Ghosts of Empire: what Kwasi Kwarteng’s book tells us about him | Kwasi Kwarteng
JThe British Empire was an undemocratic and poorly governed institution that created some of the world’s worst geopolitical hot spots. Steeped in public school snobbery, it otherwise had very little unifying ideology.
“Much of the instability in the world is the product of his legacy of individualism and haphazard policy-making,” concludes Kwasi Kwarteng in Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, published a few months after his election in 2010 as MP for Spelthorne. . He claimed to avoid “sterile debate” about whether “empire was good or bad,” but the book’s conclusions are calmly, firmly critical.
There’s nothing controversial about its arguments, and its retelling has none of Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland fury, but the book was still described as controversial by some critics upon publication, simply because It was considered surprising that a Tory MP would reject Niall Ferguson’s book. then the recent revisionist takeover of the empire.
Ghosts of Empire has received less scrutiny than Kwarteng’s later publication Britannia Unchained, which he co-wrote with fellow MPs including Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. But now that he is expected to be named chancellor within days, the business secretary’s back catalog is being scoured for a glimpse of his political worldview.
The conservative party’s culture war against the empire continues to rage. Although Kwarteng’s rejection of nostalgia for empire is hardly remarkable, it does make him an outlier among high conservatives. In a 2002 Spectator article, Boris Johnson wrote that the African continent “may be a stain, but it is not a stain on our conscience”, adding: “The problem is not that we were once at orders, but that we are not. more in charge.
Michael Gove said too much history teaching was influenced by postcolonial guilt, and these sentiments were echoed by new ministers. Suella Braverman recently claimed that “the British Empire was a force for good”, pointing to “administration, public services, infrastructure, ports, railways, roads”. Kemi Badenoch said that while “terrible things” were happening under the empire, there were also “good things” and “we have to tell both sides of the story”. Nadhim Zahawi agreed that children should be told about the supposed benefits of empire, arguing: “Iraq has left a legacy of a British civil service system which has in fact served the country incredibly well for many, many decades. .”
In his book, Kwarteng rejects any attempt to portray the British Empire as an enlightened liberal force promoting democracy around the world. “Far from being heralds of liberal pluralism, servants of empire were naturally comfortable with the idea of human inequality, with notions of hierarchy and status.”
What else does the book reveal about Kwarteng? As the closest colleague of the new prime minister, how might this perspective help shape the thinking of the new government?
First of all, he is very knowledgeable on this subject. It’s sad that it’s remarkable, but it’s significant at a time when it has been admitted that civil servants and politicians have become so ignorant of Britain’s colonial past that the Home Office is designing a module of education intended to instruct officials on the heritage of the empire.
Agreeing to a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring his department avoids a repeat of the Windrush scandal, Patel promised to launch a mandatory training session on race, empire and colonialism for all staff. There was official acknowledgment that the ignorance of politicians and civil servants about this had led in part to the scandal in which thousands of people who moved to Britain from its former colonies were wrongly classified as being in the country illegally.
Presumably, Kwarteng’s willingness to confront the failings of empire will make him antipathetic to the encouraging patriotism of his colleagues – an unrelenting positivity that has led, for example, officials to refuse to release a history of the law on the immigration commissioned by the Home Office which concluded: “The British Empire depended on racist ideology to function.
Kwarteng’s book studies six areas in detail – Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong – examining how the catastrophic mistakes of British colonial administrators continue to render large parts of the world dangerously unstable. It describes how the establishment of the Hashemite puppet dynasty in Iraq was a disaster and how the British colonizers’ rash decision to install a Hindu maharajah to rule Muslim-majority Kashmir had disastrous consequences.
He has a particular fascination with analyzing the roots of the administrators’ establishment (we learn a great deal about the preparatory school, state school and Oxbridge university attended by the colonizers, and whether they were more drawn to cricket or the Eton Five).
His chapter on Sudan reveals that of the 56 senior staff hired between 1902 and 1914, 27 had an Oxford or Cambridge blue; they have played polo in Darfur, organized lavish balls in Khartoum and their chaotic administrative decisions have had calamitous results.
You hope his familiarity with the fallout from mistakes made by colonial administrators might give him a different perspective on Britain’s responsibility for people crossing the Channel to seek asylum in the UK.
There are currently up to 1,000 people from Sudan and South Sudan in Calais hoping to cross to the UK, according to Care4Calais; the vast majority of them have no money to pay the smugglers for places on the small boats crossing the Channel, and spend more time trying to smuggle themselves into the trucks. Will his understanding of the roots of the conflict make him more thoughtful about the wisdom of threatening to send those who risk their lives to seek refuge here in asylum processing centers in Rwanda?
The book is well written and full of memorable details. We learn that Lord Kitchener’s quirky father had such a dislike for bed linen that he forced his family to use newspapers instead of blankets.
We find that General Charles Gordon was delighted to be posted to Sudan, saying before he left: “I dwell on the joy of never seeing Britain again, with its horrible, boring dinners and miseries.” If Kwarteng’s budget statements are written in an equally lively style, it will be a source of happiness for lobby correspondents.
Kwarteng (educated at Eton, Oxford and Harvard, and born to Ghanaian parents) offers a biting analysis of the hierarchy and snobbery that shaped the empire, detailing which rank of Indian princes were allowed to send Christmas cards or skins from albino tiger to Queen Victoria, and establishing the table of precedence in the colonial administration of Hong Kong, which made it clear that the Superintendent of Prisons was seven points lower in the ranking than the Director of Railways.
It divides administrators between cads and delimiters and reliable, modest and discreet operators. Colleagues must assume that he will watch all modern echoes of bureaucratic absurdity and store them for his memoirs.
His sharpest criticism of the empire bears on the “anarchic individualism” that ran through it. “The reliance on individual administrators to design and execute policies with very little strategic direction from London has often led to contradictory and self-defeating policies, which in turn have brought disaster to millions,” he writes. There are times when you wonder if criticism of the inconsistent and haphazard way in which British imperial rule was imposed could also apply to Conservative Party rule in the UK over the past decade.