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