Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio 4 had the probably left-wing Simon McBurney, actor writer and director hosted by Kirsty Young who, when discussing his award of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) a few years ago, had debated about whether or not he ought to accept it as he disagreed with the past history and ethos of the former British Empire, but in the end did, ostensibly to honour those who had helped him in his endeavours over the years for which he had been nominated.
There has of course been some debate in recent times about the naming of the various British awards of merit which include the words ‘British Empire’, such as MBE, OBE and CBE, some more anodyne title being suggested to hide the origins of the awards. It is of course accepted that there is no longer a British Empire, although there was clearly one in my lifetime, replaced initially by a British Commonwealth incorporating all the former, now largely independent, members of the Empire and now by a Commonwealth (of nations) dropping the word ‘British’. The Queen is still head of the Commonwealth, but republican moves are being made not to replace her when the time comes.
The British Empire has had a very bad press in recent years, usually by those who no longer fully understand its workings, history or structure. It was of course based principally on trade, which required a strong navy, influence in Europe and as the other European nations spread their own trading empires around the world, conflict with those to ensure security of supply of resources from wherever they originated. However on the back of military control on land and sea, the British also exported to a number of nations a relatively enlightened means of government and in the long-term education, good, fair administration, improved health and law. The only other Empire that spread long-lasting unification and improvements in standards of living including law, relative political stability, communications, trade – including a unified currency and advanced engineering and architecture, was the Roman.
Many modern commentators and left-wing historians criticise the British Empire, perhaps with some little justification in some areas, but I still believe it was far more enlightened an institution than those it replaced, i.e the pre-Revolutionary French, the Portuguese, German, Spanish and Dutch. The majority of these had disastrous effects on their colonies, and were, rather like the Chinese of today, building not a physical empire but one of economic dependence particularly in Africa and the Third World, interested primarily in stripping out the natural resources, particularly mineral wealth, of the countries they occupied and putting the minimum back (except perhaps the French who exported their language and culture as much as possible). Britain at least tried to build stable political and economic structures in those countries she colonised (as well as passing on language and culture!), and on the whole succeeded. One criticism of the Empire is that it was partly built on slavery, which was commonplace around the globe since the rise of mankind and strongly utilised by the empires of classical times as well as the later European colonial powers up until relatively recent times.
The British were indeed no different at first to most of the other colonial nations, particularly exploiting slaves in the plantations in the West Indies to generate wealth, but a strong enlightened anti-slavery movement rose in Britain which led to the British Empire abolishing slavery and attempting to enforce international anti-slavery agreements and physical suppressing the trade wherever it was encountered. So-called enlightened countries such as the USA supported slavery for much longer, only the emancipation of slaves as a result of the American Civil War finally putting an end to it in the mid 1860s.
One of those important exports of the British Empire was highlighted by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC on BBC Radio 4 today (not to be confused with the Today programme), who presented a discussion, part of a series, on the law. Today’s session discussed the use of the English Common Law in the building of free trade and commerce around the world. One of the great endowments that the British Empire made to the world was that of the Common Law, based on case law where the law was not totally prescriptive, as in much of European law, but flexible. It worked on the principle that anything that was not ruled as illegal was permissable. English, or British common law was exported to all members and former members of the British Empire, including the British Colonies in North America, which when they gained independence from the British Crown creating the United States, retained the form of administration and laws wholeheartedly and continued to develop them.
Hanover House B&B (www.hanoverhouse.org) links to the Empire, including the anti-slavery trade, are; Caroline Alice Elgar’s (nee Roberts) family originated in Hull, Yorkshire and were related to the Wilberforces, the most famous of their number being the arch-abolitionist, William; soldiers who fought for the Empire in colonial wars, such as John Shakespear in the Crimea, William Croker managing penal colonies in Australia then campaigning in Afghanistan, India and Aden; and many others who have lived in the house who were colonial administrators or were born and raised in the far reaches of Empire. I lived in Nigeria where my father served as a British officer in the Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) a locally recruited regiment primarily covering Nigeria and Ghana, having previously policed the British Mandate of Palestine trying, unsuccessfully to enable a fair distribution of land between the incomer Jews and native Palestinian Arabs.
The British Empire has passed away, but it has left a rich legacy which cannot be ignored. It is difficult to envisage what the world would have been like today, particularly the major nations of the USA, Australia, Canada, India, Pakistan, South Africa, even Hong Kong, and a number of other African and small states scattered around the world, if it had not existed. I would hazard a guess that it would not necessarily have been as relatively benevolent as it is – local difficulties in India and Pakistan etc discounted. Other countries in which the Empire has dabbled but not dominated have not, perhaps fared so well, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe et altera amongst them - but what happened post-British departure cannot be held against us – or can it?