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.