Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

How the 'imperial spirit' survives

I don't often put up articles by old-school Tories, but sometimes they can express very clearly the realities of how power operates in the world - because they have seen how it works at close range. Here is Brian Walden - a former politician turned historian - arguing that 'British foreign policy needs a rethink and the UK should stop kidding itself about its role in the world today'. I don't agree with everything he says in the article, but I will put up some select quotes to show how clearly he can see the parallels between what Blair is doing in Iraq and what the British Empire used to do:

'My grandfather was an unrepentant Imperialist. He was immensely proud of the Empire and felt personally responsible for what he thought were its triumphs and disasters.

His son-in-law, my father, didn't share his views. He referred to the immaculately dressed old man as 'the dandy who won the Boer War'. The two men used to debate Imperial issues with a passion and eloquence that impressed me as I listened outside the parlour door.

I was especially fond of their high moral tone. It was years later that I realised their disagreements were superficial. Fundamentally they were in agreement. Both of them thought Britain was the centre of the world. They judged everything by reference to British standards.

I remember the way my father defended Gandhi. He said: 'Gandhi became a lawyer in London. He's had experience of proper British principles in the law.' He would have been appalled if anyone had told him he was being grossly patronising. To say that somebody possessed British principles was the highest praise he could bestow.

That Britain might at any moment be called upon to act in a distant land seemed to him the most natural thing in the world. He would say of some international crisis. "It won't be put right you know, until Britain does something about it."

It's with sadness I accept I no longer believe anything like that. What surprises me is that so many of our politicians and diplomats still seem to believe it...something of the imperial spirit of my father and grandfather still survives in a modern fashion.

Too many people at the top have a misplaced confidence that Britain has, not just a role, but a major role to play in world affairs. That's why we keep being told that we punch above our weight diplomatically. And such bounding self-confidence isn't confined to any one political party or faction. It's as if we are prey to a collective delusion. I include myself, at least as far as past actions are involved.

Let me tell you of something that happened to me 40 years ago. We weren't then in the Common Market and I was talking to two MPs, one of whom was in favour of joining, the other was against. In the hope of being conciliatory I rather jokingly suggested that we might apply for associate membership, which would give us the economic benefits, but no political obligations or control.

The absence of political control shocked my colleagues. Both of them turned on me like tigers. And then one of them said something very significant. He said "Britain's place is and always must be at the top table."

I'd like to say that I stuck to my guns, but I didn't. I could see the force of the top table argument. I believed it myself, at least in one sense. I could see Britain the ally of America giving it wise advice.

Britain, from the pinnacle of its long democratic history, talking to France and West Germany and pushing them in the right direction. And naturally Britain would be exerting a pervasive moral influence over the younger nations.

When I look back on the complacent ignorance of my views I shudder.

Now, I think we need to stop kidding ourselves about our role. In the real world we don't keep giving Washington advice that it takes. We aren't listened to attentively by France and Germany. And there isn't a long queue of countries lining up to receive our moral guidance.'

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At 9:40 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

By coincidence, clicking through my favourite 'blogs', I passed from your post above to this one over at Mark Steyn's site (yes, I know, eclectic or what?):


I think it may interest you.

At 10:59 am, Blogger Snowball said...

David - Mark Steyn has never interested me up to now and the comment piece you link to is simply yet another banal apology for Empire.

One quote from Steyn is enough to summarise his argument: 'The British system worked in India'. Hmm, well if presiding over the deaths of several million people through famines (see my 'Dead Queen Watch' Victoria piece)is a system that 'worked', what would failure look like?

At 2:37 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say, I was hoping for a slightly more open mind on the subject of empire. Am I to assume that you believe that no good ever came from it?

At 4:52 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

I suppose empire did lead to a few inspiring and heroic nationalist revolts against it - but they were about the only good things that did come out of it.

At 8:06 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeeees, well, I can only suppose, tentatively, that, as none of the old colonies ever took on, or developed, Marxism, that would explain your point of view, although I am somewhat surprised that as a Marxist you appear to be in favour of nationalism. I suppose it all depends on exactly *whose* nationalism one is discussing. Pity about the closing of your mind, though, I had hoped for better.

At 9:57 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Yeah, I suppose I should really have a more open mind about imperialism...like the kid in the link below:


At 10:48 pm, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not only a closed mind but a feeble one at that. I suppose I, too, could rummage through 'Google' to find some 'Schlock-Horror' pics of children killed by Marxists, or even some killed by the nationalists you admire (and I suspect that some of those children in the pictures are indeed victims of 'the resistance') but what would be the point?

You are obviously a man stuffed full of some carefully chosen facts, possessed of only one eye and determined to stare rigidly through it in one direction. If only the world was that simple then simple people like you would understand it. It isn't, and you never will!

At 9:30 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Perhaps I will never understand the full complexities of the world - but imperialism as say on display in Iraq at the moment does not seem to be the most complicated thing in the world to understand.

Torture, death squads, lies, thousands of dead civilians, the stirring up of sectarian divisions, etc. - all of which you presumably just write off as 'collatoral damage' on the balance sheet of History. Instead, presumably we should celebrate the spurious 'democracy' that has been instituted under a framework of military occupation that will somehow 'civilise the natives'.

Perhaps I am too 'one eyed' about imperialism - but that is better than being completely blind to the reality of imperial power.

'In the kingdom of the blind, the one eyed man is king'...


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