Monday 3 September 2007

The Legacy of Empire

A very interesting result from last week's poll- bearing in mind most of those who voted, were presumably bloggers themselves.

The overwhelming majority of you think this medium is completely pointless.

I'm actually going to go out on a limb here and say I completely disagree.
Communication is the most important thing we do.

It is what life is all about.
As Electro-Kevin says, the purpose of life is to pass on DNA.
DNA is a method of passing on coded information.
Life itself, survives better and evolves faster, by it's ability to receive and transmit information.

The stars communicate their presence to us.

Human existence and human progress are all about communication.
Most of the problems of the world, can be blamed on poor communication between people.
The greatest advances in human history have been those which found better ways to store and disseminate information.

This is what makes us different. We know so much, we DO so much, because we are able to pool all the good ideas any human ever had and build on them. Our knowledge and our thoughts are the product of those of the many many great thinkers who walked this road before us.
We start our lives further along it than they did.

This is a medium which democratises the spread of ideas and information. It allows YOU the ability to disseminate YOUR thoughts.

Great men alone don't change the world, millions of little people can too, simply by talking.
Have faith in what you are doing and the role you play in people's lives.
I don't think this IS pointless.

Or it needn't be.

Tonight's post (and poll) is in some ways a continuation of last nights.
Crashie actually seems to have had a foreboding of it, because her comment on the last post, is related to this one.

One thing we really don't like to talk about in the UK is the Empire. We acknowledge it existed, but we don't like to debate it, or understand how it happened- or what it really left behind.
I think we need to.

Because unless we understand it, we can never really understand the world we live in.
And I really do mean, the WHOLE world.

We are too busy either exagarating our decline, or feeling guilty about the less pleasant bits to be completely objective.
Our ancestors weren't objective either, but their subjectivty at least acheived something.
Whether in the final judgement, they acheived something truly amazing, or simply exploitative, is open to debate.

To find the roots of Empire, we need to go back to the seventeenth century.
The seventeenth century was a hard time across Europe.
It was a battle betwen superstition and reason, betwen Protestant and Catholic, Kings and People.

And in a small island on the edge of Europe, the people made the final choice. They had learned something from their century of struggle.
They had learned from the experience of being ruled by Cromwell.
The basic lessons they learned were simple.

1. Never hero worship your leaders.
2. Retain the right to sack your government.
3. Permit all views to be freely aired. The more people discuss, the sooner truth is reached. Suppressing ideas, leads them to go underground. Truth will out, as they say.
4. Allow people as much freedom as you possibly can- that way you give free rein to their creativity, and the people themselves make their country great.

It took most of the rest of Europe a pretty long time to come to these conclusions- in some ways, being honest, I'm not sure they really are QUITE ingrained in continental culture yet.
Throughout the twenties and thirties, many European peoples were easily duped into the idea that their problems could be solved by scrapping democratic systems and raising up leaders who could not be sacked and demanded hero worship.

Hitler is the most obvious example- every voter who voted for him knew that he wasn't a big believer in democratic decisions- but their fredom from absolutism was young, and they didn't yet believe in it.

The French almost got the idea in 1789- before they clamoured to make Napoleon a new God-Emperor of Reason.
And their hero-worship of De Gaulle was a little alarming- it is hard to see him as a real democratic ruler.

In Europe, freedom is granted from above, in the Anglosphere, power is granted by the people.

The Eighteenth century was the century when the peoples of the British Isles felt the benefits of their new system- completely different then to the way any other people in Europe thought.
Freed from oppressive government, the people flourished, created, invented, travelled- and rose quickly from a second rate power, to the first of the Superpowers.

And they carried their message with them.
To be sure, the traders who sent their ships- and their mercenaries- took with them the profit motive.
But they also took with them a pretty amazing set of values, by the standards of the time.
They didn't just come to pillage, as other empires had done, doing for the conquered territories the bare minimum to provide expedient rule.

The came to develop the lands they conquered. They knew they were able to acheive so much, because their system and their values were the best in the world (at the time). They were right to have faith in that.
They were imposing it, and imposing it by force, but a part of them surely felt, that if the British way of life had done such wonders for them, they were good values to proselytise.

The British invested in their territories in an extraordinary way, they allowed free settlement in an extraordinary way.

The only empire that truly compares to it in impact, is that of Rome.

The Romans left roads, aqueducts, laws, etc.
They left behind countries far more advanced than they found them. Whatever we may think of the worst of their rulers, their decadent ways, their culture of slavery, they changed the world for the better.

Likewise, the British Empire left behind a complex infrastructure and a system of values it not only left to the peoples it subjected, but values which have gradually won over the world.

Whatever was done along the way, the true legacy of the Empire, it's bequest to the world really was a better way of doing things.

And its legacy lives yet.

The Second World War was a real struggle of ideas- a struggle between tyranny and freedom.
But ultimately it was the battle where the Empire and it's children- most notably the United States- put their money where their mouth was.

It is no coincidence that Westminster democracy is still considered the paradigm, and British Justice, for all faults, still in principle the model that is held up to the world.
The realities may be tarnished, the principles are good.

The world sees that, and it is a powerful dynamic in the world today.

For the world's policeman, is the Empire's child. It is trusted by many across the globe because it is the most powerful champion of those amazing values that any thinking person can se, must never be allowed to die.

And the Special Relationship, or Transatlantic Alliance?
It is fundamentally important to the US.
Not just because of what the UK is today, but because of what we were.

Every value the US holds dear, every value it trumpets, reached it's shores from the mother country.
When it acts in the name of those values, without the support of it's aged parent, those values seem hollow.
The world is not convinced.

But when the two act together, history is invoked.
The champions of the free world, the peoples who invented freedom, fought two world wars for it, and defended the free world against the Soviet Union.

It's a powerful legend, and like so many legends, has more than a grain of truth in it.
There is a tendancy for the world to trust the Star and Stripes and the Union Jack flying side by side.

The British Empire carved a world largely in its own image, globalisation has been more anglicisation than we care to admit.

In my opinion, future generations will be fascinated by it.

It simply remains for me to quote the words on the statue of Boudicca on the Thames embankment;
'Regions Caesar never knew, Thy posterity shall sway.'

Maybe it wasn't all bad.

Have your say!


Anonymous said...

Of course it wasn't ALL bad. In fact most of it was good and there is a lot of jealousy about it - the French are overt in their hatred of the fact that it is our systems and language echo throughout the World. I feel sad that in typically understated and English style we have self-depracated and apologised to the point that our culture is disappearing fast at home. Englishness is now a diaspora.

What I would like to say here is how damaging Hollywood Brit-bashing has been to our culture - particularly by that historically illiterate and dishonest Mel Gibson. There is a lot to blame us for, but so much to thank us for too.

It's sad that we now have such loss of belief in ourselves that we have given way to the point that London is now know among CIA circles as 'Londonistan' and that the UK is now an established foothold for Al Qaeda for launching attacks both here and on the US.

The thuggery and boarishness we now witness of our sports fans and tourists abroad is a symptom of lack of self-belief and self-confidence. Perhaps you are right, Igsoc - blogging is a good thing, some good ideas coming to light in your article.

Anonymous said...

Empire certainly changed the world - but if it was for the better one will never know - unless we can set up a re-run but this time without the Imperialism? Indias ancient and tolerant cultures for example may have developed quite differently without the Raj, and one can't help feeling that some of the stone aged peoples of sub-Saharan Africa should have been left alone - not enslaved, exploited, killed etc..

On a lighter note - didn't Mel Gibson also play Robin Hood fighting for England and Richard the Lionheart against bands of perfidious Welsh brigands?

Anonymous said...

The French got hold of the wrong end of the idea in 1789. their revolution may have put an end to the age of medieval monarchical structure in Europe, but its stigmata have remained as symbols of every subsequent revolution. It invented the purges of an entire class of society; it brought into being the people's courts, trials without right of defence, forced dechristianisation and extra judicial murder. It ended up in a tyranical, military dictatorship that precipitated the first truly global conflict, The Napoleonic Wars. The "revolutionary faith " of 1789 would unsettle the entire Western world for much of the nineteenth century and eventually spawn the horrific Communist Revolution of 1917.
Fortunately, Edmund Burke in Britain and the framers of the U.S. Constitution associated liberty with particular inherited traditions, limited, decentralized government, checks on power, moderation, and a willingness to compromise. That is our way. Rejoice!

Anonymous said...

Empire was undoubtedly an essential period of history. It was the only way that Africa and the East could have been developed with any speed. They weren't capable of running a modern country, and without Empire they would have just been exploited. Empire did not financially benefit Britain. It cost us a hell of a lot of money. It was more about power and prestige than money.

In fact, the greatest error that was made by Empire was it's ending - too soon and too fast. Many of the problems in Africa now, and in the recent past, can be directly attributed to the too-fast withdrawal of Empire. When the Scramble for Africa went ahead, it didn't divide the country up with any relation to ethnic or cultural boundaries, just simply how far they could conquer before they were stopped in some way. Because Empire withdrew in such a messy and immensely fast [in the scheme of things] way, this was not corrected at all, leading to genocide, such as the Tutsi's and the Hutus. Also due to the speed of the withdrawal, most of Africa did not have a large, or at least sufficient, number of trained civil servants, as they had all previously been Europeans, leading to crisis.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it was a matter of choice (leaving things alone), Mutley - societies and their memes 'evolve' as much as any viral species does. Just how much control do humans have over their destiny - especially when driven by Darwinian pressures ?

Anonymous said...

And as for India's ancient and tolerant culture ...

- setti, the burning of live wives on their husband's funeral pyres

- the caste system

- Islam

The word 'tolerance' is a giveaway in itself - it means to put up with something even though you don't like it. It does not connote a peaceful loving mind but one that accommodates disdain. I might 'tolerate' a boil on my arse - the boil ought not to be relaxed about my feelings towards it though, I have a deep hatred of it and harbour desire to get rid of it even to the extent of self mutilation. A poor analogy for the disaster that followed the partition of India in the 50s.

Anonymous said...

Oops ! 1948 - partition.

Add to the list of nasties - Infanticide, the killing of female babies so that high caste families could avoid the cost of marrying off daughters.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting read. Began in one area and then kinda drifted... over... here...

Yes, the UK did play a very important part in developing quite a few nations. It was one of the big superpowers. BUT it isn't the big superpower now.

When the UK was the superpower, that status stood on how many men were in the armed forces, how large the population was, and how many natural resources they controlled. Land mass and free settlement were incidental. A larger of each meant that there was a higher amount of natural resources under the empires control.

But now its different. Now being a superpower depends on technology and resources. There's no point having an army of 10,000 armed with sticks, if your opponent has an army of 500 well trained people armed with damn good weapons. Now it all comes down to how fast you can develop new technologies.

How fast you can make a bigger, better gun. Or a transformer. Those things kicked arse! How fast can you develop a cancer cure that you can market to the rest of the world to bring money into your country. How fast can we develop a new agricultural method to make a higher harvest, so less people work the fields and more are spent in development.

Technology really does move so fast. Its quite scary. Thats the future for you.

Anonymous said...

I can always expect a history lesson when I visit here. In school, I hated history, but you make it more palatable.

Communication is the key to our roles as human beings. We have to know how to interact with our fellow travelers. I think the people who think blogging is a waste of time are not bloggers.

"The stars communicate their presence to us."

We too communicate our presence to those in the dark.

Anonymous said...

And yet, Phishez, haven't Al Qaeda rendered so much weapons technology redundant by using suicide bombers who take advantage of free movement and our own civil technologies ? What use nuclear warheads in that theatre ?

Anonymous said...

EK, if they continue to use all of their people as suicide bombers, then they'll all be dead and we'll be higher in the superpower ladder.

Its darwinism in action.

Anonymous said...

If the purpose of life is to pass on DNA, does that make the life of a childless person worthless, then?
I agree with you on what you say about blogging.
The British Empire did many good things and I agree that many of its proponents and administrators thought they were bringing a better way of life to people. But some terrible crimes were carried out in its name and many of the UK's problems today were caused by it. The US, sadly, is going through its own imperial stage and, if there's still a world left by the time it comes to its senses, I hope it will be a better one for the lack of empires.

Anonymous said...

Sorry everyone for being a poor blog host and not answering comments in this thread- I've ben very neglectful both at responding to comments and visiting of late.

I do appreciate you :)

Still, it seems everyone has made some very thoughtful points anyway.

Am I being OTT if I say I love all of you?
People like you really make me believe in what I'm doing here, because you obviously do read my posts and get the overall gist of my whole philosophy.

That's very rewarding for me and perhaps a bit humbling.