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Imperial Quandary: Britain’s Empire in 1923

one fine day book review
Nigel Biggar
Written by Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar reviews the new book by Matthew Parker, One Fine Day. Britain’s Empire on the Brink: September 29, 1923 (PublicAffairs, $35)

History Reclaimed is grateful for the permission to republish this review which first appeared in The Washington Free Beacon and which can be accessed here: https://freebeacon.com/culture/imperial-quandary/


The approach is imaginative: to present a snapshot of the British Empire a century ago, five years after its victory in the First World War, when its territory was most extensive and at what must have seemed its zenith. The result is a display of the Empire in all its ad hoc variety, from the white-majority settler “dominion” of Australia to the non-settler “protectorate” of Uganda.

The reader meets colonial officials who were sympathetic and conscientious in their dealings with those they ruled, as well as some who were brutally arrogant and dismissive. He also hears from native people who appreciated the benefits of imperial rule, as well as those who felt humiliated by Western dominance. And he learns that, if the British were late in introducing democracy to India, they were the very first to do so, for its like had never been seen before. To its great credit, no one can read this book and conclude that the British Empire was a morally simple thing.

It seems, however, that our snap-shooter was fascinated mainly by the Empire in the east and grew tired as he traveled westward. Of the 37 chapters, he devotes 21 to Australasia, the Pacific, Southeast Asia, and India. There is very little mention of the Empire in South Africa, almost nothing on the Middle East (Egypt, Mandatory Palestine, and Iraq) and hardly a reference to Canada. In addition, the publisher appears to have become alarmed at the length, since readers wanting to consult the notes or bibliography are directed to the author’s website.

What is more, the synchronic approach suffers from myopia, relegating major imperial achievements to walk-on parts. We do hear about the Empire’s humanitarian suppression of slavery, but only incidentally. The reader is not told that Britain (along with France and Denmark) was among the first states in the history of the world to repudiate slave-trading and slavery in the early 1800s and that it used its imperial power throughout the second half of its life to abolish slavery from Brazil across Africa to India and New Zealand. And in ending his book by reporting the 1923 cession of Rwanda to Belgium and Jubaland to Italy as tokens of imminent imperial dissolution—”Very soon, of course, the trickle became a flood” is the very last sentence—the author allows the reader to overlook the extraordinary, heroic contribution that the British Empire went on to make in the Second World War, when, between the Fall of France in May 1940 and the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, it offered the only military resistance to the massively murderous, racist regime in Nazi Berlin, with the sole exception of Greece.

While our imperial tourist is a generally honest reporter, presenting the good as well as the bad elements of the Empire, his account is not innocent of unfairly negative bias.

The problem first manifests itself in the decision to open his account with the story of the mining ruination of a tiny Pacific territory by the British Phosphate Company. He then returns to this in the book’s closing pages, where he describes it as a tale of “extractive colonialism at its most literal.” While an attentive reader of the pages in between will notice that the Empire sometimes brought native people economic opportunities and benefits, the lasting impression given by this bookending is that it was—as neo-Marxists have always claimed—basically exploitative. And yet Rudolf von Albertini, whose work was based “on exhaustive examination of the literature on most parts of the colonial world to 1940” (according to the eminent imperial economic historian, David Fieldhouse), judged “that colonial economics cannot be understood through concepts such as plunder economics and exploitation.”

Parker’s negative bias appears most strongly in his crude, unreflective understanding of the racial attitudes of the imperial British. While he does bring onto the stage colonial Britons who express a range of views of other peoples, including sympathy and benevolence (albeit usually “paternalistic”), he nevertheless tells us that “ideas of white supremacy remained a guiding structural principle of the empire. This racist ideology was a coping stone of empire.” What he has in mind is specifically the idea of a fixed “hierarchy of races,” with whites permanently established at the top—”what we would now call white supremacism.” Such a view could claim the authority of natural science, since at the turn of the 20th century “European scientists all still agreed that human beings were naturally unequal … and that there was a hierarchy of races.”

But this is far too reductive, both conceptually and historically. In many respects—at least scientifically and technologically, if not also morally and politically—the British were on top of the world and can be forgiven for feeling like it. Like all top dogs, past and present, they were susceptible to the vice of arrogance, which, while understandable, is nonetheless reprehensible. But if the British were arrogant before 1945, the Americans were also arrogant after it, just as the Chinese are arrogant now.

Some went so far as to assume that British superiority was forever, and that native peoples were subject to them because they were naturally inferior. That view, which considers the racial hierarchy to be fixed, is racism in its worst form—and it is the only one that Parker attributes to the British. Some did share in it. Others, however, saw native peoples as only developmentally inferior, not naturally so. That is why they believed in the Empire’s mission to help them adapt to the modern world that had overwhelmed them, so that they could achieve their natural potential and take their places as equal citizens. Therefore, Cape Colony granted black Africans the vote on the same terms as whites as early as 1853, New Zealand to all adult male Māori in 1867, and Eastern Canada to all adult male Indians in 1885.

It is quite wrong to claim, as Parker does, that “white supremacism” was the only or dominant racial attitude among the British or that the ideas of racial equality promoted by the concept of trusteeship after the First World War were “new.” The Christian humanitarianism that dominated so much thinking in the wake of the abolition of slavery at the beginning of the 19th century was based on the premise of the fundamental equality of all races under God, which implies that racial inequality is merely cultural, not essential. And this Christian view was not generally eclipsed by its social Darwinist rival in the English-speaking world. As Colin Kidd writes:

[E]ven at the high noon of nineteenth century racialism, theological imperatives drove the conventional mainstream of science and scholarship to search for mankind’s underlying unities. The emphasis of racial investigation was not upon divisions between races but on race as an accidental, epiphenomenal mask concealing the unitary Adamic origins of a single extended human family … quietly, subtly and indirectly, theological needs drew white Europeans into a benign state of denial, a refusal to accept that human racial differences were anything other than skin deep. … Theological factors, more than any others, dictated that the proof of sameness would be the dominant feature of western racial science.

Accordingly, through his analysis of debates in the Canadian House of Commons from 1880 to 1925, Glen Williams has concluded that “[a]lthough it was growing in influence in the [sic] late nineteenth century Canadian political life, biological determinism never had the field entirely to itself … it was scarcely possible to stand in the House to make a speech denigrating a ‘race,’ without someone rising in principled objection to remarks that they considered unBritish, unchristian, illiberal, or just plain prejudiced.”

I suppose it is because Parker believes that “white supremacism” was a dominant principle of the British Empire that his view of the colonizers tends to be cynical. Thus, he tells us in sinister, Foucauldian language that “[s]ubmission to public health programmes allowed for the widespread surveillance and control of subject populations, even their bodies.” And he wonders whether the motive was “purely altruistic” or rather to sustain “the health of the cheap local worker on whom the whole economic case for empire depended?”

The formulation of good public policy does require the collection of data (“surveillance”), and the effectiveness of policies designed to promote public health frequently requires the state’s application of pressure (“control”)—say, to discourage tobacco-smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, or obesity. Libertarians might call this “aggressive paternalism,” as Parker describes the measures taken by Robert Ward Tate, governor of Western Samoa, that delivered “the lowest infant mortality rate in the Pacific,” but others will view it as justified state intervention for the sake of the common good. As for motivation, maybe it involved both the well-being of the native person and the health of the native worker. And surely the latter is better cared for than neglected?

Where Parker is not cynical, he lacks sympathetic imagination. So, he reports that the British were often dismayed at the demoralizing social effects of their humanitarian efforts. Thus, Hubert Murray, governor of Papua, observed that, resulting from Pax Britannica’s suppression of inter-ethnic violence, “the necessity for strenuous action was gone, and the tenor of [the Papuan’s] life is changed for the worse. … the delight, for instance, of head-hunting and the joys of the raid—are lost to him forever.” Reflecting on this undesirable side-effect of a well-intentioned policy, the Swiss anthropologist, Felix Speiser, expressed the quandary: “The only truly just act is for us to withdraw … and let the natives manage their own affairs. As this would involve the destruction of the people [through a resurgence of warfare], the only alternative is for us to stay.” Parker writes of this unkindly as displaying the “‘schizoid’ character” of the trusteeship model of Empire, which was “riddled with contradictions,” aspiring at once to reform and conserve. Yet such a quandary surely faces anyone—be they Edwardian Christian or 21st century Progressive—who believes that humanity and justice require social change.

Change often disturbs. The imperial abolition of savery, human sacrifice, head-hunting, the self-immolation of widows, female infanticide, and female genital mutilation often excited dismay and resentment among native people—although, presumably, more among slave-owners and men than freed slaves and women. For a humanitarian the question is always whether to change, and if so, how much and how fast. Unless we are absolute social conservatives, the imperial quandary is ours, too.

Matthew Parker has written a book full of fascinating and thought-provoking vignettes and characters. And he is honest enough to report facts that tell against his interpretation. But that interpretation is distorted by methodological myopia, a reductionist view of racial attitudes, and a failure of sympathy for colonial officials who, according to a recent head of the Disasters Emergency Committee, typically showed more dedication to their task and had a greater understanding of local peoples than today’s aid-workers.


One Fine Day: Britain’s Empire on the Brink: September 29, 1923
by Matthew Parker
PublicAffairs, 624 pp., $35

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology at the University of Oxford and author of Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (William Collins, 2023, 2024).

About the author

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar

Nigel Biggar, CBE is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, Oxford, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life. His works include What’s Wrong with Rights? (2020), and Between Kin and Cosmopolis: An Ethic of the Nation (2014). His latest book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning will be published by William Collins in 2022.