A few years ago a woman I met at a party in Stockholm, having been told that I was an ‘imperial historian’, asked me: ‘why did you British want an empire?’ It seemed odd to her, as a Swede (although Sweden has also had ‘imperial’ episodes in the past); and indeed I have to admit that – even after fifty years researching into British imperialism – I had never considered the question quite in those terms. I can’t remember how I responded to her at the time; probably by mumbling something irrelevant and incoherent – what is known today (or should be) as a ‘Boris-ism’. But thinking about it afterwards, as of course I should have done beforehand, I decided to write a book in answer to her; which eventually became British Imperial: What the Empire Wasn’t, published by Bloomsbury – to a deafening critical silence – in 2016. (Anna’s stimulus is acknowledged in the Introduction.)
Here, more briefly, is the answer I might have given her if I’d had my wits more about me. There were of course a number of people in 18th, 19th and early 20-century Britain who did ‘want’ to rule over other countries and peoples. But they never represented a majority of Britons, or even of most British governments; and in general the Empire didn’t ‘happen’ because of them. Some of the Empire was acquired reluctantly (yes!), much of it accidentally, other parts criminally, and nearly all of it as a result of forces quite outside that of individual human volition. (The same was probably true of Sweden’s stormaktstiden.) So far as ‘motives’ were concerned, of course they were mixed. Some of them were what we would see as ‘bad’ ones – greed, racism, arrogance; others rather better, ostensibly at any rate: ‘civilizing’ the natives, introducing them to benefits of ‘commerce and Christianity’, pacifying them, saving them from Arab slave traders and indigenous exploitation, warfare and cruelty; but most of these latter – that is, even the ‘good’ motives – probably misguided, in the sense of being kindly intended but based on misunderstandings of the indigenous cultures Britain was interfering with, which made things even worse for her colonial subjects.
The question came back to me the other day in connection with Trump, Putin and Johnson (and Thatcher before him). They all appear to have been motivated by a concern to increase or at least to restore their countries’ ‘greatness’ (‘MAGA’), seen in terms largely of their power over others, but also of their ‘prestige’ in world affairs. That still puzzles me, as it did my Swedish friend. What is it about national ‘greatness’, seen in these terms, that makes certain people crave it? You can’t eat ‘prestige’. National security I can understand. But wanting to be bigger or more powerful or prestigious, quite beyond what their ‘security’ might require?
Richard Cobden, the great 19th-century apostle of international capitalism, believed that what we would call ‘neoliberalism’ would do away with all this. Here’s him in 1846 (I may have quoted it before):
‘I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man.’
If only! But of course Cobden couldn’t anticipate the direction capitalism would take after his time. And that non-material considerations would trump all these more rational ones.
I may come back to this. Just now I’m adjusting to my return to England: reclaiming my house and old life-style, and getting used again to the farce which is the current British government. We’re told that Gavin Williamson – one of the most useless and unprestigious of Boris’s ex-ministers (often compared to Private Pike in Dad’s Army) – is going to be made a ‘Sir’. The common understanding is that it’s in return for his silence – ‘he knows where the bodies are buried’. So much for the ‘prestige’ of being a knight.
Back in Sweden Kajsa tells me they’re taking the prospect of a Russian invasion seriously: stocking up with essentials (mainly toilet paper and wind-up radios), and locating their nearest bomb shelters. Sweden of course isn’t in NATO. Will Putin push her into it? Prestige can come at a terrible price.