conditions that give rise to empires are neither peculiarly modern, nor peculiarly rooted in European behaviour, technology or values. It also suggests – unless we dispense with our view of historical change as a whole – that empires cannot be seen as the inveterate enemies of cultural and material advance among those they ruled over.”

In fact I think it is fairly easy to defend the thesis that empire was the default setting of early nations and states. The fact that some succeeded for longer than others is a testament to the brutality of these empires.

Darwin doesn’t exactly offer his work in supplication to the formerly ruled. Instead, it acts more as contextualization of European empire in general and British policy in particular. None of which is to say he does not call out the sadistic nature of the occupying forces. His coverage of Indian policy and also the internment of both Boers and later Mau Mau is particularly acidic in nature. If permitted, I would take Darwin’s conclusions a bit further and reference George Orwell, whose experience serving the glory of the Raj drove him nearly insane with anger at the local population (see “Shooting and Elephant”).

Understandably, empires are destructive not just to the people that are being occupied. They also wear on the emotional stress of the occupier and colonial elite. Tales of alcoholism, violence and madness are a common theme stitched through his whole narrative.

Indeed, if Darwin succeeds in creating a great narrative of British rise to hegemony, it is on a kind of cumulative radicalisation. “entrepot imperialism”, using force and soft power to force British goods into new markets, ruled policy until the foundation of the American Republic in 1783. From this cataclysm for British soft power, new markets were already opening up, as Darwin points out:

“…far from heralding the implosion of British imperial power, the loss of America was the prelude to a colossal expansion of its scale and ambition.”

This ambition had a name; India and (and greater South Asia as a whole). From here Britain would make its mark into the history books as its laissez faire rule through corporatism led inexorably to direct rule and from there to complete domination of the sub continent and elsewhere.

While Darwin does cover the various entry points into local societies around the globe that marked the modern world with anglophone names on a majority of the world’s landmass, his best work is when discussing how India and South Asia were the real linchpin to British hegemony in the world. The navy they used kept markets relatively stable for British goods which could be produced ‘freely’ from cheap Indian labour.

Darwin doesn’t bring anything necessarily new to the table regarding British rule of the world’s largest empire. But perhaps the fact that it keeps civil society discussing the legacy of imperialism and how it very visibly affects our day to day life is worth while enough.

Recommended for readers with interest in broad anglophone histoy, great for introductory courses.

Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain By John Darwin. Bloomsbury Press USA 2012. 496 Pages. Purchased Copy


Hat tip to Yglesias for the photo

For the past several months the 60th Jubilee of  the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II has been everywhere, with news agencies all around the Anglophone world (and beyond) devoting pages of their daily and weekly periodicals.
So when Yglesias made a twitter photo comment about the latest cover of Newsweek featuring a just-crowned Elizabeth smiling broadly I was slightly intrigued.
What is striking about the photo of Elizabeth is that shows the brief period of time between when she probably still thought of herself as George VI’s daughter, on holiday in Kenya and when she found that her role had become that of figurehead of a nation and a commonwealth.
It’s a great photo, and one that should be remembered for a very long time

New data confirmed today that the British economy shrunk again in the 4th quarter of 2011. It’s been a bad year for the British economy as a whole, with the Tory/Lib-Dem austerity plan cutting deep into the local and municipal government’s access to funds for social programs.

A Chart! Hat tip to the Economist


In a win for every lover of 1990’s music, the Cranberries have reformed and released a new single.

As has been expected, David Cameron’s government in England declined to provide capital to assist the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its band aid of the European Union’s ever growing financial crisis.

Money quote:

Four countries not using the single currency also pledged to add to the IMF war chest while Britain refused to commit, preventing officials from reaching the 200 billion-euro target to ease the euro area’s home-grown debt burdens. The U.K. will “define its contribution” in early 2012, euro finance ministers said in a statement after a conference call yesterday

Per the Bagehot blog at The Economist,

And the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in the coalition? Well, their whole plan for re-election was to be the kindlier, restraining element of the coalition that had delivered economic recovery in time for the 2015 general election, seeking credit for their fiscal discipline while pointing out where they had softened the roughest edges of Tory austerity.

If instead of a recovery Britain faces an economic catastrophe, I confess I struggle to see how the Lib Dems survive at all.

Original post here.

As a comitted Labour supporter, I have always been disdainful of how the Liberal Democrats have marketed their policies to the electorate. At least with this coalition government we have been witness to the best reasons NOT to elect a Clegg-like figure in the future.

Will Clegg’s big gamble with the Tory’s be his party’s ruin?

Over at the Atlantic, Megan Mcardle contemplates the Euro’s fall from grace while UK Independent Party MEP Nigel Farage takes aim with an attack that is just a little too much (below).

The sudden realisation in the USA and elsewhere that  the rise in pessimistic nationalism across the west of the EU has been striking or revolutionary is interesting, because for years I think that Americans and the rest of the world have used the term, “European” as an interchangeable term with terms like “French”  or “German”. It has really ignored the fantastic amount of national pride that has come back to the fore as the veil of post war ideology and memory fades further away. We saw this on display with the World Cup, and to a lesser extent friendly matches between nations. Of course, England has never ceded it’s idea of sovereignty of any symbolic measure to the European continent it has tried to run parallel to for the past 40 years. The latest poppy row during Remembrance Week should be enough for anybody who needs convincing that the UK is fundamentally determined to not be defined as the new sort of “European”.