You know what makes counterfactual fiction work? It’s fiction. Counterfactual history is just an exercise bound to end in tears.
So many histories of the British Empire, and with good reason—it was, in its time, quite a big deal. Many histories of the UK focus on the British Isles, on the monarchs and shenanigans happening in the succession. And that’s all very fascinating, but it’s not what Niall Ferguson wants to talk about here. Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is a nearly 400-page analysis of how the spread of Britain’s power, and its subsequent waning after World War II, influenced the development of the rest of the world. Along the way, he looks at the “benefits” and “bad things” about the Empire’s existence and tries to show that even though the British Empire was “on the whole a bad thing,” the world might not look the same (and in fact be a lot worse off) if it had never existed.
If that sounds weird to you, don’t worry; I’m a bit baffled by this myself. It’s a stunning contortion of logic, and the ledger-like way in which Ferguson tallies up these benefits/disadvantages of imperialism belies his attempts at sensitivity and self-awareness. I was encouraged when, in the introduction, he describes how in his youth he was misled into thinking the Empire was awesome—because, of course, when you grow up in that atmosphere, you internalize it. Unfortunately, for all the noise Ferguson tries to make about how terrible it was that the British practised slavery, oppressed India, or in some cases just wholesale destroyed the culture of those they colonized, the sheer awe he has for the way Britain shaped the world is something only a recovering imperialist can really muster.
I mean, yes, he has a point: the British Empire literally did what Rome only figuratively did. It stuck its fingers in every continental pie on Earth, and it was a major player in the previous 400 years of Western history. It is impossible to ignore Britain’s rise as a global power—perhaps the first global superpower—in any analysis of world history. But you don’t have to convince me of that fact, Ferguson—it’s why I’m reading this book in the first place.
Fortunately, editorializing and moralizing aside, Ferguson does get around to presenting his history, and it is pretty fascinating. I learned a lot that I didn’t know—not because it’s hidden or covered elsewhere, but just because there is only so much British history one learns in Canadian schools. (And I’m sure the version taught in British history courses is still far tamer and more whitewashed than what Ferguson presents here.) So while Ferguson touches on stuff I was aware of, like the triangle trade, and the various reasons Britain established colonies in the New World where it did, he also discusses vast swathes and nuanced little points I didn’t previously know. For example, he clears up a lot of misconceptions about the Boston Tea Party (the price of tea had actually gone down, but that was kind of bad, because economics is stupid). I was perhaps most interested in the time he spends on India, since that is an entire part of history I’m largely ignorant about.
And I got to reduce my ignorance while looking at pretty pictures! The edition at my library is an oversized, almost coffee-table–style book with gorgeous black-and-white and colour photographs throughout. Seriously, the production quality on this book is intense; if you want to read it and can get your hands on this edition, do it.
Ferguson wouldn’t be Ferguson if he didn’t talk about money and economics, of course. This history of the Empire is heavily influenced by that economic lens. As with a lot of historians, Ferguson tends to ascribe more to economics than might be the case—an economic historian just sees money and trade flows; a military historian sees battles and conquests; a technology historian sees invention and innovation everywhere. So to some extent, your agreement with Ferguson on some of his analysis will depend on how much economics spurs, or reduces, imperialism, versus other factors. One salient point I had not previously considered, however, was the very idea that the imperialist attitude that had done so well for Britain, economically, eventually became a liability over time. The examples revolving around issues of taxation, duties, and trade with the American colonies, and their subsequent revolution, are a good demonstration of this. The Americans like to talk about how their independence movement was a huge paradigm shift in philosophies of liberty and government—but it was more about the economy, and making money, than anything else.
So Empire does pretty well for the majority of the book. It really shines in the last two chapters, which cover the decline during the two World Wars. Economically, Ferguson focuses on how globalization—accelerated by the wars—affected Britain’s ability to rule its colonies. As I’ve mentioned before, my formal history education kind of sputters out around World War II, so I loved reading about things like the Suez Canal and Britain’s mounting debts to the United States following the wars. Much of the history I’ve read of the wars focuses on the strategies and politics and doesn’t really “follow the money,” so even if I’m not quite as economically obsessed as Ferguson, I liked seeing a different perspective.
The conclusion kind of tarnishes this triumphant finale. Ferguson once again attempts to mumble through some kind of not-pology about how slavery and racism were terrible, but hey, you don’t want the Japanese empire being all worse than the British in India, right? So many paragraphs of head-smacking as Ferguson tries to imagine what the world might be like without the British Empire. That’s the trouble with counterfactual history: you can’t. You can roll back the world clock to a certain year, crunch the numbers, and then make some changes before starting the clock again … but the moment you do that, you leave the realm of academic discourse and enter into fiction. You have to start telling a story, informed not only by your facts but by your biases and your narrative decisions. We can argue all we like about what world without the British Empire would have been like—but I bet we could come up with mutually exclusive, yet equally plausible, outcomes.
Still, Ferguson is writing this in the early 2000s, just after September 11 and just around the time the Coalition forces invade Afghanistan (but just before Iraq). His sardonic likening of Blair’s comments to previous imperialist remarks are spot-on and have largely been borne out by the last 13 years. As he remarks, Britain and the UK have had trouble extracting themselves from the Middle East, and even though they continue to attempt to withdraw their troops, their proxy wars carry on through the regimes they prop up. Imperialism might be dead, but shadow imperialism remains a real force.
Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power is a beautifully constructed book and a fascinating history. Ferguson writes clearly, explaining complicated concepts with ease. Despite my dissatisfaction with the odd way he tries to rationalize parts of the Empire’s existence, he does not sugarcoat the things like slavery, racism, colonialism, and oppression. This book does not champion empire … yet, despite Ferguson’s statement otherwise, I don’t think it quite comes off as condemning it either.
Should you read it? I’m not sure if the non-photo version is worth the time, but I admit I am awfully swayed by how nice my edition was. The wealth of information is not to be dismissed if history is at all an interest of yours. Just be prepared to snort once in a while and, on occasion, deliver a hearty chortle or guffaw.