A classic of British empire history, nearly fifty years old and still eminently readable and valuable as a contribution to the study of an idea with global clout. The Imperial Idea is complex, with a loose chronological narrative tying together a series of analytic and interpretative sections on the defence and opposition to Empire. Thornton’s book is sometimes frustratingly tangential, straying frequently away from the central preoccupations suggested by its title. Power, as a concrete expression of police and armies, capital and law, class and bureaucracy, is elusive and not an end of the study in itself: consuls and armoured cars certainly appear, and his chapter on nationalism and the racism and discrimination is certainly enlightening, but what the reader will not find is a study of policing and military administration, as in Anthony Clayton’s or David M. Anderson’s work, nor much on the mechanisms and men who governed in Africa or India, nor any appreciable analysis of the financial and commercial sinews of empire found in Hutton and Davis’ Mammon and the Pursuit of Empire, or a thousand other deeply researched and heavily footnoted monographs. Perhaps it is the slipperiness of the subject: “imperialism has suffered from a working definition,” something that Thorton is obviously trying to rectify by studying the ideas of the imperialists and their opponents. His focus on a coterie of important men is necessary because imperialism’s “translation into practice” demands “a political expertise that must be looked for amongst the few.” (264) Certainly many will disagree, and a great deal of excellent scholarship has been written about those ‘on the ground’ as it were and how they saw their duty, from Sarawak to Ghana.
Palestine Mandate, 1920, British Locomotive
Thorton’s book is instead much more of a history of ideas, ideology and political culture, one of the best I’ve read, that uses the conflicting discourses of imperialism to get unfold its central tensions and ‘iron’ certainties. Thorton thankfully writes fluidly and engagingly, a man so thoroughly familiar with the debates, sources and personalities that he rarely indulges in footnotes. And like other great synthesising historians from the same period like Hobsbawm or Thompson, the editorial and polemical voice is never far. Thorton can present the ideas, intimately and sympathetically, of a Milner or Churchill as if he himself holds them, and then by the next paragraph pull the curtain back on their venality, brutality or hypocrisy. Careful reading is often necessary, as it can be easy for the unwary, as I was when I first read this book two years ago, to confuse Thorton with his subjects of study. The chapters on ‘The Imperial Idea at its Zenith’ and the two very loosely organised around the impact of the Boer and Great Wars are solid and probably some of the best condensed analysis of high-politics imperialism; Viscount Milner is the only major figure of stature who emerges unscathed, a man who seems to have genuinely felt that the Empire was a redeeming institution and worked to that end. These chapters don’t reveal anything particularly new other than in the lightly incredulous treatment of bluster and hyperbole combined with high ideals.
Thornton’s treatment of British power in retreat are the strongest chapters. He, for instance, identifies quite clearly the need of imperialism to “preserve its own moral content, its imaginative range, or its grip on the imaginations of its subjects,” wary of ever having the curtain pulled aside and the illusion shattered. Imagination and emotion were necessary for imperialism to justify itself: “justification was therefore a term used emotionally. The moment an imperialist began to use it rationally, he could not but see himself – in his private moments at least – as his enemies had always seen him: as a cynical power-grabber who would make use of any humanitarian or sentimental argument that happened to suit him at the time.” (213) Hence why emotional nationalism, either English or of the colonised, had less problem with emotional imperialism, with cricket or army barracks: it was the manipulative power behind the charade, profiting off empire while professing sacrifice. The problem was that, aside from Milner and a few other prominent imperialists, imperial power, despite its imaginative appeal, had no real imagination. It was run as a technocracy, of sorts, an administrative dictatorship that confirmed “there must always be a group of experts – the distributors, the co-ordinators, the trainers” running the show. The natives could not be trusted to run their own affairs, after all, nor would they be allowed. The Radical and Liberal supporters who looked to the empire as a bastion of civilisation and education were uncomfortable with “the government of one people by another” (265) and had trouble reconciling the implications of their own enthusiasms, especially when it was men from professions and classes often politically associated with Liberalism who ended up becoming those distributors, trainers and co-ordinators.
The penultimate chapter on democracy is unsettling for this reason, and contains a great deal of sometimes well-earned jabs at the opponents of Empire. What worried the opponents of empire was “the reckless inculcation by the imperialists of an unthinking jingoism – the lust of the spectator – in the masses” and how “dangerous it was to beat on a big drum.” They feared their own populism because so much of what was ‘popular’ seemed so repellent and conservative. This is analogous in the Empire: they feared the colonial peoples even while they claimed to work in their name. A little of this discomfort is actually on display in Orwell’s Burmese Days, in which the Burmese and the Empire compete equally for Eric Blair’s loathing. The Radical critique of empire was never a critique of empire, but instead a call to recognise that “the British people…[were] the largest race that imperialism had cognizance of,” and their oppression, misery and mal-education needed to be cured as readily as that of Central Africans or Fijians. (269) Again and again, an uncomfortable parallel is obvious in The Imperial Idea between imperialists and Radicals, who both pushed for schemes of human betterment; indeed, the irony should not be lost that, “even by the 1930s, when the leading imperialists were generally held by public opinion to be ‘Die-Hard and reactionary to the bones, it was still amongst their group that the most far-reaching ideals of human progress, as conceived by Conservatives, were to be found.” (270) Colonial administration looks all the more ‘apolitical’, like any good technocracy, when conceived in this way, a system designed and organised for human betterment that has little time and enthusiasm for the humans it aims to better; the difference being in the British empire paternalism reduced colonial subjects to children instead of numbers.
Read Full Post »