Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Harbingers of Imperial Doom

Live blogging Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power by Niall Ferguson.

After World War I, the British Empire had one last spasm of expansion, scarfing up big chunks of the formerly Ottoman Middle East, German's African colonies, and more of the Pacific. The Imperial impulse was largely exhausted though, and the Empire was starting to cost more money than it made. The lesson of the American rebellion had been absorbed much earlier and resulted in the white and protestant colonies winning a large measure of self-rule and independence - privileges not extended to the earlier colonies of Ireland and India.

India had played a major role in the British war effort - one million Indian volunteers had fought for Britain, and many of the English educated Indian intellectuals, including Gandhi, had supported it. After the war, first Ireland and then India had asked for the same deal that Australia, Canada, etc had got. The new Arab colonies had been promised independence.

Britain refused to deliver on any of these accounts, and initially peaceful demonstrations in Ireland and India had culminated in massacres in Dublin and (on much larger scale) Amritsar. This kind of bloody repression was not exactly new in Imperial history, but after initial public applause, it quickly evoked disgust. Even arch-imperialist Winston Churchill was outraged by the wanton slaughter of unarmed civilians at Amritsar. Imperial confidence had been shaken, and Britain could neither muster the will to reform (or dissolve) the Empire, nor the military effort to defend it.

Of course all this was embedded in a world exhausted by World War I and badly damaged by the Great Depression. Ferguson has some interesting things to say about the economics, but there are also right-wing idiocies like:

Rising real wages led to unemployment: at the nadir of the Depression in January 1932 nearly three million people, close to a quarter of all insured workers, were out of work.

Ferguson, Niall (2008-03-17). Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power (p. 272). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.