The New Statesman Essay - The Empire strikes back

Is a new, more cuddly version of imperialism the answer for "failed states" such as war-torn Afghani

Imperialism is respectable again, across the political spectrum. It is advocated not just by the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson in the Daily Mail, but also by Martin Wolf in the usually judicious Financial Times and by Philip Hensher in the scrupulously liberal Independent. All agree that now is the time to rehabilitate both the idea and the practice of imperialism. They label the opponents of imperialism "politically correct" - fuzzy-brained "useful idiots" who couldn't run a whelk stall, never mind conduct a well-informed debate about geopolitical realities.

Such yearnings for our imperial past are not confined to the column-writing classes. Tony Blair and Jack Straw may not be calling for the return of empire, but they use the paternalistic rhetoric of our imperial forebears. They seem to think, in the spirit of the New Seekers, that they'd like to teach the world to vote in perfect liberty, or at least those parts of the world that are deemed to be delinquent. Like Sudan, Somalia and Sierra Leone before it, Afghanistan has failed the modernity test and will have to retake its GCSE, and this time not with those unreliable students, the Taliban, but with a proper teacher - the west. This is not the first time the British have stalked the world with a headmasterly air. Delivering lectures on "nation-building" was one of the favourite hobbies of 19th-century imperialists.

Is it true, as Wolf and others seem to believe, that imperialism was fundamentally altruistic? Wolf seems convinced that the British, French and Belgian empires were just prototypes of the United Nations. Hensher suggests that what drove the British empire was "not asset-stripping", but "taking responsibility" for unfortunate peoples in faraway parts; what really went wrong in Afghanistan, he claims, was that it foolishly resisted British imperial control. Ferguson indulges in some Kiplingesque self-pity about those who selflessly take up "the white man's burden" and receive "The blame of those [they] better,/The hate of those [they] guard". All three conclude that what is needed is for people to set aside their squeamishness, stop worrying about offending the PC lobby and impose "formal empire" (Ferguson), a viceroy (Hensher) or "an honest and organised coercive force" (Wolf) on Afghanistan.

All these neo-imperialists apparently think that empire was all about exporting "civilised values". But commentators and politicians do not really know much about the British empire, and what they think they know isn't true. This is a classic case of false memory syndrome. Our doughty leaders and opinion-formers find that the liberating conditions of the "war" have released them from PC hell and they are now reclaiming the truth: empire wasn't racist and exploitative at all, it was enlightened and beneficial.

So what was British imperialism about, and is it possible that some kind of 21st-century, cuddly imperialism might be the answer for troubled central Asia? Could we just purge imperialism of its unfortunate historical connotations, leaving only its altruistic core behind? In reality, there were two British imperialisms; neither of them was cuddly, and neither of them will do as a model for modern international politics.

The first and most prevalent kind was certainly not at all what our armchair imperialists have in mind. Far from wanting to teach the world to vote, it was conservative. Its practitioners were robust defenders of a more reactionary pedagogy. In their view, what the cadet nations of Africa and Asia needed were not namby-pamby liberal institutions; "orientals" were too excitable for democracy. What they required was the smack of firm government and a strict diet of the three Rs: religion, royalty and respect. Only authoritarian kings and clerics could provide the international stability that Britain craved.

The other imperialism, the liberal imperialism of Thomas Macaulay and others, which is the kind these commentators apparently want to revive, was not very cuddly either. It was the "hard liberalism" of markets, property rights and the survival of the fittest. Its influence on imperial administration was disastrous and short-lived. Our new imperialists are right to look back to the British empire for instruction. But the lessons are all cautionary, not inspirational.

The most famous examples of "hard liberal" interventionism were the utilitarian experiments in India in the early 19th century, inspired by an influential policy manual of the time, James Mill's History of British India. Mill, the Francis Fukuyama of his day, decided that the subcontinent was full of failed states: their economies had stalled, their cultures were degenerate and their rulers were depraved and decadent. India needed to be "improved". And so, with blithe self-confidence, the British embarked on a project of institutional transfer. Indian law was reformed to entrench western notions of property rights. War was declared on "decadent" cultures, English was made the lingua franca of the elite, and independent, "rogue" states such as Punjab and Oudh were brought to heel. It was the mother of all structural adjustment programmes.

It soon ran into difficulties. Like our contemporary instant specialists, who have net-surfed their way to wisdom on central Asian affairs, these 19th-century lawgivers were almost wholly ignorant of the societies they were restructuring. Mill had never been to India, and even those who had visited rarely spoke the languages. In fact, the states of late 18th- and early 19th-century India had not failed at all. India was a dynamic society in which the processes of modernity were already strongly present. This was a society in flux - caste rules were fluid, property was circulating, banking was developing. To the prejudiced eye of the British imperialist, however, all that was visible was tradition-bound decadence. Even the position of women was not nearly so dire as the British believed, drawing their conclusions from the unrepresentative case of Bengal.

British insensitivity and arrogance understandably bred resentment. In Indian eyes, the British were ignorantly destroying perfectly rational economic and legal systems. The Indian economy may not have been organised along doctrinaire liberal lines. The rigid distinction between private and communal property, which obsessed the British liberals, may not have existed. But that did not harm Indian economic prosperity. It may even have increased it.

The liberal "culture wars" against Indian religion and custom caused even deeper offence. On the face of it, attempts to reform the caste system and improve the treatment of women seem laudable. But the ignorance and crudity of these policies just made things worse. Repression created resistance. What had been relatively marginal customs suddenly became hugely symbolic. Indians fought to the death to defend practices that, 20 years earlier, they had hardly cared about.

As in the Middle East today, economic liberalisation, political impotence and cultural humiliation bred rage and resentment. This came to a head when the British insisted that Muslim and Hindu soldiers should use cartridge grease made of pork and cow fat, despite their religious objections. It seemed all too believable that the British might be contemplating forced conversions. The result of British insensitivity was the Indian "mutiny" or rebellion of 1857 - the first example in history of anti-western "blow-back". Just as al-Qaeda protests against the "sacrilegious" presence of American troops near the holy places of Islam, so Muslim clerics and Hindu rajas joined forces to rid the sacred land of the "polluting" influence of the British. Jihad was declared, and hundreds of suicide fighters hurled themselves at the British front line in Delhi. Britons were ruthlessly slaughtered in the towns of Lucknow and Cawnpore. It was the most serious crisis the British faced anywhere in their empire at any time.

Like many Americans today, the British responded with outrage and confusion. Why were they so hated when they were trying to do good? Attempts at real understanding gave way to easy cliches and prejudices. Some argued that the mutiny was an Islamic plot, organised by crazed mullahs who communicated through secret messages wrapped in chapatis. Others saw it as proof that the Indians were an alien people, beyond comprehension, evil. What they never seem to have understood was how they themselves were seen: as insensitive and hypocritical.

The lesson the British learnt from the mutiny was that liberal imperialism - the export of western institutions and culture - was dangerous. In future, imperialism would be conservative. The march of progress was halted and the empire of Rudyard Kipling and Cecil Rhodes was born. Political security took precedence over spreading liberal free-market ideology and Christianity. Old kings and maharajas were dusted down and restored. In return, they kept order while the British pursued their interests and looked the other way. Priests and pundits recovered their prestige. Widows were no longer snatched from funeral pyres - not by the British, anyway. Free markets were frozen; and by the end of the 19th century, gross inequalities in property distribution, caste distinctions and gender relations were far more entrenched in India than they had been at the beginning. So much for the transformative power of British imperialism.

But conservative imperialism did not achieve its primary goal of political stability. The attempt to return India to a version of its ancien regime did not stop intense opposition to the British developing in India. By preferring hierarchy to democracy and limiting political participation to the wealthy and aristocratic, British rule excluded many, and fostered even greater disaffection. On the eve of the First World War, terrorism and political violence were endemic. After the war, the British experimented with democracy, but in a rather odd way. They created tiny electorates, divided into categories based on caste and religion, to elect Indian ministers to regional assemblies in which unelected British bureaucrats held all the power. They were inspired in equal parts by Machiavellian motives of "divide and rule" and the misguided, but sincerely held, belief that Indian politics was incorrigibly religious. The legacy of this bizarre "democracy" was the poisonous communal politics that produced the partition of India and has plagued south Asian political life ever since.

Our contemporary commentators may be right to see parallels between modern American and 19th-century British imperialism, particularly in the Middle East. But America has inherited not the traditions of liberal imperialism, but those of conservative imperialism, with its realpolitik and self-interest. After the Yalta conference in 1945, Franklin D Roosevelt and Ibn Saud, the founder king of Saudi Arabia, struck the ultimate imperial deal: we defend you against democratic pressure, and you guarantee our privileged access to the greatest geopolitical prize - one-quarter of the world's oil reserves. The Americans have looked the other way as their aristocratic allies have suppressed all moderate dissent and, in the Persian Gulf, have brazenly manipulated phoney democratic institutions. Not surprisingly, opposing forces have drifted towards radical Islam.

The British experience shows that neither liberal nor conservative imperialism worked, and that nothing of value can be rescued from the concept at all. We should junk the whole notion that "western tutelage", however it is dressed up, is the way forward. It has been discredited by its history. The populations of the Middle East and central Asia are very unlikely to accept institutions imposed by a west whose reputation for altruism is in tatters. But the answer does not lie in conservative imperialism: the strategy of propping up old dynasties, finding local tough men, rigging elections and looking the other way. That has been America's downfall in Saudi Arabia.

The history of post-colonial states shows that democracy is most successful where it has been generated, at least in part, by indigenous traditions. Democracy came to India not because the British selflessly introduced it: democracy succeeded precisely because it was associated with opposition to British imperialism. It was fought for by a popular movement led by Mahatma Gandhi - a figure who blended the traditional and the modern into a seamless, but recognisably Indian, political system. Islam, like Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism, has generated its own democratic thinkers and movements, and any hope for stability in the Middle East lies in encouraging these traditions. It may well be that the only answer for the problems of the developing world lies in some form of political and economic liberalisation, but western arrogance and insensitivity towards indigenous cultures will merely slow that progress. The same pill will not cure every ill. The west must acknowledge that other cultures are capable of generating the pluralism and democracy that we so value. The lessons of the Raj suggest we need subtle intervention, not shrill and ill-informed do-goodery.

The insistence of our armchair imperialists that "democracy" is western and that it will have to be imposed by force is more likely to set off another cycle of resentment and extremism than to solve the problems of the region. So let's have less arrogant talk of the "white man's burden" and more recognition of the "brown man's burden" - having to sort out the mess left by western imperialism.

Maria Misra is a fellow and tutor at Keble College, Oxford. She presented a series, An Indian Affair, on Channel 4 last month