Thomas Wilde comments on Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, a new history of the British Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng, a Conservative MP:
Kwarteng’s book marks a return in popular history writing to a conservative skepticism, shorn of the ideological dimension of neoconservatism. It is, in this way, clearly a product of a post-Iraq world. Kwarteng is explicit about the impact of these interventions on shaping his worldview: “The idea that historians aren’t affected by what goes on around them I think is slightly fanciful. When I was in my late 20s, the big issue was the Iraq War … Lots of people of our generation were informed by it.” But while leftist critics of empire focus on the economic exploitation and injustice of foreign rule, Kwarteng’s critique focuses on human fallibility, uncertainty, and the limits of knowledge and power [bold mine-DL]. Although he claims in his book that “the phenomenon of British rule must be understood in its own terms,” it is thus clearly a book about empire, not just the British one.
Based on what Wilde says about the book and Kwarteng’s own statements, I am very interested to read this book. That isn’t just because Kwarteng is taking an appropriately skeptical and critical view of British imperial history and applying those lessons to present-day foreign policy questions. What makes the book seem most valuable as a work of scholarship is the attempt to strike a balance that avoids the errors of entirely one-sided accounts of the history:
Kwarteng’s targets in writing the book are clear: on the one hand is the school of thought that views empire as wholly bad, characterized by racist and exploitative policies and practices; on the other hand is the revisionist school, best exemplified by Niall Ferguson, which argues for the British Empire as a force for good that spread democracy, liberal values, and free trade throughout the world. For Kwarteng, both positions are flawed. “With this book I was really trying to move away from both of those approaches. I think they’re boring, too polarized, and not nuanced enough. I was trying to look at the thing as I saw it. That might be naive, but I did actually start off with the archives, without many preconceptions.”