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
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
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
"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
"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 anti-establishment
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.