As the subtitle indicates, Paxman's focus in this book is on the effects of having an empire on the British. He does not claim to have written a full-scale history of the empire itself—that would have needed a book several times as long. But he provides a pretty extensive bibliograpby for those who want more, and all his many quotations are referenced in end notes.
Paxman covers the whole period the empire may be said to have existed, from its beginning with the founding of a colony in North America in the time of Elizabeth I to its final demise in the twentieth century after the second world war. Of course, much of North America could be said to have been part of the empire before the War of Independence, but that is not included here. There is a lot about Africa, and India, as one would expect, receives particularly full treatment.
It is remarkable how little the fact of having had an empire is present in the minds of most British people today. When I was a lad in the 1940s our teachers still remarked with pride on the widespread presence of red on maps of the world, but now that memory is, if anything, an embarrassment. Yet the influence of empire continues to be felt, notably in our reluctance to identify ourselves fully with the rest of Europe. And the British class system owes a good deal to empire: the public (i.e. fee-paying) schools that flourished in the nineteenth century and still exist today served, in part, to inculcate the appropriate values in the future administrators of empire.
The empire, Paxman believes, was an unwarranted intrusion on the rights to self-determination of the peoples that Britain ruled. But its effects were not wholly bad, and if Britain had not done it, someone else would, with probably worse consequences. For Britain itself, however, the results were almost unequivocally bad.
The empire was Britain's main international preoccupation for a very long time. But instead of trying to grapple with the implications of the story of empire, the British seem to have decided just to ignore it. It is perhaps possible that this collective amnesia has nothing to do with the country's lamentable failure to find a comfortable role for itself in the world. But it seems unlikely.Whether we think the empire was a triumph, a disaster, or something of both, there is no doubt of the persistence of its legacy in many parts of the world today. There is the language, for a start, and there is sport: cricket, football (both soccer and rugby), tennis, boxing and golf were all either British inventions or were shaped decisively by Britain. Democracy may perhaps have originated in ancient Greece but in its modern form it was a British innovation, even if the British themselves were reluctant to apply it in the places they ruled.
Paxman's book would make a good, if idiosyncratic, introduction to its subject, for both British and non-British readers.
28 December 2011
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