British Empire Article


Courtesy of OSPA


Speech by Dr Kwasi Kwarteng MP
Given at 2014 OSPA Reunion Lunch at the Royal Over-Seas League on Thursday 22nd May of that year.

Thank you very much. Lord Goodlad, for your kind words of introduction and I am very pleased to be here to talk about one of my favourite subjects, which is the British Empire. The British Empire to me Is probably the most important historical fact because my parents lived in what was then called the Gold Coast and I am now sitting in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament. None of this would have been possible without the British Empire and therefore I am very much a son or a child of the Empire, in the sense that my family were born in the colonies, in the Gold Coast, and they lived that imperial experience. Ghana only won its independence in 1957, and of course that is not long ago, certainly for my parents generation, and they had direct experience of the Colonial Empire. As Alastair said, I was born in London and now sit in the House of Commons in the Conservative interest, to use that old-fashioned phrase. That is who I am and that is where I come from.

But what I have come here to talk to you about is the nature of the British Empire In respect particularly of the individual culture, which I found in my research was a central driving force of the British Empire. One of the things I have to do as a historian is to try to reconstruct insofar as one can the culture and the presuppositions and the intellectual and moral climate of the era which one is investigating. It is no use taking 2014, 2010 or 1990 assumptions and then trying to read them back into a time before the First World War.

As a politician it is different because you have to be biased and you have to know the tribe from which you are coming and be able to speak to that tribe, but as a historian it is really the opposite and you have got to try and understand the mentality and mindset of people who are quite alien. They are not people that you have ever met and they are not people whose culture you are intimately familiar with; they live in a bygone era and a world which is wholly different from the one in which you have grown up.

One of the things I discovered was that to understand the British Empire you have to understand Britain before 1914. This was a Britain before the two World Wars which did so much to shape and change our modern world. When you start thinking about the nature of Britain before 1914 one of the big facts I came across was that we were much more collectivist in our thinking. The two World Wars from a British point of view were huge efforts of manpower and government organisation. There was a massive increase in taxation and generally an incredible increase in the power and the footprint of the state, and people acted collectively. That was the mindset that dominated the 20^*^ Century from 1914, arguably, right up to possibly Thatcher. There Is an open debate as to how she changed that collectivist mindset but she clearly thought of herself as trying to row back from what she would have called a collectivist mindset. There is no doubt that the two World Wars transformed Britain and its relationship to the state in terms of what they expected government to do, and government itself became a much, much bigger part in everyone's life.

The period I was talking about in the case of the Empire was the late Victorian period, which was very different. In those days, if you look at a British budget from say 1890, half of the expenditure was on defence. There was no welfare state and there was very little health provision in terms of social security. Therefore the British government's role in terms of expenditure was essentially one in which they looked after the defence of the Realm, or the defence of the Empire, and within that context my argument in my book was very much about the role of the individual.

Those of you who are mindful of history will know that 2014 is an important anniversary, the anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. The one poster that I think you will all remember and know from that conflict is the Lord Kitchener poster "Your Country Needs You". What I was particularly interested about with regard to individualism and Empire was how powerful that poster was, in that everyone knew that it was Lord Kitchener at the time, and he had this great footprint on British national life. In the centre of my book on Empire, in the section on the Sudan, which is the fourth of the six areas I discussed and researched, Lord Kitchener is very much the central figure. I just want to say a few things about him and then tie that up with this idea of individualism.

The cult of Kitchener reached its most vivid expression in 1898, when the Sudan was essentially captured. Those of you who know the period will remember the Gordon expedition of 1885, which ended in failure and the Mahdi prevailed and killed Gordon. There was a very grisly scene because none of them knew what Gordon looked like. There were lots of heads of white officers in the MahdI's tent in Omdurman, which is where his base was, and there were arguments as to which head belonged to Gordon.

What happened as a consequence of the battle in 1885 was that an expedition force, a retaliatory force if you like, was built up and finally in 1898, thirteen years after the death of Gordon, Lord Kitchener, who was then head of the Egyptian army, essentially conquered the Dervishes. There is the famous story where he was at a dinner in London and this very cocky young officer said, "Oh, well, the problem of going from Cairo to Khartoum was that it took three weeks", and Kitchener turned round and said to this young man, "Well, it took me three years!", and that was very true because he had campaigned and fought very bravely the whole way.

The image of Kitchener in 1898 was a very powerful one. He had a dull private life and was what was called a confirmed bachelor. There had been lots of scurrilous comments about his sexuality, and so on, but we are never going to know the truth about that. He was very much a loner in life and someone who spent a lot of time in London clubs. As many of the Colonial Service people were, he was very careful with money and he did not spend it on renting rooms but lived with his friends or generally in clubs. He collected porcelain and he was a devoted numismatist; he loved eastern coins, and he had this great hold over the late Victorian public.

In 1899 Queen Victoria asked him to sit for a portrait. She was half in love with Kitchener and very attracted to him. She was 80 and he was a dashing man in his late 30s and very much a powerful figure. She wrote this extraordinary letter to him where she says, "Would it be most convenient for you to come here (Osborne House on the Isle of Wight) from the 1st to the 3rd June, or from the 7th to the 9th, or from the 11th to the 13th?" No monarch in history has ever given someone a choice of days like that to stay with them and it is very, very rare. If the Queen asks you to spend a holiday with her you generally go on the date that she suggests and she doesn't give you a suite of options, but I found this actual letter in the Public Record Office.

Kitchener had an extraordinary career, combining exoticism, glamour and bravery, and he enjoyed incredible success. He was raised to a viscountcy and then to an earldom, and the earldom is very interesting because It was only extinct a year ago. When I published this book his great-nephew, the 3rd Earl Kitchener, was still alive, but he never married and therefore the earldom of Kitchener of Khartoum is now extinct as of 2012 I believe. Unusually, an Act of Parliament had permitted his elder brother and heirs to assume the numerous titles he had acquired, although as I said at the time of writing his ninety-two year old great-nephew was still unmarried, making the imminent extinction of the title likely. That has already happened and therefore I am glad, as an historian, that I will not have to rewrite this!

In the middle of my book I make the claims about individualism and I will read this paragraph if you will permit me:

"Kitchener was a great individualist, and it was this individualism that captured the imagination of his contemporaries. He enjoyed the vast spaces and solitude of the desert. "

G.W. Steevens was a very eminent and brilliant journalist who made a career at the Daily Mail. He also gained a double-first in classics at Oxford, so he was no mean thinker, but he was one of the first journalists to capture the tabloid market. He died very tragically at the age of only thirty in the Boer War, but he did more than anyone I think to build up this image of Kitchener in the 1890s. In my book I go on to say:

"Steevens, the ever fluent journalist, conveyed this appeal of the desert to a certain type of solitary but tough Englishman, perhaps too reserved for more active social life ..."

There is a whole scope of research into the sense In which the Empire was a form of escapism from the daily grind that people experienced in London and in that kind of late Victorian commercial world. Steevens said:

"... the very charm of the land (the Sudan) lies in its empty barbarism. "

Forgive me if these are not politically correct terms because they were written in 1895. I get into trouble sometimes because people say, "You said Sudan was an empty barbarous country". No, I am quoting from someone writing 115 years ago! He continues:

"There is space in the Sudan. There is the fine, purified desert air, and the long stretching gallops over its sand... You are a savage again. You are unprejudiced, simple, free. You are a naked man facing naked nature. "

One man who wrote about this was Lord Cromer, who had been a big figure in Egypt and essentially ran Egypt for 25 years. He wrote a series of essays for publications in London in the 1900s and I think they are probably the best example of a Viceroy-type figure and Governor-General figure reflecting on Empire at this period. The reason why I think he is so brilliant is because I spent a year researching this topic quite intensively and it is delightful as a historian when you read a contemporary who completely agrees with you! I read this piece and I thought that in about a quarter of an hour he had summed up brilliantly my year of research, which is why I quote him at length.

"Cromer understood, perhaps, better than any other contemporary administrator, the importance of individualism to the British Empire at its Victorian zenith. "

I am quoting him now, and this particular passage was written in 1908:

"It has indeed become a commonplace of English political thought that for centuries past, from the days of Raleigh to those of Rhodes, the position of England in the world has been due more to the exertions, the resources, and occasionally, perhaps, to the absence of scruple found in the individual Anglo-Saxon, than to any encouragement or help derived from British Governments. "

That is what I meant by trying to capture the pre-1914 mindset; it is a very individualistic one.

"In Cromer's view" - and these are my words - "everything about the British pointed to individualism", and I quote him, "'Our habits of thought, our past history, and our national character all, therefore, point in the direction of allowing individualism as wide a scope as possible in the work of national expansion.'"

Like so many imperial administrators, Cromer was very distrustful of democracy. He said:

"Parliamentary institutions were an exotic system which provided real insight into native aspirations and opinions. Democracy would enable a 'small minority of natives to misgovern their countrymen. '"

Those were his words and that is why I say you have got to try and understand the mindset of the period as a historian. It is no good taking our presuppositions and trying to impose them backwards more than 100 years, or 110 years in this case.

As far as imperialism was concerned, he had a dig at the French and said:

"The Frenchman allowed no discretionary power whatever to his subordinate, and this meant that the junior administrators in the French colonies relied in everything on superior authority. The British official, however, whether in England or abroad, is an Englishman first and an official afterwards. Fie possesses his full share of national characteristics. The Englishman was by inheritance an individualist. The British system, according to Cromer, bred 'a race of officials ... sympathetic to individualism and the British Empire gave a far wider latitude than those trained in the continental school of bureaucracy would consider safe or desirable.'"

I go on to say that all of this might have been an idealised picture but that if it was a myth, it was something the British imperial classes felt very strongly about themselves. I then say in my book:

"Colonial administrators tended to share Cromer's view. Empire was about individualism; it was about character and personality, about the rule of the strongman, who, through a mixture of personality, intellect and leadership, could dominate his peers and the world around him. Kitchener was the model imperialist in this respect. "

Philip Magnus was an excellent biographer and his book on Kitchener was published, I think, in 1985, which is nearly 30 years ago now, but he described Kitchener as follows:

"An individualist of great conceptions, who centralised every species of authority in himself Such a man was useless at teamwork. "

This was one of the problems that happened in the First World War, where there was a huge clamour to make Kitchener essentially the supreme commander, and of course all his Cabinet colleagues, politicians like me, could not really deal with him because they wanted to have committees and debates, whereas essentially he was used to giving orders. This was a famous problem in British history and when the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister he describes his first Cabinet meeting. You can see why he was only Prime Minister for two years because he said, talking about the Cabinet, "Well, I gave them their orders and they spent two hours debating them!" That is simply not how a man like the Duke of Wellington had done business, and I think Kitchener very much had the same problem at the beginning of the First World War. He was an Individualist who believed in his own destiny. He was not a democrat and he believed in strong leadership.

If you look at the subsequent history of the 20 Century, individualism was completely discredited because when we think of individual leaders we think of dictators, Fuehrers and totalitarianism. But if you are living in 1905 or 1910 you have never heard of Adolf Hitler or Stalin, or any of these people. So their attitude to individual initiative and what we might call strong leadership was very different to one which has been informed by the tragedies of the 20th Century.

I would like to finish off by talking about some of the consequences I felt of this individualistic approach. The conclusions I reached in my book were that I felt the problem with the individualistic approach was that there was an awful lot of authority and discretion given to individual governors and district commissioners right through the imperial chain. What that diminished was any capacity for strategic thinking about the territories involved, and that was the central argument of my book.

If you look at a jurisdiction like Hong Kong, one governor, Mark Young, was very keen to promote municipal democracy, and his successor, Alexander Grantham, reversed that. In Sudan itself there are two very separate regions. There is the north, which is Islamic in its culture and its influence, and the south is more Christian and there is no Islamic influence at all really. The problem I catalogue at the end of the Sudan chapter, after Kitchener and various others, was that the British ran a southern policy where the two jurisdictions of south and north Sudan were kept very distinct. The southern policy was reversed in 1947, seventeen years after it was introduced, which exacerbated the tensions and difficulties that the two regions faced. This was very topical for me because just as my book went to press the Republic of the Southern Sudan came into being, which is the youngest country in the world and was established in 2011.

I think that that individualism, which was a very marked, British, English characteristic, was something which created its own tensions and contradictions. That is what Ghosts of Empire is all about, namely, the nature of individual initiative, because It is not part of a consistent or strategic framework, and how that can create some degree of uncertainty.

To conclude, I talked a lot about boarding schools and public schools, and a very kind gentleman gave me this brochure before lunch relating to the 75th anniversary in 1985 of Adisadel College, the college my father attended, and I am looking forward to giving this to him. The boarding school in Cape Coast was very much modelled on British public schools and I think that mindset did create this cult of individualism. The reason why it did was because there was a very organised house system, with house captains, prefects and the captains of games, boys of 16 and 17, and I do not think there was any other education for boys of that age that invested so much authority in individual boys at the top of the school, where they actually had permission to beat the younger boys and do all sorts of things. Their authority is probably a lot less now.

Some of you will know the play Another Country, which I saw again three or four days ago. One of the things that struck me, even though ostensibly it is about the threat of Stalinism, homosexuality, communism and antiestablishment feeling, was that there were very few references to the Empire in that play, and the few that there were referred to the fact that some of these boys might go into the colonial service. The play was trying to understand this boys' school mentality, and a big part of the play revolves around the fact that one of the characters will not become a prefect, which is all taken very, very seriously. That is a really wonderful way of trying to understand the culture of the Empire and it is something which, in 2014, seems very, very remote. What struck me about the audiences of that play was that they are sort of conditioned to revile and to laugh a lot at the values of those boarding schools in the 1930s, but as a historian I did not laugh at those values; I felt that they shed a huge amount of light on the development not only of this country but of other countries which were affected by the British Empire, which in my view was one of the most extraordinary historical phenomena we have ever seen. People talk about the Roman Empire, but the British Empire is right up there as well, and I think that for decades and even centuries people will continue to debate the British Empire. It was a great privilege for me to spend time in researching and writing this book and I thank you very much for your time.

Map
Dr Kwasi Kwarteng
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 108: October 2014


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