Although she’s getting the brunt of the criticism just now for her imperialism – see https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/nov/22/british-empire-museum-colonial-crimes-memorial – Britain was obviously not the first nation to go in for this kind of thing, nor even the latest. I don’t want to get into the argument that has been going on for years now over whether the British Empire was a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ thing, mainly because I don’t see this as a useful way of looking at it, and because my own researches have persuaded me that British imperialism was a far more complex and ambivalent phenomenon than seems to be assumed on both – or all – sides of the debate. For what it’s worth, my more sophisticated angle on this is spelled out in my books, and especially the latest, British Imperial. What the Empire Wasn’t (IB Tauris, 2016), which was intended for a ‘lay’ or popular readership. I’m not writing letters to the Guardian on this now because I don’t think my argument can be spelled out in the couple of hundred words I’d be allowed there, or even in a 2,000-word article. For a start, all kinds of deep assumptions would need to be unravelled before I could start. It needed a book or two for that.
One thing needs to be said, however, which can be put fairly simply, and should have a bearing on the larger question. This is that, although the British didn’t invent imperialism, they could be said to have invented anti-imperialism, which has arguably been just as significant a phenomenon in recent times. By anti-imperialism, I mean opposition to imperial expansion in principle. Many people, of course, have opposed the particular imperialisms they have been subjected to themselves. Boudicca and Caractacus are two of our (British) own. The Americans were anti-imperialists in this sense in the eighteenth century. The difference between this, however, and principled anti-imperialism is that the latter opposes imperialism in all its forms. The American revolutionaries didn’t, but only the British kind, insofar as it was felt to shackle them, and to prevent them from embarking on colonial adventures – to the west, south and north of the Thirteen States – of their own. (I don’t know what colonial ambitions Boudicca would have had if she’d won.) It was left to others to begin to criticise imperialism per se, after a couple of millennia in which ‘expansion’ of one kind or another was regarded as normal.
The most important of these was John Atkinson Hobson, who – drawing on the ideas of liberals and socialists before him – first came up with a theory that could be applied generally, to condemn his own country’s subjugation of others, rather than others’ subjugation of his. Imperialism. A Study (1902), which I based my PhD thesis on, was the first cogent exposition of what is now called the ‘capitalist theory of imperialism’, which underpins most critical interpretations of ‘imperialism’ today. (See my Critics of Empire, 1968, republished 2008.) This kind of anti-imperialism had a significant following in twentieth-century Britain; as great, probably, as the more positive ‘imperialism’ that is supposed – wrongly – to have permeated British society then.
Perhaps retrospective credit should be given to the British for this, to set against the discredit that their imperial record continues to heap upon them. If Britain was the leading imperial power in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (and my British Imperial casts some doubt on that), she was also – and at one and the same time – the leading anti-imperialist country in the world. So you see what I mean about imperial history being ‘complex and ambivalent’! This is just one example. I wish modern critics would take more notice of it; not in order to be fair to us, the British – I don’t care at all about that – but in the interests of historical accuracy. That’s something I do care about.