Truth about empires laid bare

August 7, 2010
Niall Ferguson: ‘Fundamentally in favour of empire.’

Review: The Imperial Controversy: Challenging the Empire Apologists
By Andrew Murray, Foreword by George Galloway
Manifesto Press, 152 pages, paperback £12.95

In the past decade or so, politicians, journalists and academics have attempted to rehabilitate the notions of empire and imperialism. For example, in 2009 then-British PM Gordon Brown told the Daily Mail newspaper: “The days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over. We should move forward. We should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it.”

Historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts have promoted similar views. Ferguson said: “I am fundamentally in favour of empire. Indeed, I believe that empire is more necessary in the 21st century than ever before.” According to Roberts: “Imperialism is an idea whose time has come again.”

In this tightly argued book, Andrew Murray, who is chair of the British Stop the War Coalition, takes on both historical imperialism and its contemporary variant.

He points out that in the 18th century, there were 119 recorded wars involving the British Empire, and 72 such wars during Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century.

In the 20th century, major colonial conflicts occurred in South Africa, Kenya, Palestine, Malaya, Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and Ireland.

Murray also cites British military involvement in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Iran, India, Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Guatemala/Belize, the invasion of Bolshevik-led Russia after World War I, along with the more recent interventions in Greece, Cyprus and Yugoslavia and contemporary colonial wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Murray highlights the lives lost due to human-made famine. The mass starvation suffered by the Irish population in 1845-7 was not caused by potato blight.

Crop failure was general across Europe, but only in Ireland did it lead to starvation. Murray quotes historian T.A. Jackson: “The amount of corn, cattle, etc exported from Ireland in these years would have fed all those who hungered twice over.”

Jackson identified the “absolute priority given by the government in London to maintaining the social position of the landlord class in Ireland” as the reason for the mass starvation.

Murray notes that the racist attitude towards the Irish peasants, regarded as subhuman and condemned on the basis of class and religion, as well as race.

This was not an aberration in the history of the British Empire: “Anything from 12 to 29 million people died from starvation across India in the famines largely caused by the structures of economic development imposed by the Raj and greatly exacerbated by laissez-faire dogma and official indifference.”

Murray marshals overwhelming evidence “that imperialism, far from promoting economic advance, actually undeveloped the colonies”.

In colony after colony, as a matter of deliberate policy, “indigenous routes to industrialisation were blocked off, monocultural crop economies were imposed on the widest scale possible, forced labour utilised to maximise profit to capitalist investors and the entire course of development subordinated to the needs of the imperial power”.

None of this was specific to British imperialism: Murray summarises the “achievements” of Belgian, German, French, Dutch and Italian imperialism.

Some interesting political facts emerge. For example, the famous Liberal Party leader William Gladstone is described by the Marxist writer R. Palme Dutt as supporting imperialism “under a rose-tinted eiderdown of pacific sentiments [but] no sooner had he taken office than he continued and carried to new heights Tory imperialist foreign policy”.

Gladstone’s descendant, leader of the British Liberal-Democrats, Nick Clegg, opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq but now serves as deputy PM in a Conservative-led coalition fully committed to the ongoing neo-colonial occupation of Afghanistan.

Moreover, although the Labour Party has contained many committed anti-imperialists, the pro-imperialist sentiments of recent leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were shared by the first Labour PM, Ramsey MacDonald, who advocated “socialist imperialism” based on “pride of race”.

Murray reserves his most scathing arguments for erstwhile “left-wing” journalists such as Christopher Hitchens and Nick Cohen (who described the British army in Iraq as “the armed wing of Amnesty International”). He takes to pieces their arguments in favour of the invasion of Iraq, and shows that the “peace, prosperity and democracy” promised for the Iraqis is as illusory as that cited by 19th century apologists for imperial involvement in India or Ireland.

Overall, Murray’s book provides an important and timely reminder that imperialism, whether in its historical or contemporary form, is in Galloway’s apt phrase “murder in the guise of a civilising mission”. In writing it, Murray has done a great service to the anti-war movement.

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