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Guide to Imperialism

What was necessary, it was now held, was “a steady, patient, healing process”—in short, the policy of too little too late which dogged the British empire until the whole structure tumbled after 1947. Even Hobson finally conceded that the question boiled down to one of “safeguards, of motives, and of methods.” What no one thought of any longer was getting out. As late as the Second World War, Colin Cross points out, the Labour Deputy Leader, Herbert Morrison, was still likening independence for Africa to “giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shot-gun.”

In 1890 there were still impenitent anti-imperialists like Labouchere, for whom any form of rule over dependent peoples was evil. By 1914, as Mr. Cross points out, the empire was taken—or rather mistaken—“for a normal permanent thing.” This was the real measure of what the “age of imperialism” achieved. Anti-imperialists as well as imperialists were tarred with the imperial brush. The only difference was in their approach to colonial policy and what was called “the burden of empire.” Some interpreted it more liberally, talking of a sacred trust and a mission to educate and civilize the “native,” others more conservatively in terms of national interest, security, and strategy. But all were touched by the mystique of empire, which no one seriously thought of giving up; and all in different ways became embedded in the morass of rationalization, special pleading, and half-truth which was the stuff of imperialist ideology.

What is so refreshing about Mr. Cross’s book is the merciless way he cuts through this turgid undergrowth. All the portentous talk about the Commonwealth and its mystical bonds, he truly says, was “riddled with contradictions,” just as the doctrine of “trusteeship” and its increasingly impracticable refinements, “partnership,” “multi-racialism,” and “non-racialism,” were nothing more than “a smoke-screen behind which the British attempted to retreat with dignity”—and still hold on. Macmillan, later famous for his “wind of change” speech, was talking a few years earlier of “our future relationship with the colonies as a permanent and not a transitory thing”; even when he became Prime Minister in 1957, his aim, Mr. Cross points out, was “to adapt the Empire to changed conditions,” not “to abolish it.” For all the fine liberal talk—one thinks involuntarily of that arch-exponent of liberal imperialism, Dame Margery Perham—Britain “got out of Africa and Asia” (I quote Mr. Porter) “because she had to,” not because she wanted to.

If Mr. Cross spends much time on dissecting the prevarications and half-truths on which imperial policy was based, it is because he is concerned with their long-term consequences for the British people. Imperialism was based on sentiment and emotion—on a rich stock-in-trade of bombastic ideas,” as an anti-imperialist at the turn of the century put it—not on a sober calculation of interests. It was “a bundle of muddled and contradictory principles,” which bamboozled the empire builders far more than it bamboozled their victims. How ridiculous, for example, that as late as the 1950s, in the midst of economic difficulties, Britain still retained at Suez “the biggest base maintained by any country outside its own borders,” and was simultaneously straining every nerve to hold on to Cyprus! As Mr. Cross says, these were matters of “prestige,” of “pride rather than of necessity,” and least of all of rational assessment. What was so serious about this lack or realism, however, was the way it prevented a “fundamental reappraisal” of Britain’s position and potentialities in the post-imperial world.

It is here that Mr. Marwick picks up the thread. His book is the story of the consequences of the “national self-deception” which Mr. Cross sees as the ultimate legacy of the imperialist mystique, of the half-measures which took the place of constructive thought. Mr. Marwick, it is true, follows a more traditional line and sees the dilemmas of Britain in the 1950s and 1960s—with a few reservations—as the result of two world wars. He has surprisingly little to say about the imperial entanglement and its consequences. But when he describes British policy as impaled on the horns of that “terrible trio,” “economic growth, a strong pound and heavy defense commitments,” it is surely significant that two of the three stem directly from the imperial past.

The case of defense, meaning primarily a British “presence” at and east of Suez, scarcely needs arguing: everyone was aware, though it was left to Aneurin Bevan to say, that it involved “irreparable damage to the economy.” What is more surprising is that no one was prepared, even after decolonization, to forego the financial trimmings of imperialism in the form of the “sterling area” and the London money market. In reality, as Mr. Cross points out, the advantages of maintaining the pound sterling as an international currency were anything but certain, and in any case the reasons for doing so were “emotional rather than economic.”

And yet the issue was crucial. Either (in Mr. Marwick’s words) “industrial productivity was the prime concern,” in which case a hard currency was irrelevant or the main priority was to maintain Britain’s “world financial role,” in which case a strong pound was essential. What was impossible was to combine “industrial expansion and the deflation required to restore the pound to strength.” But precisely here, where a clear decision was necessary, none was taken. When Dean Acheson said that “Britain has lost an empire but not yet found a role,” his words were bitterly resented; but they had a hard core of truth. If only by default, the imperial past had won out over the post-imperial future.

Illusion and self-deception are essential elements of imperialism, and this is true—a fact Dean Acheson was perhaps too quick to overlook—as much of the United States as of Great Britain. It is always possible to discover reasons for interfering in other people’s lives and territory. Whether humanitarian or hard-headedly political, they resemble nothing more than the patter of a conjurer as he puts over a confidence trick. A favorite line on the part of the British—it accounted for the annexation of most of Africa, of Egypt, Palestine, Cyprus, and even tiny St. Helena—was the alleged need to safeguard the route to India.

The strategic argument was always sure of a good hearing. It was never, as Colin Cross truly says, more than a “pretext,” a “rationalization,” certainly not an “operative cause.” And amusingly enough, as Professor Ullman shows, Mr. Cross’s view was confirmed by no less a person than the Secretary of State for India himself. When the need to control “the gateways of India” was put forward in 1918 as a pretext for annexing huge tracts of Russian territory in the Caucasus, Montagu was the first to protest. “So far as the defence of India is concerned,” he declared, “it does not seem to me necessary for us to give a thought to the Caucasus”; and the Foreign Secretary, speaking in his support, scathingly inquired “how far west” the “gateways of India,” which allegedly had to be protected, were “going to be brought.”

It was freely rumored in 1918, not least of all in Washington, that British designs in Russia were “imperialistic.” With the help of the recently declassified secret British archives Professor Ullman shows conclusively that this charge was wide of the mark. There was admittedly a lot of loose talk on the British side, but Lloyd George and his colleagues were too realistic to indulge in pipe-dreams of this sort; it required a peculiar German megalomania to think seriously of building an empire at Russian expense on Russian soil. Nevertheless Professor Ullman’s book throws much light on the workings of the imperialist mind. In the privacy of the conference room people spoke freely and without inhibitions.

Here, for example, is Curzon, the arch-exponent of Britain’s imperial mission, also uneasy at the proposal to take over great stretches of southern Russia. Are we not, he asks, “getting so much already”? “We are going to get the German colonies in Africa; we are going to get, under some disguise or other, the whole of Mesopotamia,” and perhaps Persia also; “to go into the Caucasus as well,” he implies, would surely be a dangerous extravagance. What is interesting about Curzon’s remarks is the way, closeted with his peers, he lapses into the authentic language of imperialism, the language of “get and grab,” shorn of the sententious overtones in which it was decked out for public consumption. It did not mean you had to grab too much, to grab indiscriminately, to cast aside caution and common sense—on the contrary, the British genius, as compared with the German (or American?), was festina lente—but it showed at least no false reticence.

Nor did it mean that the liberal principles in which imperialism was decked out were hypocritical. It was easy to denounce “professions of altruism” as “only the cover for a policy of grab”; but it was not necessarily true. The man who said that “imperialism is stultified unless, like the quality of mercy itself, it becomes mutually beneficial,” was being tediously grandiloquent, but that does not mean he was speaking with his tongue in his cheek. Such sentiments were often genuine; the point is that they were always irrelevant. They were irrelevant, because “in the last resort,” as Colin Cross repeatedly emphasizes, liberalism and imperialism are “inconsistent” and irreconcilable, because there is no solution to the contradiction “of a government run at home on liberal principles attempting to run autocratically an overseas empire.” And if it is not run autocratically it cannot—in the last resort—be run at all.

We do not need to quarrel with Victor Kiernan’s statement that, generally, “western administration behaved moderately well in the absence of compelling motives for behaving badly.” It is equally true that “western principles of administration and justice had something to offer beyond the best Asian standards.” As Mr. Kiernan says, “Japanese, Chinese, Malays, Hindus, fully shared the contempt of the European for the lower races,” and often treated them even worse. There can have been few empires in history more repulsive than that of Mtesa in Buganda or of Tchaka in Zululand.

But two wrongs do not make a right, and this is no justification—though it was often used as one—for western imperialism. Western rule may have been on the whole a better article, but no one in his senses, least of all a Chinese or an Indian, supposed that Europeans had come halfway around the world simply in order to confer the boon of better government. And what if there were “compelling motives for behaving badly”? If the “natives” were docile, they could expect moderately reasonable treatment; but if they were “subversive” enough to reject the whole system, no matter what incidental benefits it might bring, then it was the turn of “that great civilizer, the Sword.” Eighty thousand Kikuyu in concentration camps and one thousand summarily hanged was a grim reality to set (in Mr. Cross’s words) “against the high talk of civilizing the African.” But India could tell a similar story, and so can Vietnam.

Mr. Kiernan’s wide-ranging survey brings a breath of fresh air, the tang of the oceans, and the scent of palms and pines and of far-off coral reefs, into the hot-house atmosphere of scholarly debate. There is, perhaps, nothing new about his story except the lively, first-hand material he has gathered from far and near, but this is because all that was to be said about imperialism was said with admirable cogency a century or more ago. What is new and important is the return to the realities after a generation of abstract argument. For too long historians have leant over backwards in an effort to be “objective.” They have examined step by step how with the best of intentions Gladstone got drawn into Egypt and Kennedy and Johnson into Vietnam, and have acquitted them of wicked imperialist designs. They have drawn up a balance-sheet of imperialism, scrupulously “fair to all sides,” balancing gains and losses and rights and wrongs, with predictable results. To understand, the proverb says, is to pardon, and to explain is too often to excuse.

Mr. Kiernan and Mr. Cross are more robust, and more incisive. With them we are back again to the realities which the nineteenth-century critics of empire, the chorus of voices which greets us in the opening pages of Mr. Porter’s book, perceived so clearly. That is why, paradoxically perhaps but seriously, Jeremy Bentham is more relevant today than Schumpeter or Arendt or the current pundits of imperialism. Unlike them Bentham went straight to the heart of the matter. “You choose your own government: why are not other people to choose theirs? Do you seriously mean to govern the world, and do you call that liberty?” Bentham was addressing the French Convention in 1793, but he might have been addressing President Nixon in 1969.

The reaction has come late in the day, but not too late. In spite of the agitation over Vietnam, we are still waiting for answers to Bentham’s questions. “National self-deception” is not only an English vice. Too many people think of withdrawal from Vietnam as an end, not a beginning, and sometimes it seems that the motives for getting out are as confused and unrepentant as the British motives for getting out of India and Africa. Anyone who has made a recent round of cocktail parties, particularly those cocktail parties where former members of the Johnson circus are thick on the ground, will be aware of a whispering campaign to the effect that intervention was justified at the start, the mistake was to let it get out of hand. President Kennedy’s avowal, picked up with such alacrity by Nixon on November 3rd, that the United States wants “to see a stable government” in Vietnam “carrying on the struggle to maintain its independence” and that, whatever may happen, “we’re not going to withdraw from that effort,” still commands respectful assent, though it is a platitude of imperialist rhetoric, the very same argument the British used in 1882. Already, far in advance of any clear evidence of withdrawal from Vietnam, the newspapers are busy discussing what the United States’s role in Asia should be after Vietnam. That is why, though withdrawal from Vietnam may end one imperialist chapter, it may just as easily mark the beginning of another. The imperialist chameleon may be changing its colors; it is not dead.

There was a time, says Mr. Kiernan, when “Americans still thought hopefully of helping to make a better world, rather than an American world.” Is that possibility dead beyond recall? Merely to get out of Vietnam is no answer, though it may be the first step towards an answer. But there is also such a thing as reculer pour mieux sauter, and there are many signs that what is going on at present is a reappraisal of America’s imperial mission in terms better suited to the 1970s, not a revulsion against imperialism. Americans—and not only Americans—have still to take Bentham’s admonition to heart: “give up your colonies—because you have no right to govern them, because they had rather not be governed by you…because you get nothing by governing them, because you cannot keep them, because the expense of trying to keep them will be ruinous” to you—but, above all else, “because you would do good to all the world”—and to yourselves—“by parting with them.”

Paradoxically, the worst victims of imperialism are often the exploiters, not the exploited; and anyone with a sense of history, looking at the discontents and schisms rending American society today, will see the familiar signs of a civilization stricken by the imperialist virus. By 1911, says Mr. Kiernan, “doubt crept in whether European civilization was really good for those exposed to it”; by 1918, there was doubt whether it was “much good even for Europe”; by 1969 similar doubts about American civilization were assailing Americans—or thoughtful Americans at least, if not the uncomprehending ranks of Mr. Nixon’s silent millions.


Colonies February 12, 1970

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