The Ghosts of Empire Today – Part 1



The British Empire continues to play a major role in world history. The question is how? Richard Toye Churchill’s Empire, The World that Made Him and the World He Made, (Macmillan 2010) places a spotlight on the role Churchill played in the empire’s evolution and decline. Though not written with this purpose, Toye provides a backdrop to events in the world today. In the Middle East, Africa, North America, the Caribbean, and China current affairs have strong empire linkages. Others are found in Europe, parts of Asia and Russia. The Empire in its heyday was involved in many parts of the world which today feature in news headlines.

Churchill lived from 1875 to 1965, the period in which Richard Toye and others have documented his imperial mood swings. For example, Churchill’s reluctance to grant independence to India is well known, although he always knew that at some time it would be one man one vote on this subcontinent. However in East and South Africa, he resisted the idea that Indians would be treated equally with whites at least until independence was declared. Until then, all non-whites were to be second or third class citizens.

This was the situation Gandhi (1869 – 1948) confronted when he arrived in South Africa in 1893, and which he fought unsuccessfully to change. Previously Gandhi had studied law in England. When discussing independence for India in 1931, Churchill made some now famous disparaging remarks –  “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace….”. This is only one of the many examples of Churchill’s interest in the Empire. Only a reading of Richard Toye’s book can do justice to this topic.


Spread of Empire

From Elizabethan times, the British Empire grew geographically to around the early 1900s and then declined, and had almost disappeared by the 1960s in terms of its political influence over parts of the world. But, I would argue, its influence and ties in other respects remain with us. Many of today’s independent countries were previously part of the empire including the so-called white commonwealth of the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many African and Caribbean countries, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Over time, the empire evolved into the British Commonwealth, and then in 1949 British was dropped and it became The Commonwealth, where the two most important events are the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting every two years, and the Commonwealth Games every four years. Presently, it has 53 member states, two of which, Mozambique and Rwanda, were never part of the British Empire. The Queen is the Head of The Commonwealth and monarch of 16 of it’s the member states.

The members today account for about one quarter of the world’s land area, one third of the world’s population, and seventeen percent of world GDP. If the US is included, on the basis that the original 13 colonies were part of the empire, the land area increases from 25% to over 30%, population from 33% to around 38%, and share of world GDP from 17% to 42%. Commonwealth member countries adhere to certain values but are otherwise independent. With these metrics, it is unsurprising that fallout from the British Empire is found in many parts of the world, which feature in today’s news headlines.


Churchill and empire

Churchill was born into and grew up in an atmosphere which exuded empire topics. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849 – 1895) was Secretary of State for India (1885 – 1886) in a Tory administration lead by Gladstone, although he was highly critical of Gladstone’s support for certain British adventures in Africa. Lord Randolph, who may have contracted syphilis, died ten years before his son was appointed Undersecretary of State for the Colonies from late 1905 to April 1908; and Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921-1922.

Winston Churchill’s reputation suffered during WW1 as First Lord of the Admiralty due to the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915. After resigning from the cabinet, he served in the army on the Western Front before returning to England. He was a Conservative MP from 1900-04 and from 1924-64, and a Liberal MP from 1904-24. His life and interests coincided with the Empire which reached its peak around the early 1900s and then rapidly declined to the 1960s, leaving, as noted, the Commonwealth and other influences in its wake. It is these influences and connections which I try to trace in today’s world.


Today’s use of English

As a child of American and British parents, Churchill often spoke of the English-speaking world which included not only most of Commonwealth member countries but the US as well. He argued that WW2 was fought not just by the Britain and its Empire against Germany, Japan and the axis allies, but by the US as an English speaking countries as well. Until the revolution, the thirteen American colonies were part of the British Empire. While there was reluctance and opposition by some in the US to join the allied forces in both the first and second world wars, it entered WW1 in 1917 and WW2 in Dec 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The spread of empire coincided with the spread of the English language. Today’s use of English is described by the British Council,

“English has official or special status in at least seventy-five countries with a total population of over two billion, (about 30% of world population). English is spoken as a native language by around 375 million and as a second language by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.”

What do people use English for? Again the British Council weighs in:

“English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music and advertising. Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. Eighty per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. Of the estimated forty million users of the Internet, some eighty per cent communicate in English, but this is expected to decrease to forty per cent as speakers of other languages get online.”


One benefit of the internet is that it allows groups of people, such as speakers of minority languages, to create communities worldwide and speak to each other. To some extent, this will decrease the importance of major language groups, but when minority languages wish to interact with each other, English will likely remain the preferred language – much to the annoyance of the French and probably the Chinese. Watching television today, it is remarkable how well foreign leaders, especially those from non-English speaking countries, can communicate in English. I can now carry on my freeloading behavior with greater ease as a non-linguist.


Institutions and Democracy

As important as language are the institutions which developed over centuries in England, and which have spread as various forms of democracy with elected institutions and courts. The actual examples do not always reflect the standards which are expected from a civilized society. China, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe and other repressive regimes claim that they are democratic by holding elections for legislative institutions, and by operating courts and judicial systems. But the process is flawed. In many generally admired countries, elections and legislatures also have flaws such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts in the US so that incumbent representatives are seldom defeated; elected members in the British House of Commons for Scotland who can vote on matters that affect only England and Wales, while the reverse is not the case; and in Canada where an appointed senate has input into the passage of legislation. Examples such as these are legion, but as long as free elections are held regularly, democracy works reasonably well.

While no country is perfect, and it took England nearly a thousand years to develop a respectable democratic model, the influence which the UK has had throughout the world as a model for other countries is a remarkable achievement, and to the Empire must go some of the kudos. One obvious example is the creation of the US after the 1765-83 revolution. The founding fathers established a country with institutions based on the British model, but included features which were seen to address the deficiencies of how it worked. With its checks and balances, the US constitution created three elected branches of government in contrast with two in the mother country. An elected President replaced a hereditary monarch as head of state.

That was then, this is now. While democracy in its benign form is still the goal of civilized society, it has, in many formerly admired countries begun to decay. That is the opinion of Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014). But I would still argue that what Churchill and others admired and promoted is found most often in places at one time associated with the British Empire.

When Churchill talked of the role of “the English-speaking people” in world events and especially during both World Wars, the phrase was code for “empire,” or those parts of the world which had once been part of it. These were the countries which would stand up against the tyrannies of fascism, communism and nationalism prevailing at different times in places such as Germany, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. While all these countries traded with and were sometimes allied to the Empire, none are considered part of the “English speaking world.”

While there are almost 200 so-called independent countries today compared with far fewer (around 50) at the end of WW2, indices show how democratic they are now. Many had earlier links to the British Empire. The obvious cases are The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and countries of East Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. South America had commercial (trade and investment) ties with the UK, which made some of these countries part of a shadow or informal empire.

The Global Democracy website ( ranks countries by the quality of their democracy. Ranked “very high” are the US, Canada, the UK, most of Western Europe from the Scandinavian countries to Spain, Australia and New Zealand. India, parts of Southeast Asia and South Africa are ranked as “medium.” Most other parts of Africa are marked “not available, and some parts “low.”

In many parts of the world, there is a good news story for the Empire, based on these rankings, with the not-so-good news being in Africa where the British and other European empires were involved, and the results have been less than encouraging. The reasons are many and some argue the empire is one of them.

Personally, I think that the British influence was pretty positive in many instances, and I am quite familiar with the horror stories which are listed by critics. In contrast with Belgium and Portugal, the British were saints. France, Germany, Italy and Russia are other countries with colonies, and are situations where the record is decidedly mixed.

In a second part to this posting, I will attempt to link the empire to events today in different parts of the world.


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