Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British
This book has all the best qualities of its author’s Newsnight persona. It is wry, clear, tough-minded, intelligent and to the point. Jeremy Paxman has already written a very good book on The English so this imperial foray is in many ways a natural follow on. The book has an excellent and comprehensive bibliography that generously acknowledges its major competitors rather than ignoring them as some recent authors of books on Empire have chosen to do. It has few illustrations, however, and those that do appear are small, skimpy and often unclear, almost as if some penny-pinching was necessary in the costing. The opening double-paged map of the Empire in 1905 is smudged and almost impossible to make out: worse than useless in fact.
The book has two semi-problems. One is that since it is closely linked to the BBC TV series that will be transmitted in 2012 its scope is limited and rather episodic. Of course the British Empire was such a huge and complex institution that even a multi-volume series like the Oxford History struggles to paint a comprehensive picture. Nonetheless, although most important topics are mentioned and most of the major imperial players from Francis Drake to Cecil Rhodes get to strut their stuff, there is not much information on or analysis of the countless, unglamorous lesser Empire-builders: the district commissioners, the Indian Civil Service rank and file, the box-wallahs, the scarlet jacketed regiments of foot, the settlers on the frontier or the women of Empire like Mary Kingsley. Also the chapters have no titles, merely opening with apt quotations, thus making it difficult to see at a glance what the contents might be.
The second semi-problem is the subtitle. ‘What Ruling the World Did to the British’ is full of promise and potential interest. Yet when it comes to it, this wholly legitimate angle is dealt with in a strangely cursory fashion. Paxman claims that Empire consolidated the position of the monarchy. Yet it might equally be asserted that the use of the monarchical figurehead as a potent imperial bond, from Victoria’s 1876 proclamation as Empress of India to Elizabeth II’s Headship of the Commonwealth, consolidated Britain’s hold on the Empire. Since disproportionate numbers of Scots, Welsh and Irish were recruited into various imperial armies of conquest, the author argues that these ‘subjugated’ people ‘were channelled into the British identity’. Then the Empire ‘changed the genetic make-up’ of Britain’s citizens, from the early Chinatowns to the post-1945 mass immigration of West Indians, Indians and Africans. And that’s about it.
Despite this, there is no doubt that Paxman’s well-written and often droll take on the imperial story, idiosyncratic as it often is, will be a useful and certainly entertaining introduction to anyone interested in finding out more about one of the country’s major preoccupations and institutions (not to say source of wealth and prestige) for 350 years.
Denis Judd’s Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present is out now in an updated edition (I.B. Tauris, 2012).p
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