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The British Empire in India, its demise, and other thoughts

You can always count on Sean Gabb to take a controversial line. And on the British Empire in India (he says it was in many ways a good thing), he is not frightened to do so, even if it means saying things that have driven a few Indian or expat Indian readers into a rage. (I urge readers to read the entire Gabb piece).

There have been empires of a fairly liberal nature, and at times, it is fair to say, that there was greater respect for life, liberty and property under certain relatively liberal empires than in sovereign, nation states. I have heard the Austro-Hungarian Empire defended on such grounds; the British Empire was in some ways a pretty loose-knit thing (it had to be – we did not have the manpower to run it in a more heavy-handed way); and certain other empires might have stacked up quite well when looking at what replaced them. But, and this is surely the key point: we are talking about empires. They developed out of conquest, of kicking out rulers or property owners of various kinds, and moving in. Sometimes the invaders were actually invited in to get rid of the existing scumbags, but usually not. (Malta, in the late 18th Century, asked Lord Nelson to kick out the French who had taken control of the island. The Brits stayed until the early 1970s).

So, it does rather make me scratch my head to read Sean’s defence of the BE when I consider that, for example, he and many others like him in the Libertarian Alliance have fiercely criticised the European Union as a sort of France-German imperial regime, imposing a certain kind of social democratic worldvew. Libertarianism is not a monolithic creed (thank god), but on the face of it, the presumption must be that a believer in liberty must look askance on empires and conquest, and be wary of attempts to rationalise it by reference to certain outcomes that are only known after the event.

Take another sort of “empire”: the Brussels elite of the European Union – who are not exactly respectful of democratically expressed “no” votes in referenda, may defend their ambitions as being high-minded, and indeed, there is a sort of “new imperialism”, known as Transnational Progressivism, or Tranzi for short. Or take the case of US foreign policy, also sometimes damned as imperialistic. It is also worth noting that Sean, and other critics of the American-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have condemned what they see as the “neocon” doctrine of seeking to spread democracy and liberty into barbarous lands at the point of a bayonet (or Apache helicopter). But that is exactly how Sean frames the case in favour of the British Empire. Odd. The likes of Joseph Chamberlain, Lord Curzon and other priests of empire (not to mention Kipling) were the neocons of their time. (In fairness to Sean, he also criticises the conflicts in the ME as not being about the defence of British interests).

Some of this support of empire also explains, so I understand it, some of why Sean Gabb casts Churchill as a villain of 20th century history, as a destroyer of empire. Gabb claims that by refusing to capitulate to Hitler in 1940 and sue for peace and leave Western Europe under Nazi rule, Churchill ensured that the British Empire was finished, whereas had we been neutral in the 1940s, then – so the argument goes – the Nazi-dominated Europe of the time would have left the Empire alone, or at least for a fairly long period. Although obviously horrible for those Europeans under Nazi rule, avoidance of war with Germany would at least have spared the Empire all the losses it suffered.

I am not convinced of this line of reasoning. First of all, it is far from clear, given Hitler’s record as being a serial breaker of treaties, that any non-aggression pact signed between Britain, its Empire, and Germany, would have been worth the paper it was written on. If the Empire had stayed out of military conflict with Germany, that would have given Hitler the knowledge of having a free hand against Russia, making it far more likely that Germany’s invasion of Russia would have been more of a success. From Bordeaux to Vladivostok would have been one, huge national socialist empire, greedily looking south at the oilfields of the Middle East under British influence, potentially threatening the Suez Canal and link to India. It is hard to see how such an immense landpower would have been able to rub along with the British Empire without conflct in the medium term.

In any event, the Empire, while it may have come to an end sooner than it did due to the immense costs of WW2, was already in a state of flux: Canada, New Zealand, Australia and other dominions were moving towards greater self government; there was a vigorous, pro-independence movement in India during the 1920s and 1930s, and suppressing that movement with the use of armed force hardly sits easily with a libertarian credo.

One final point, to which I am indebted to Paul Marks for pointing out: there was a brief campaign, led I think by the likes of Joseph Chamberlain, to create an Imperial Parliament in which all members of the Empire would have had some sort of representation, perhaps like a sort of BE version of the EU Parliament in Strasbourg. The idea never really got off the ground as a serious political venture.

18 comments to The British Empire in India, its demise, and other thoughts

  • Paul Marks

    Hitler would not have left the Empire (or the island of Britain itsel) alone – so the argument falls.

    “But he promised Paul…”

    Trusting the promises of Hitler is a mistaken policy.

  • Paul Marks

    On balance (inspite of such massive blunders as keeping the salt tax – and not having Indians as army officers, as Queen Victoria kept saying “where are the Indian officers”) the Raj was a good thing.

    “Paul Marks agrees with Sean Gabb – shock, horror”.

    Well it had to happen sometime.

    I will admit the same thing on his blog.

  • As the bible says “Put not thy trust in princes.”

    I suspect that with our without WW II, the British Empire was doomed. The upper classes on the whole, regarded it as boring and declasse. Waugh’s works such as Scoop and Black Mischief did far more harm to the idea of Empire than anything Orwell or the Fabians ever wrote.

    They lost the will to rule long before they lost the empire, blaming Churchill is just a way for the new would-be rulers to blame the last lot.

  • John B

    Dr Gabb’s point, that British rule in India was a nett positive for the people who had been living in India before British rule happened, is true. And that is all he was basically saying, as I understand it.
    British rule may have been paternalistic which can be very irritating, but it was also substantially benevolent.
    That it was not benevolent is part of the narrative that was established by those whose intention was to destroy British hegemony. And they succeeded.
    If the discussion should have been about sensitivity and respect, well that is another subject.

  • Rich Rostrom

    The Empire was already doomed in 1939. Indian sovereignty was on the table; the white Dominions had asserted their nationhood; the African colonies would follow within a generation.

    However, it was during World War II that the Empire showed its worth. Could Britain have sustained the war against Germany and Italy from its domestic resources alone? I doubt it. But Britain was not alone.

    Britain expected – and received – the support of the Commonwealth and Empire. This support included declarations of war by the Dominions, the all-volunteer Indian Army (two million men, the largest such force in history), and many thousands of men from other colonies (like the reckless Nigerian KARs who drove supply trucks over the mountain trails between India and Burma.) Heck, tens of thousands of Irishmen served in the British forces.

    All this help was given, not compelled. It is immensely to Britain’s credit that it was.

  • Jacob

    “Dr Gabb’s point, that British rule in India was a nett positive for the people who had been living in India before British rule happened, is true.”

    It may well have been a net positive for the Indians, I am sure it was.

    Another interesting question is: was a net positive for Britain ? Did she get from there more than she spent in conquering and maintaining it’s rule ?
    Of course, it was a grad adventure, and as such, cannot be fully measured in money. Was it worth for Britain to spend the effort of ruling India ?

  • lucklucky

    Well for starts not fighting nazis means a Nazi party in Britain and growing- another in USA. That snake had to be destroyed, sadly too late for millions.
    Like radical Islamism. The wars in Afeghanistan and Iraq i hope produced enough antibodies in region to not ever fall to it as whole.
    Unfortunately many libertarians are incapable to think in of what is Power, concepts like the strong horse and voids that are always filled.
    And seeing the British players making the Nazi salute at time Germans didn’t even had a proper Empire i wonder what would happen if they had…like Britain follows the rules and laws of EC several rules and laws of Nazi Germany would be replicated in Britain.

  • Alasdair

    It seems plausible that, if the United Kingdom and Dominions and Colonies had not fought off the Nazis successfully, by now the British Isles would be German-speaking …

    And with the ability to consolidate the the entire industrial capacity of Europe, chances are that North America would be German-speaking, too …

  • I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive. But in a world where England is finished and dead, I do not wish to live.
    — Alice Duer Miller

    The British Empire passes the “what did they leave behind” test. An ideal of law, fair play, and pluck, which is conspicuous by its absence in some unfortunate former possessions. It’s just too bad that modern India’s founders were Fabian socialists instead of American style robber barons. Otherwise India would be the richest country in the world by now.

  • Nuke Gray

    Here’s another counterpoint- if Britain had just traded with India, and not militarily supported the East India company, wouldn’t the legacy have been the same? It was jealousy of other european Empires that drove the Kaiser to want one of his own, which started the round of world wars. If it had been an Emporium, not an Empire, might that have inspired other ideas?

  • Verity

    The Sanity Inspector – Yes.

  • Otherwise India would be the richest country in the world by now

    Absolutely. Before the Korean war SK was one of the poorest places on the planet. NK was the, relativly, rich and industralised part of the peninsula and Kenya was, per capita, richer than the South.

    See what fifty odd years of sane economics can accomplish?

  • Nuke Gray

    India’s founders were socialists for three reasons- The British were going through a socialist phase (having just come out of ww2), so they passed this on to their colonies; New countries try to cement their lands together by emphasising what unites them, as well as suffering from the feeling that all should start equal in the great new age ahead; Geopolitically, the americans thought that Pakistan would make a great New Bestest Ever Friend in Southern Asia, so India felt compelled to embrace the Soviet system if America was going to embrace its’ enemy, Pakistan.

  • The benefit of empire is that the rulers, being foreign, are not concerned in the internal conflicts of a province except insofar as they affect its smooth running, as compared to a domestic government which is frequently twisted by being aligned with on side or the other (or both, alternately). At its best, that gives you John Cowperthwaite. This breaks down if the imperial government is not secure – in that case, like any weak government, the empire is forced to intervene constantly to strengthen allies and weaken enemies.
    The problem with the EU is not that it is an empire; rather, it is a never-ending constitutional convention, concerned overwhelmingly with fighting against rival power centres within its territory.
    On that basis, maybe the best approach to it would be to give in quickly – at least if national governments are destroyed the EU can stop fighting them. That’s easier said than done, though.

  • Paul Marks

    Had India not been dominated by the English East India Company it would have been dominated by the French.

    As for local rulers – they were (however un P.C. it may be to say it) mostly tyrants.

    As for alternative histories – here are two:

    Firstly the East India Company is left under the control of its SHARE HOLDERS – Crown intervention actually meant that the Board was NOT under shareholder control so a policy of war and conquest (and the taxes needed to pay for this) was followed by key Company officials in definance of the wishes and interests of the shareholders.

    The “debt” of the East India Company to the Crown was manufactured so that this corrupt policy would be followed.

    Had the shareholders remained in control – the activities of the Company in India might have been more limited (confined to preventing French domination or the domination of local tyrants – i.e. defensive).

    Another alternative history would be if the policy favoured by many in the late 19th century had been followed – a policy of strengthening the Princes (rather than the central Administration).

    The Raj of the British turned into the Permit Raj or Nehru and so on after independence, but this was not inevitable.

    Many highly connected people wanted a policy of supporting the Princes (so that their autonomy was real – not nominal) so that the Queen Empress (Victoria) would have been at the head of an alliance based on free trade and peace (not detailed “development” plans). With even in the two thirds of India under direct rule, the government having a strictly limited role.

  • Paul Marks

    I have explained further my view – in a further comment on Dr Gabb’s post.

    No doubt my view will upset BOTH sides of the debate.

  • Paul Marks

    As for the European Union.

    It is not really like the British Raj – even at its worst the Raj was a limited government.

    The E.U. is much closer to Nehru’s “permit Raj” after Indian independence (which his grandson was brave enough to take an axe to), it is a spiders web of endless regulation and controls.

    And such a web is inevitablly both destructive and corrupt.

  • Would you be happy with people saying EU control of the UK was ok because some good came out of it?

    I would not.

    The British were not asked, and that for me is critical.

    The EU have not been asked, so I don’t care how many “good things” the say they have done for the country.

    Coercion and force are always wrong, but eclipsed by the creeping treason of Fabianism.