The End of Empire

by Elias Blum

The BBC have organized a poll on people’s ‘feelings’ about the British Empire – whether it was, on balance, good, bad or indiffernet.

For what it’s worth, I’m probably in the camp that thinks the British Empire did more good than harm. I’m not denying the harm, of course, nor justifying the racist and imperialist attitudes that over lay behind it, but – at least speaking for my own field – the British empire did at least bring a decent system of law, justice and administration to much of the world. (The effects of the empire on scientific advancement and culture cannot be ignored either – although perhaps much of that might have been achieved without directly ruling over other countries.)

Arguably, of course the best thing the Empire did was come to a fairly peaceful, consensual and well-managed end. Perhaps the post-independence Constitution of India is one of the greatest lasting achievements of British Imperial civilisation.

But this recognition that the Empire, at least, did some substantial good, need not translate into a defence of British imperialist values today. The Empire – for good or ill – is over, and it is not coming back.

What annoys me is that so much of this imperial nostalgia is used by those on the right-wing of British politics as a way of justifying existing institutions by yearning for past glories. That’s just unhelpful, reactionary, backward looking nonsense. It is  exactly the sort of nonsense one would expect from a country that has not come to terms with the fact that it is no longer an imperial power.

So the question of whether the empire was good, bad, indifferent, or a complicated mix of all of the above, is irrelevant. The pertinent question is whether we can accept that the Empire is over, and deal with building a decent country for now and for the future, rather than living always in the past.