Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British

Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
Jeremy Paxman
Viking, 368pp, £25

Jeremy Paxman's Empire is a disappointment; it fails to do what its subtitle promises: that the author will tell us "what ruling the world did
to the British". That would have been an excellent new way of looking at an old subject, but although he makes brief remarks about the downside of the imperial legacy, Paxman writes mostly about the British who went out to run the empire, and not its impact on those who stayed at home. Much of the book consists of a familiar, though often entertaining, rehearsal of tales of imperial derring-do. So we get the "Black Hole" of Calcutta, the subsequent horrors of the city's mutiny and the debate over the source of the Nile, plus the inevitable "Dr Livingstone, I presume", the ill-fated General Gordon, Robert Baden-Powell and the Siege of Mafeking, Kitchener, Rhodes and Lugard - and Lawrence of Arabia.

So far, so good for a television series that will not frighten the horses, all recounted with that faint air of cynical disbelief which is Paxman's trademark Newsnight persona. Indeed, although he notes that the story of empire was treated with considerable levity by the first post-imperial generation of satirists, especially Peter Cook and Richard Ingrams, he cannot help continuing in the same vein himself.

There is rather too much quoting from Macaulay, and from Henry Newbolt, author of mawkish imperial verse ("Play up! play up! and play the game!"), as well as several asides on the value to the empire of sport in general and cricket in particular. He gets rather muddled about slavery and the slave trade, sometimes confusing the two. Britain receives its usual meed of praise for ending the trade, but Paxman ignores the long survival of the practice elsewhere in the empire after it had been forbidden in Britain.

He does wipe the smile off his face, however, when writing about genocide in Tasmania, or the massacre perpetrated by Brigadier General Dyer in Amritsar, or the defeat of the Sudanese at Omdurman, slaughtered in their thousands with the Maxim machine-gun. The tone of the book is recessional (in Kipling's sense of the word) rather than triumphalist.

It is inevitable that many subjects will be left out of a book for the general reader. There is not much about Canada here, nor much about Ireland. But Paxman does find some interesting forgotten stories: Charles Dickens's refusal to believe the report in 1854 that the crew of John Franklin's expedition to find the north-west passage to China had been reduced to cannibalism; the first shots of the First World War outside Europe against a drunken German captain on a boat on Lake Nyasa on the frontier with German East Africa in August 1914. A series of amusing tales culled from the memoirs of colonial servants enlivens the book.

Paxman follows the current wisdom in arguing that the First World War weakened the bonds of empire and the Second finished it off. In spite of the popular imperial enthusiasm on show at the end of the 19th century, it was clear by the 1920s that the British people were no longer very interested in ruling the world. The Labour Party, as today, was uncertain whether it could be both patriotic and anti-imperialist. The imaginative Workers' Exhibition, held in Glasgow in 1938 to rival the official Empire Exhibition, was the work of the Independent Labour Party, not the Labour Party proper. The spadework of anti-imperial argument was done not by Labour stalwarts but by old hands from Burma and Ceylon such as George Orwell and Leonard Woolf (whose Hogarth Press printed the anti-imperial works of Leonard Barnes).

While Paxman's account of empire does not add up to much more than the book of the TV films (which we have not yet seen), he does let slip a few thoughtful comments about Britain's post-imperial predicament. Because the British emerged from two world wars on the winning side, they never had much cause "to reimagine themselves as anything other than what they once had been". Yet other European countries, including Germany and Russia, have come to terms with their questionable imperial history and forged fresh national narratives. Paxman regrets that the British have been unable to think critically about their empire and its legacy. Too many prime ministers wrap themselves in the imperial purple; as he notes, "British foreign policy has never shaken off a certain 19th-century swagger."

Yet perhaps our television presenters bear a measure of responsibility, too. Paxman wonders whether imperial rule would have survived "the scrutiny of the mass media age". He thinks it unlikely. I am not so sure. The post-imperial conflicts of recent years, which are not so different from what went before, are well scrutinised, but to little effect. Paxman argues that the "central ideological pretence of the electronic media is their claim to empower the masses". Maybe that is how he sees himself in the interviewer's chair - the self-appointed spokesman of the masses, benignly but futilely interrogating our rulers on their behalf.

Richard Gott's "Britain's Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt" is newly published by Verso (£25)

This article first appeared in the 24 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The art of lying

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.