Wednesday 18 April 2018

Empire and Albion

The British Empire gets a bad press these days. It was, so the story goes, greedy, rapacious, exploitative, racist, snobbish, well, you know the rest. And no one can deny that all those elements did exist within the totality of what it was. It certainly started off as an exercise in plunder and, while it probably wasn't so at first, it did end up being what we now call racist, though more or less the whole world was that then and not just Europeans.

But I submit there was considerably more to it than that. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the British Empire had a divine mission, an opinion which would probably get me escorted to the exits in most civilised places nowadays. So be it. We have become far too over-sensitive to truths that don't coincide with our modern prejudices, but those who look for truth above all have to be prepared to look for it in places where it may not currently be thought to exist.

There can be little doubt that when what became the British Empire began in the 17th century, and right through the 18th, the impetus behind it was enrichment of the mother country with little to no thought of the countries colonised. But the motives in the 19th and early 20th century gradually changed and so did the actual purpose of Empire viewed from above. It became a vehicle to spread civilisation throughout many parts of the world that had either fallen into a kind of stagnation or else needed bringing up to speed because they lagged behind in terms of development, both intellectual and technological and even, dare one say it, moral. It had, I truly believe, a spiritual purpose which was linked to the evolution of consciousness, a new phase of which began in the West and needed to be spread worldwide. This was how it was done. It's no good saying it could have been done in ways which did not involve one country taking over another. At the time that was simply not possible in many places.

The British in the late 19th and early 20th centuries may have been racist, they may have been snobbish and they may have been rather limited as regards imagination. But they were mostly fair and they were mostly honest and they had a strong sense of duty. I don't think it is understood how many people genuinely thought they were serving a cause for the betterment of humanity. Of course, all the usual human sins and foibles were present. How could they not be? But I would say they were considerably less present than in previous and other contemporary exploits along similar lines. When I lived in India in the 1980s practically everybody I met who had been alive before Independence in 1947 recognised the qualities of the people who had governed them, and they admired them. There was appreciation of what had been accomplished in their country even if they all knew that what may have been beneficial at one time had certainly run its course by the mid-20th century.

It's very easy to condemn the British Empire from the vantage point of present day morals and ideals. It's also completely absurd and, to use a popular sniffy word of our time, inappropriate. The British Empire accomplished mighty things in that it spread certain standards and values around the world. It had its faults, sometimes grave ones, but show me something that does not. On balance, it did a lot more good than harm, and I believe most of the people who lived under it appreciated what it did for them, how in many respects it liberated them. My particular knowledge of it extends only to India but, as I have said, when I met people there who had been alive during the time of the Empire hardly any had a bad word to say about it. You might say that was just politeness but I think there was more to it than that. There was a genuine recognition that the country had been well governed by largely honourable people who were far from perfect but also sensed and tried to carry out a real mission.

The question then arises as to whether this has any relevance at all now or is it just a period consigned to history along with Henry VIII who probably seems no more alien to young people today than members of the British Raj. Here's a conjecture. A groundwork was laid both culturally and linguistically which might be able to be exploited further on down the line. I see a parallel with the Roman Empire which, after it was no more politically, rose again in a certain manner in Catholicism and the Latin language which were two of the most important ingredients of the religious Medieval civilization. Might something similar occur with the old British Empire? Patterns in history tend to repeat themselves though not in the same way so we should not look to an exact repeat of what happened in the past. Nevertheless, the seeds of something might be there. If a spiritual Albion has any role to play in the future that might be built from the ashes of the old Empire even if the two things seem very different in their basic orientation.


John Fitzgerald said...

That's a bold and perceptive piece, Wiliam. The Shakespeare critic, G Wilson Knight, who I wrote about on this blog towards the end of 2016, held a similar view, seeing Shakespeare as the prophet of a future, spiritually-orientated British Empire. I'm told that Lawrence James is a very good historian of the Empire, though I haven't read any of his books. It might be worth meantioning as well that Charles de Gaulle, if I recall correctly from my studies in French history, saw the French Empire in similar terms - as an essentially spiritual force with a long term future that transcended its physical existence in time and space.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - I agree that that was the divinely intended destiny of the British Empire - which was abandoned in Britain itself before it was abandoned in the Empire (since the modern apostasy and materialism began in Britain).

In materialistic terms, the British Empire certainly benefitted the inhabitants of most colonies - as was clear, to those with eyes, when the British left. The beneficiaries of ex-colonial nationalism and 'independence' have been the local colonial elites (who now get to be the ruling class, instead of the middle class).

But the masses had to endure a heavy price for their new ruling class becoming local: a greatly reduced standard of living and a very great deal of violence, death and disease. And the fragmentation process, once started, is difficult to stop - India for example, ended-up as three states (with I don't know how many millions dead in the process).

Exactly the same story unfolded in Rhodesia and South Africa. Ironically, the Western elites suddenly 'get spiritual' when discussing such matters - and the emergence of mass starvation, mass rape and murder, and rule by psychopathic gangsters suddenly become insignificant problems - compared with the supposed enhancement of (undefined) Freedom and vague slogans.

Still, as things happened, the British Empire was a spiritual disaster for the English - who all-but lost their identity in it; and by the end were left with almost nothing. Although it is possible that the kind of atheist/ leftist nationalism which the Empire developed in the Irish, Scots and Welsh may be even more damageing to the soul than the English situation.

These 'celtic' nations worship a false materialist God fuelled by anti-English ressentiment... and perhaps no God at all (the English situation) is a better preparation for the truth than this type of Antichrist.

William Wildblood said...

Good points Bruce, all of which I agree with. The British in the colonies were a different sort to those back at home and did tend to be more upright in many respects perhaps because a sense of responsibility. And regarding your third paragraph, many of the poorer Indians when I was there who were old enough to remember the Empire certainly did feel they were better off under the British.

The 3 state thing was apparently one of the reasons that Lord Wavell was replaced as Viceroy by Mountbatten who knew nothing about India. Wavell thought it was a mistake and wanted to space out independence over a time period rather than give it all at once precisely to avoid problems between rival communities. The new govt after the war wanted to get rid of the colonies asap and wash their hands of the whole thing, and we know how tragically that turned out in India. I know this because Michael Lord was ADC to Lord Wavell when he was viceroy.

William Wildblood said...

John, we can but hope!

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - How interesting to get the inside 'story' about this. I have no doubt that those who washed their hands of the colonies felt smug and self-congratulatory - no matter what happened next.

This seems to be the defining characteristic of modern-Leftism - every 'reform' is justified in terms of leading to desirable consequences (instrumental ethics), but as sone as the reform has been implemented the (overwhelmingly bad) consequences are ignored, denied, explained-away - and those who point them out are ostracised (like Enoch Powell - a very early example).

I think WB Yeats had it with his phrases that things fall apart, the centre cannot hold, the falcon (Man) cannot hear the falconer (God)... it is the loss of God at the centre of Man's being which has led to this moral insanity; whereby there is no moral coherence, and no attempt at coherence, and any attempt to be coherent is resisted or ridiculed - and yet the incoherence is itself denied...

William Wildblood said...

Again, I couldn't agree more. There are those who really want to do the right thing and those who want to be seen as doing the right thing.

Edwin said...

It may be that many people were better off under British rule - in terms of social order and the distribution of wealth - but such benefits depended upon the forced submission to an armed invader and the loss of autonomy. It is also said, though only in guarded whispers these days, that blacks in America were better off under slavery. Emancipation granted freedom to many who were ill-equipped to exercise it wisely and we are still seeing the consequences of this in the moral and social rot of our big cities to where many former slaves migrated. The problems that come with freedom may be quite terrible and full of tragic consequences, but such problems seem to be a necessary step in moral and spiritual growth, for individuals as well as for nations. I don't know that a convincing case can be made that the British empire had a spiritual mission that was cut short by imprudent men, nor would I place too much confidence in de Gaullle's claims, grand as they sound. Such are the thoughts of a poor colonial who recognizes his country's debt to British culture, and his personal debt to its great literature, which has been one of the great joys of my life.

William Wildblood said...

I'm not saying that the thing hadn't run its course, Edwin. It very definitely had and I think everyone but the most obtuse recognised that. It's only that the changeover could and should have been better managed. The spiritual mission, if such it was, had been completed by the time of WW2 and Britain couldn't have sustained the Empire anyway. It has enough trouble looking after itself these days.