The Anti-Imperial Conservative | Geoffrey Simon Hicking
When I cast my vote for Brexit, I did it for two reasons. Firstly, I wanted Britain to be a free and sovereign state with control over its own laws and government. Secondly, I disagreed in principle with imperialism. The nation state was the most advanced form of government, and subsuming it to an international empire risked destroying our people’s self-reliance and pride.
For a very long time, online conservatives told me that the former principle contradicted the latter. A true conservative was expected to show pride in the British Empire, whilst also desiring an independent and powerful Britain in the present. So far as sovereignty was concerned, the only continent that benefited from independence was civilised Europe, and she was expected to impose a just and imperial peace on the rest of the world.
Much of the literature on empire has replicated this view that the right would be completely pro-empire, and the left consequently anti-empire. Popular histories of empire will often focus on the powerful Conservative (or Conservative-allied) politicians like George Curzon and Joseph Chamberlain; men who inherited the “New Imperialism” of the late nineteenth century from classical liberals like John Stuart Mill and Thomas Babington Macaulay. The more the imperial fervour in a figure, the easier to dress them up as a robust and strong British hero – immune to petty notions of compromise or tolerance. Any scepticism of empire could be dismissed as “Liberal white guilt” or simple anti-British leftism.
Furthermore, the form of empire we were supposed to love was a very top-down one, with the British as the sole protagonists. Niall Ferguson’s Empire: How the British Made the Modern World gave short walk-on roles to the various Indian Princes that governed one-third of the Indian subcontinent, but otherwise dismissed them as playboy princes. John Keay’s great single volume history of India gave plenty of page time to James Andrew Broun-Ramsay, 1st Marquess of Dalhousie and Louis Francis Albert Victor Nicholas Mountbatten or low-born native troops, but almost nothing to any Maharaja enthroned after 1857. Indians active in directly ruled British India might have a role if they brought the empire down; not even the most myopic historian could leave out Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru. Otherwise, British dominions were a sea of grateful but faceless natives labouring under powerful Tory rulers.
Growing up in a conservative household awash with books on European history, the above view posed a serious philosophical dilemma. I was immensely proud of our defeat of Napoleon and the restoration of European sovereignty. I relished tales of British warships throwing back French and Spanish armadas over the centuries. I devoured any book that espoused the right of people everywhere to practice independence and self-reliance in their own homes and on the world stage. Above all, I inculcated the unspoken principle that while Britain may have faced terrible conquerors across the channel, be they Spanish, French, or German, we would never stoop to their level.
France and Germany both faced an occupation of under ten years after their respective bids for European domination but otherwise went into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries free to manage their own affairs. When Greece made a bid for independence, Britain stood alongside her as a friend and ally. When South America and Italy attempted the same, crowds would line our ports, eager to see representatives of those nations coming to visit Britain to espouse the virtues of nationalism.
Of course, those nations that threatened us would eventually see their rulers removed if they sabre rattled for too long. Any wars fought against Europe would be long and terrible. Nonetheless, the fact of the matter remained was that we were the good guys. Restrained, benevolent, and powerful. A friend to freedom.
Much of this view shattered when reading about Asian and African history. General Charles James Napier’s expeditions into Sind led to the total overthrow of the Sikh Empire. There was no regime change, only regime obliteration that was replaced by East India Company Rule. Even allies were not immune. The Kingdom of Awadh, a long term financier of British imperial expeditions and one of our oldest Indian allies, was annexed by the East India Company on grounds of corruption- despite the Company’s own extensive system of financial kickbacks.
One might object that this was the attitude of the time but, as the subsequent rebellion by Awadh’s population showed, even in India itself popular princes were sometimes preferred by their people to a foreign overlord. Notions of sovereignty and independence were not purely confined to Enlightenment Europe.
Another counter-argument might refer to British-implemented roads, education, and laws, but this was still the continuation of the Olympian view of the world, intimating that the natives had to be conquered for any of this to happen and ignored our opposition to conquerors like Napoleon despite efforts by men of his ilk to reform and improve newly taken territories.
Top-down enforced change versus change from below and self-reliance. Relying on someone else for reform versus doing it yourself. Does this not feel like left versus right? Was not a British imperial administration left-wing in its attempts to do things for a native populace? Was this not a form of “imperial welfare”? How could I feel pride and pride alone in such Napoleonic left-wingery?
Salvation came when I began to read wider. Browsing through imperial histories, I discovered quasi-independent territories in the British Empire that at times recovered the ability to self-rule, and even reclaimed territory. Few of them are known to modern conservatives, with names like Travancore, Baroda, the Rajput states, and the Unfederated States of Malaya. Sited throughout the Far East, these states had either made alliances with the British during the East India Company’s early conquests, or had fought us, but proven too united to be easily liquidated. At the same time that Britain was providing an army of occupation to post-Napoleonic France, Britain’s long-time eastern foe Mysore had been defeated but retained its own ruler and army.
Of course, Mysore was later broken by greedy Company requests for tribute, leading to partial annexation and British direct rule for 50 years… but even then Mysore’s story as an independent kingdom was not over. By 1867, British policy had decided to right the wrongs of Company rule, and the conservative minister Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, Lord Salisbury, determined that Mysore should govern itself in defiance of pro-annexation factions in the British government. Come 1881, Chamarajendra Wadiyar the Tenth ascended to the Mysorean throne and took control of his kingdom’s administration.
This policy of respecting the rights of states to rule themselves was not an act of liberal imperial weakness. Not only was it perpetuated by the very conservative Lord Salisbury, but it also allowed the better rulers to improve the lot of their peoples, sometimes far beyond what could be accomplished in British-ruled territories.
Within a year of independence, Mysore would have its own parliament, and stringent laws raising the age of consent to sixteen for girls married to men over 50. Such laws were strongly enforced, compared to weaker Government of India legislation. In the Keralan kingdom of Travancore, enlightened Hindu monarchs began a program of educational reform that by the early 1900s saw literacy rates climb to 15% of the population, higher than anywhere else in India. In the modern age, Kerala now possesses literacy rates of 96%, far above the trans-Indian rate of 77%.
In all these cases, a historical conservative British policy of respecting sovereignty and waiting for native administrations to improve their own lot through hard work and self-reliance led to well-run kingdoms with superior living conditions that have persisted to this day. This was a long-term British policy I could be proud of, and these were old British allies I could identify with.
Perhaps most importantly, this policy ties neatly into our modern policy of respecting the rights of Asian states to their own territory in the face of Chinese Communist aggression. As the newly independent United Kingdom begins to collaborate with Japan on new military technologies, and to negotiate with the rest of the Pacific on new trade deals, conservatives should not see this as uncharted territory but a continuation of earlier practices. The independence we have always desired for ourselves (and often for our imperial allies) is as worth fighting for as it has ever been.
It is my hope that a conservative anti-imperialism emerges that does not seek to denigrate Britain or belittle her achievements, but pushes for her right to defend herself and her allies against dictatorial aggression. Feeling shame in the abandoning of our Iroquois allies in the twentieth century, or in the East India Company’s bullying of friendly Princely states need not diminish the determination to make Britain more powerful and independent.
Such an emergence would face great challenges, taking place as it would against the backdrop of wokist lies about our past. The woke movement and the Marxist extremists within Black Lives Matter have done anti-imperialism a great disservice. They have threatened people with redundancies if they do not toe the Marxist line of total unremitting self-loathing and defeatism. Equally disgusting has been the desire by certain elites to abandon the girls of Rotherham to unspeakable fates for the crime of being white (and therefore racist and imperialist). I may disagree with certain pro-empire historians about what we should be proud of, but the need to push back against this wokist horror is self-evident.
The risk of such a pushback is that unless an imperial-sceptic slant is included alongside more traditional pro-imperialism, conservatives may continue to see nineteenth-century British foreign policy solely as a monolithic entity that thirsted to take territory from useless and immoral kingdoms. If this view becomes that of the general public, then those people that find it hard to reconcile our traditional European policy with our imperial Asian policy might be pushed away into the arms of dangerous groups that wish us harm. To counter this, a place in the party should be found for those conservatives that can appreciate the reformist elements of British imperialism, but who would nonetheless prefer to teach people about our more farsighted acts of tolerance toward foreign nations.
Such people would be of great use in the ongoing culture wars. What if we were to find those students newly exposed to Marxist self-loathing, and tell them that Britain often measured up to the standards that they themselves hold in the present day? Instead of asking them to accept the difficult and sometimes inaccurate concept that untrammelled conquest was “of its time”, we should point them to those states that we left alone. Ordinary people crave continuity as well as change, and it is long past time that we acknowledged that need. The more pride people feel on their own terms, the less likely they are to demand the mass destruction of native British culture and society out of guilt.
It is therefore my belief that it is possible and desirable to be a conservative, a patriot, a Brexiteer, and an imperial sceptic. Any patriot that holds such views must be encouraged out into the light, for the sake of our self-esteem and our future.