I consider myself to be as ‘anti-imperial’ as the next person. I remember the British Empire while it was still a going concern. I always opposed it. I occasionally demonstrated against aspects of it. I wrote my PhD thesis on the early anti-imperialists: later published as Critics of Empire (1968), and recently re-issued by IB Tauris. Later I published several more books and papers about the history of the Empire, hoping to enlighten people about what was in reality a very complex and ambivalent phenomenon. Other ‘imperial historians’ (not ‘imperialist historians’, note, though we were often assumed to be that, simply because we studied the thing: ‘social historians’ are usually socialists, after all), joined in. None, to my knowledge, apart from Niall Ferguson and one or two Right-wing amateurs, was pro-the Empire.
I like to think that much of what we wrote got through to people. My The Lion’s Share, for example, has sold in tens of thousands, and is coming up for a sixth edition next year. But it obviously hasn’t percolated widely enough; which is why I published Imperial Britain: What the Empire Wasn’t a couple of years ago. (The clue is in the title.) People still come up with rubbish, on both sides of the ‘was the Empire a good or a bad thing’ argument.
An example is an email I recently received from ‘The Radical Tea-Towel Company’ – highly recommended; it sells some lovely socialist ephemera – and which is clearly not based on any serious reading, of mine or anyone else’s writing and research. (You can get it on the ‘Radicalteatowel’ website; it’s headed ‘Divide and Rule in the Empire’, and introduces a ‘Gandhi’ tea-towel.) It’s not this piece’s hostility to the old Empire I object to – I largely share that – but the ignorant simplicity of the case it tries to make: mainly the deliberate ‘Divide and Rule’ charge, with regard to India, and then to Ireland and Palestine. If you want to effectively challenge or oppose modern neo- or post-imperialism, as with any institution or ideology, you must properly understand it first. What is written in this Radical Tea-Towel email is easily dismissed, and so likely to be ineffective.
It bears comparison, I think, with what the ‘Alt-Right’ is putting out these days: material which feeds prejudices rather than analysing them. As in that case, there are bound to be germs of truth in what is reported – there are some in this piece – but mixed in with sheer uncritical nonsense. I’d urge the author, if he sees this, to read my Imperial Britain before he writes anything else on this subject. That will save my elaborating on his misconceptions here. Unfortunately, ‘fake news’ and ‘fake history’ are not just the prerogatives of the Right.
But isn’t this the fate of all serious scholars?
Absolutely, a one-sided argument is never more than rhetoric, usually sliding into propaganda as in this case – undermining the case and confusing the ‘truth’.
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