Niall Ferguson vs Jeremy Paxman: a tale of two Empires

17 Oct

Jeremy Paxman has recently been grimacing his way through a round of daytime talk shows, in order to promote his new book, Empire. There’s nothing like bemused frowning to boost the book sales, every publisher knows that. After watching Paxman scoff at Alex Jones for a bit, which must have been the highlight of my week – by the way, by “scoff”, I mean “derisively laugh at a One Show host’s existence”, not “stuff Alex Jones’ face quickly into his gob” – he then launched into a defence the British Empire.

Paxman was asked if the Empire was a Good Thing. He refused to answer the question. He said something along the lines of, “You cannot say it is a Good Thing or a Bad Thing, it is just a Thing, and it just happened.” It is a curious answer, an answer worthy of Michael Howard. Yet it is an answer which most historians accept nowadays. Kwasi Kwarteng echoes the sentiment in his new book; as does Niall Ferguson.

Niall is the ultimate advocate of this view. His inventively-named book Empire is the imperial apologist’s Bible. While it condemns the most wicked excesses of imperialism, it revels most in totting up the good the British did. Ferguson writes a list of the Good Things including team sports, the idea of liberty and – at number one – the English language. So, to paraphrase: cricket, the dearth of liberty, and – at number one – irritating, irritating twangs. Unsurprisingly this didn’t persuade me.

Cricket is a god-awful game that was made purposefully Byzantine to make the cretins that play it feel they have some sort of noggin. Its pointless complexity somehow makes cricketers think they are less dunderheaded than footballers, as if cricket is some kind of Hegelian philosophy, some kind of Heisenbergian science, and not a game whose chief aim is, er, to thwack a ball with a bat. In the end, you are alone with a sunburnt neck on a pitch for three hours squatting, in the vain hope the ball to come vaguely near you. In the five-minute period when it does come your way, you either fall over apologising, or it socks you in the testicles. I cannot think of a more preposterous game.

Cricket is not any great accomplishment of mind. Nor is the feat of creating Canadian or New Zealand accents. The rest of Ferguson’s list is similarly ridiculous. The spread of Protestantism will not seem like a major achievement of the British Empire, unless your name is Martin Luther. But the silliest are these: the idea of liberty, and good government.

The former will sound hollow if you were one of the British Empire’s curmudgeonly subjects. In a democracy, it is easy to be a rebel: you mark a cross on a bit of paper and you can kick your rulers out. Empire is no democracy. Empire by definition is run from the centre and pays little attention to the whims and wishes of the periphery. As such, it is slightly more difficult to be a rebel. Sudanese rebels were bumped off because they disagreed with their rulers (and because, y’know, they might have been Muslim). A rebellion in India was averted by killing 379 of the trouble-makers in ten minutes. Assad would be proud of that.

As a consolation, Ferguson says that whenever the British acted despotically, there was always a “liberal critique” from within British society. Innocent citizens may have been shot, but, well, at least their families could read some Orwell. It’s a bit like urging families of massacred Libyans to read Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis on democratic institutions. Throughout Empire, Ferguson is keen to point out that it is wrong to compare British imperialists to Nazis or Soviets, because of the idea of liberty at the heart of the enterprise. I suppose that’s an achievement: at least we’re not Nazis.

The evidence Ferguson gives of good government is as follows: a lot of the subjects rallied round the British. Many who fought for the British in the Indian Mutiny and the American Revolution were natives. 1 in 6 of the British Army in World War One were Indian; the figure rises to 1 in 4 in World War Two. This is supposed to be evidence that the natives were grateful to their rulers. I am not convinced. Comrades of the USSR rallied round Stalin in World War Two, even though he was one of the most brutal dictators of the twentieth century. Many came out to mourn his death. Bountiful support does not necessarily mean good government.

Moreover it is often the rebels, not the contented citizens, that have most impact on a country’s politics. The future of Zimbabwe changed forever because of the antipathy of one rebel – Robert Mugabe. While we cannot say the British are responsible for Mugabe’s brutality, it is fair to say that foreign occupation inevitably breeds discontent. This is particularly true in places like Zimbabwe, where there was such a perceived unfairness in how the rulers treated the citizens, and where there was no democratic accountability. These things can only give credence to a Marxist nutjob’s hostility. Perhaps an uprising was only inevitable.

Ferguson’s Empire and Paxman’s Empire are both thoroughly well-written, absorbing, pulse-racing, clear-headed accounts of British imperialism. The latter is clear, concise and full of hilariously sardonic Paxman-isms. The former is simply a masterpiece. What is wrong is not the description, but the ethics. There is no will to say, even on balance, imperialism is a bad thing. Instead, there is a curious condemnation of the sheer ability to make a judgement. This helps no-one.


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