British Empire Books


AuthorPhilip Ziegler
Originally published1985
Original publisherKnopf
This publisherPerenniel Library
This Edition1986

This weighty tome is an official biography of one of the key imperial characters of the Twentieth Century. Mountbatten displayed many of the characteristics of a classical Whig but operating in a modern setting. Conveniently born in the year 1900 his career coincided with and became very much involved with the retreat from Empire. As a leading member of the military and royal establishment this book is as good a source of information on the decline of empire as it is on Mountbatten's life and times.

It suffers and benefits from being an official biography. The benefits being that the author has had extensive access to all Mountbatten's papers (which seem to be voluminous) in the estate but he sometimes seems to pay the price of this access in being overly generous of the character of his studies (although not always). The book would sum up Mountbatten's character as being a courageous, energetic, determined maverick with his major failings being overenthusiasm, a lack of caution and most disconcertingly of all a lack of judgement.

He was a member of the royal family and his father was the First Sea Lord in the Royal Navy. With connections like those and the role of patronage in the British Establishment he was always likely to become a leading member of the ruling elite. As if Royal and Naval connections were not sufficient - Mountbatten sought, and found, additional patronage from political patrons: Churchill, Chamberlain and Attlee were some of the more prominent of these. The author is a little on the generous side in charting Mountbatten's rise - he hardly mentions the objections that the Naval heirarchy had towards this colourful character. His naval career was hardly successful; his impetuosity (and lack of judgement) cost many of the seamen under his command his life and imperilled many more. Yet he managed to rise to the most powerful positions in the British Military.

His most famous job was as the last Viceroy of India and it is for this role that posterity will remember him for. Ziegler's book charts the battle between the Imperial tradionalists (who wanted to maintain the status quo and hang on to India and progressives (who thought that India should become self-governing and develop new ties to Britain). Mountbatten was in the latter camp, and was not to be forgiven by many of the tradionalists, including Churchill. His willingness to work with people who were regarded as little more than terrorists won him many friends in the newly emerging independent countries and helped to set healthy precedents in allowing Britain to retire from Empire with considerable good grace and with some self-esteem. It is therefore one of history's ironies that he would be murdered by just one such group of terrorists. If only the IRA could have read their history books then they would have realised that they were killing somebody who did more than anybody to de-imperialise the British.

The book is well written and equally well researched - it throws many interesting shadows onto the end of empire. Mountbatten moved in all the most influential of circles and saw many of the good and bad practices of the empire. He saw the iniquities of the Empire but never diminished in his internationalist beliefs: He was a great believer in the Commonwealth and promoted the Internationalist United World Colleges. It is undeniable that Mountbatten would have been little but for his parentage however, this book demonstrates that he was indeed an unlikely maverick and one that changed the empire beyond recognition. He may have been a flawed genius - but a genius nonetheless.

Biography: Mountbatten

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by Stephen Luscombe