For God, Country, and Empire | Edward Lloyd


Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. So wrote George Orwell with characteristic lucidity in “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Now nearly 75 years since that book was published, England’s past is a battlefield. The rank and file are drawn from the bloated university sector, their wit sharpened (or blunted?) by daily Twitter frenzy. Rushing through the mist with élan they come as a column supposedly fighting under the banner of what is variously called the globally oppressed, the subaltern, the global south, or whatever is the new jargon. Caught off-guard are the beasts of imperial nostalgia, historical amnesia, chauvinism, and the apologists for global white supremacy. Or so it would seem. With the stage set I would like to think critically about the claims made by the agitated postcolonial brigade and offer my own feeble insights into the history of England and her empire.

The first thing that we are told is that the English masses simultaneously don’t know about the empire and yet are deeply nostalgic and attached to it. To square this circle, it is claimed that what the English care about is a comforting imperial mythology and that this has led to, among other things, Brexit. Inconveniently for admirers and detractors alike, most people care neither for the empire nor for any mythological account of it. Polls conducted by the Colonial Office in 1947, at a time when the empire was largely intact, revealed that a majority of people couldn’t even name a single colony (they had a quarter of the world to guess from) and one man even suggested Lincolnshire. And why should they know? England was – and remains – big enough for most people. A fact lost on and loathed by our globally swaggering political and cultural élite. Incidentally, the Glorious Revolution and the English Civil War – seminal events in the history of England – are scarcely recalled by the English public. Therefore, we can only conclude that little English history or myth, of any kind, is retained by the public at large.

But if we know so little of the empire, what should we be taught about this historical behemoth? Slavery, murder, and plunder is the given answer. These human evils are neatly embodied by the transatlantic slave trade, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and the looting of Benin City. The problem with this answer is not that these events did not happen. The problem is that the answer is so woefully incomplete. We are still left wondering why England did these terrible things and if that was all she ever did? As regards to the former, a cynical answer is that England was just a particularly rapacious nation and Englishmen particularly sadistic. From those who decry English exceptionalism we are given their own type: that England is exceptionally bad. Is there another answer? Fortunately for the English – yes – but it is still a painful one, although in unexpected ways.

The political and intellectual leaders of England revealed their beliefs. The empire was driven by believers in Progress. But Progress had quite a specific meaning then. It didn’t just mean improving your country in any old way – English ‘progressives’ or ‘Whigs’ knew the order in which you did things, it was mechanical. What’s more they often thought they had the best ideas, competing largely with the Americans, French, and later the Germans. It was believed Progress was also for all mankind but was being stifled in many parts of the world by reactionary regimes. This was an inheritance of the Christian belief in the universality of their message, that it was destined to be preached to all mankind. Strikingly after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Englishmen believed their homeland to be the most progressed nation on Earth and felt it was the destiny of England to share its progress, whether by the pen or the sword, across the globe. Britain’s pugnacious Prime Minister Lord Palmerston was quite unambiguous when in 1848 he said “I may say without any vainglorious boast that we stand at the head of moral, social and political civilisation. Our task is to lead the way and direct the march of other nations.” But what did England have that made these English ‘progressives’ so audacious? Below I set out what is commonly understood to be the basic progressive historiography (also called the Whig historiography).

From 1688 onwards English progressives (or Whigs) claimed that the peculiarly restrained constitutional monarchy of England upheld freedom and rights that gave the Englishman unique liberty – unmatched anyway else in the world. These were embodied in law, particularly Magna Carta, the Petition of Right, and the English Bill of Rights. An empowered Parliament was the main safeguard of these hard-fought liberties and the embryo of representative democracy. The Anglican settlement had discovered the best of the Protestant and Catholic traditions and had synthesised them. Christianity, an independent judiciary, and trial by jury, were the basis for English justice – justice that could even bring a king to heel. In addition, the Wars of Religion had resulted in a high degree of religious tolerance in England for religious dissidents (and later Catholics). In the 18th century England could boast the Agricultural Revolution and then the Industrial Revolution, epoch making events, which were held up as further examples of Progress. In the 19th century the Industrial Revolution reached new heights and transformed society, abolitionism and anti-slavery was one of the great causes, democracy was developed through Parliament, and social welfare was pioneered. Free Trade was also championed and viewed as essentially meaning cheap food for the masses, and peace for the world (it was thought and hoped that freely trading nations wouldn’t go to war). Self-government for parts of the empire was also spreading, although unequally. In the 20th century and in the twilight years of empire, the ‘civilising mission’ as it was called, was in full throes. Ever more self-government, ever more radical democratic reforms, secularism, greater industrialisation, women’s rights, worker’s rights, trade unions, socialism, modern medicine, and mass education – all were the cause of Progress.

What was for England was envisaged to be for the world. And the expansion of the empire was driven by this particular idea of Progress. The Americas were settled by many religious dissenters and radicals, who perceived that by providence they would settle a New World, to build a City on a Hill – finding true religion they decided to found Heaven on Earth. When the American colonies failed to reach those heavenly heights, they were justified on an earthlier basis, by John Locke and others, that the settlers made more productive use of the land than did the Native Americans. England also saw itself as a bulwark in the Americas against the more reactionary Catholic powers of France and Spain. In Asia, when England fought a war with China to force the latter to open her markets to foreigners, it was denounced by many high-ranking politicians in England. The opium trade was condemned as wicked even by future Primes Ministers. But English generals and supporting politicians believed that they were fighting a war against a deeply reactionary regime, whose people would rise up when the English armies landed. They believed in the principles of free trade, that they should apply world-wide, and that China’s superiority complex had to be humbled. It was surely by Christian standards an immoral war, but the belief in Progress had gone behind Christian standards. In Africa, expansion was driven against what were regarded as reactionary regimes, on the pretext of stamping out the slave-trade.

Time and time again, imperial expansion was weighed up on the basis of the latest sacred cow of Progress. If there was a mythology to the empire it was this: that English Progress gave the English a God-given right, duty even, to rule the world. The horrors were overlooked or even sanctioned on the basis that you don’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. The destruction of traditional structures was happening in England itself, and so across the empire while there was sometimes hesitancy, destruction was sanctioned. English traditions also changed and leaned ever more towards a rationalist-materialist worldview that ultimately negates Christianity and all religions. It was the trajectories of Christianity to Atheism, Monarchy to Republic, and Agriculture to Industry, in which Progress was most defiantly questioned and out of this questioning was born English Conservatism.

The Crusade of Progress has continued however, with the United States taking up the mantle since the end of the empire. American radicalism is even more pronounced. After all, the Americans did originally rebel against the British whom they saw as restraining their advance westwards, what they called their right to “Manifest Destiny”. The idea that Iraqis also yearned for democracy, but were held back by their reactionary ruler, certainly motivated the Iraq War more than crude oil. Regime change was the war aim. The belief in the universality of values, and therefore the equal right to Progress, has long been the pretext of Anglo-American imperialism. This belief in Progress is sometimes so strong that it dissolves even national loyalties. Notably Britain’s thrice time foreign secretary Charles James Fox remarked that the British defeat at Saratoga during the American Revolutionary War, was one of the happiest days of his life. The English radical writer Thomas Paine, supported the French Revolution, left for France, and was elected to the National Convention (the parliament of the French Revolution), despite not being able to speak French. Life itself was demoted before Progress, encapsulated in the French motto “vivre libre ou mourir”, and taken up by the Americans as “live free or die”.

It is this powerful idea of Progress, by now sublimated as more of an inclination, that led the Marxist journalist Christopher Hitchens to support the Iraq War. He was taking his cues from Leon Trotsky who, after the Bolshevik Revolution, had argued in favour of ‘World Revolution’ and ‘Permanent Revolution’ as opposed to Stalin’s idea of ‘Socialism in One Country’. For Christopher Hitchens, the United States not the Soviet Union, represented the engine of revolution pitted against the forces of reaction. It is interesting to note as well that Christopher Hitchens was pretty unsympathetic to the historical disempowerment of the Native Americans. Whigs, liberals, progressives, and the Left – these different names mark broadly the same historical movement. These are the people who are on the “right side of history”, quite literally because they often write the history books. A conservative is someone who goes some of the way but sees that the path veers off a cliff edge. Therefore, when progressives criticise the empire, I would like to say “Yes, but it was your project!” as fantastical as that may seem to them. For the legacy of Progress and Empire are identical, they were both based on false premises, both bore good and bad fruit, both left a trail of death and destruction, and together they transformed the world.

Is Englishness and England tainted by the stain of imperialism? I doubt very much that this is the case among the common people. Among a section of the elite, it may be, best displayed by the eagerness for recent Middle East adventurism. And remember that this is non-partisan, Labour and Conservative governments have both supported foreign intervention. Ultimately the crunch issue of war, and what today we term humanitarian intervention (an expression that hides a multitude of sins), will forever convulse the progressive heart. The cries of those around the world ring in Western ears. In our country, as in others, we have the wealth, power, and domestic stability to lend our support. However, the desire for peace, and fear of our own arsenal, equally looms large in the Western mind. Appeasement found many supporters in England in the 1930s because so many desperately wanted peace, a laudable goal after the Great War. French Communists denounced the war with Nazi Germany as “imperialist”. Many centuries earlier Christ forbade the use of the sword saying: my kingdom is not of this world. But as long as the Kingdom of Progress is believed to be of this world, the sword will be used to fight for it, and therein lies the bloody paradox. Yet even if we don’t fully believe in Progress and all its trappings, we might find something useful in the legacy of its believers. Progress may have its ultimate root in the Christian perspective of the eternal quest for the individual to become Christ-like, overseen by a divine plan. Is it the ultimate hubris? Or the true path of salvation? Are we tempted by the idea? Or are we called to it? In the end, it may be up to us to decide.


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