The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.
H.W. Crocker III. Regnery Publishing. $19.95. 327 pp.
An American Catholic looks at the British Empire with some skepticism. The Empire brought with it unquestioned benefits, but its roots in the seventeenth-century are entwined with a deep hatred of Rome and the Catholic heritage of the West. We can all cheer at the swashbuckling adventures of Sir Francis Drake or the young lieutenant George Washington, or the military prowess of Lord Clive and the iron will of Winston Churchill, and we can acknowledge the achievements of British civilization. Yet much of that success came at the expense, not of benighted indigenous peoples in need of enlightenment, but of other European powers representing the older Western tradition. The Spanish and French Empires were civilizing forces too, to say nothing of that greatest of Catholic states, the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
H.W. Crocker, however, in this great, readable history, has no fear of sacred cows, forthrightly defending the record of the British Empire across the globe. He rightly targets the political correctness of the left as the primary target. For 40 years or more, the Left has denigrated the great traditions of British liberty in favor of a hodgepodge of trendy ideological causes and historical blindness. These ideologues condemn Britain, and by extension the America, as colonial oppressors and not sufficiently multicultural. They ignore that the British also “introduced their ideas about the rule of law, liberty, and parliamentary self-government, not to mention their games of cricket, soccer, rugby, tennis, and golf; their literature; their ideas about what constituted fair play; and — to use an imperial word, a Hindu word — their ideas of what was pukka and what was not.” These traditions and institutions matter, and are positive developments.
What the ideological critiques miss is that the Empire maintained a policy of respecting local cultures unless they conflicted with the Empire itself or furthered some great evil. No Islamic nation voluntarily abolished the slave trade; the British did. No Indian prince ended the burning of widows on funeral pyres; the Empire did. Britain and her colonies stood alone against Hitler. And for all its fault and historical crimes (it did for a long while permit slavery, and it did massacre natives from Ireland to Zimbabwe) the Empire held an ongoing discussion that always placed justice and liberty as a foil to state action. The examples are legion, ranging from John Adams’ defense of British soldiers in the Boston massacre to ending the slave trade. And there was always a recognition of the terrible cost of empire: Crocker tells the story of General James Wolfe, who read Thomas Grey’s “Elegy in a County Churchyard” and its lament that the “paths of glory lead but to the grave” before crushing the French and taking Quebec. This combination of martial toughness and literary sensibility has it most recent representative in the legendary and recently-departed Patrick Leigh Fermor, translator, adventurer, and heroic World War II commando.
Crocker also criticizes certain segments of the Right for being equally ignorant of history. Conservatives often critique bigness and empire, and there is a long political tradition in this country of localism and anti-intervention. But as Crocker notes some of the American Founders, such as Jefferson, explicitly wanted to take the mantle of empire from Britain. The transfer of the Pax Brittanica to the Pax Americana was marred by “American ambivalence about empire.” But as an example of the ambivalence he cites Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a wishy-washy idealist who trusted too much in the corrupt United Nations but one who was not afraid of being a global actor.
Instead, the true resistance to empire came from the millions of Americans — from native-born American and immigrants escaping the old world, ranging from the Kennedys to newspapermen like Garet Garrett — who wanted to be left alone and to leave the world alone, a sentiment traceable to Washington himself. But Crocker is right that liberalism has infected the way American do treat their imperial responsibilities. Liberals are too conflicted about America’s ability to improve the lives of other nations and to introduce American (though British-derived) notions of fairness and economic liberty, and they are reluctant to acknowledge what is in fact obvious, that the nation rules large parts of the globe. In this, the lessons of the British Empire that Crocker displays here are welcome.
The Guide is structured roughly chronologically with helpful sidebars and factual nuggets along the margins. Interspersed among the chronological chapters are chapters devoted to classic representatives of the Empire – Walter Raleigh, Francis Drake, Lord Clive, T.E. Lawrence “of Arabia,” Thomas Raffles, the “White Rajah” and founder of Singapore, ending with Winston Churchill. The list is necessarily selective: Crocker includes Clive, who was generous during his time in India and well respected there by its leaders; he notes that Arab families still name their sons after Lawrence. But he does not include others, such as the rapacious Warren Hastings, whom Burke spent his life trying to bring to justice for his crimes against the people of the subcontinent and who would complicate the story.
That said, the Guide reminds us that the setting of the sun on the Empire is a topic still worth debating, and it presents models of conduct that are still applicable today.