British Empire Books


Empire: What Ruling the World did to the British


TypeNon-Fiction
AuthorJeremy Paxman
PublisherViking
Published2011




Jeremy Paxman has written a book to accompany a BBC series that appears to look at a familiar topic but from a different perspective. This was very much what I was expecting from the book - one that describes the impact of the empire on contemporary Britain and the British people! I was therefore surprised to read a book that provided a fairly familiar narrative of empire from the swashbuckling Tudor period through to the empire building Victorians down to the impact of the World Wars on being the catalyst to decolonisation. In short, nothing particularly radical. That is not to say that it is not written well and that it doesn't provide some fascinating vignettes and asides, but the fundamental story is one that you will find in books by Jan Morris, Denis Judd and Lawrence James and many more historians - and usually in more depth and detail. It does analyse and detail the type of people who were drawn to the imperial stage through the various stages of empire, however when it comes to the impact on modern day Britain, it was only in the final stages of the book that it began to offer its analysis. And it was surprisingly concise and straightforward when it did.

To be fair, the book is a bit on the brief side given the extent and scope that it has set for itself. It is supposed to cover five centuries of history. This brevity is probably to fit within the format of the TV series that it is to accompany. Presumably, it is intended for a general, if interested, audience. The book does jump around rapidly from major topic to major topic whetting your appetite but often leaving you feeling hungry for more detail. As I have already pointed out, you will find nothing earth shattering or provocative with the historical framework. There is little room for any re-interpretation of the events it depicts: If you take India as an example; Robert Clive was a buccaneering opportunist who provided the catalyst for East Indian Company control of India; The mutiny shocked and transformed Britain's attitude to empire and; Amritsar radicalised opposition to the British Raj. None of these insights is anything new. I doubt any historians will be slapping their heads thinking 'why didn't I think of that!'. There are actually historians who are reexamining and putting forward controversial but thought-provoking alternative views to well worn imperial topics, but they are not offered in this book.

It is with the anecdotes that this book really shines. There are some fascinating asides to the familiar narrative. For instance the first use of the term 'British Empire' being from Queen Elizabeth's astrologer John Dee who went on to advise the queen that she could claim North America as it had already been discovered by Prince Madog ab Owain of Gwynedd in 1170! Paxman does go on to point out that his documentary proof for this claim is slightly lacking. I also loved the story of Queen Victoria at her jubilee hearing the words 'Steady, old lady!' and 'Whoa, old girl!' assuming it was about her until she turned around and saw the colonel of the 2nd Life Guards trying to control his over excited mare in the long procession behind her. The book is full of these memorable and fascinating insights. The book may not re-evaluate imperial history but it does add some wonderful colour to the well-worn story of empire.

Another of the strengths of the book is Paxman's judgemental use of language. As a well known and provacative journalist in the UK, it is refreshing to find that he uses the same terminology in judging the participants that made the empire and the events that shaped it. He describes Gordon as 'unhinged' and Baden-Powell as 'Cracked'. There is plenty of judging provided and much of it is well balanced and well deserved. He does give credit where credit is due but also lays into those who were greedy, racist or just plain strange. He pulls no punches to the inequities and contradictions of empire, but is sensible enough to recognise that in such a huge enterprise spread out over such a long period of time many good deeds and work was completed also. There are some modern revisionist historians who see empire and imperialism as evil incarnate that corrupted everyone and everything that it came into contact with. Paxman's book is more nuanced and therefore more credible as a result.

I would not say that I was disappointed in the book, I enjoyed reading it immensely. It just was not the book that I was expecting it to be. The empire is a massive topic that lasted for half a millenium in one form or another with the greatest geographical reach of any empire to date. It would be astounding if the experience did not shape and mould Britain and the wider world in a very significant way. Many in modern day Britain are embarrassed or do not want to handle the legacy of empire. But the world is as it is and Britain's empire was one of those institutions that has done more than most to shape it. Ignorance of this imperial history will translate into ignorance of the modern world. Paxman's book and the series is at least trying to redress this balance. It is just that Paxman emphasises the 'Empire' aspect of the title more than the 'What Ruling the World did to the British' subtitle. I thought that he was going to tie the two aspects closer together than he did. But at least he is trying.


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