How are we to use history?

“The Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past. Nobody can let go….The great thing about Southeast Asia is really exactly what you‘re pointing out, that people are able to let go. I remember being in Vietnam and asking people what do you think about the war? And they said, ‘which war?’”(David Pilling in Financial Times Feb 27, 2015).


Pilling’s article on Indian author Amitav Gosh provides insight into how to view the past and present in different parts of the world. For the past, my interest is the impact of the British Empire on today’s world, an enormous topic which requires a lifetime of study, but which even a stab at learning can provide some understanding of our current world.


As for the present, try to comprehend religions in a comparative sense. What does each believe and practice and what happens when followers of different religions come into contact with each other? In India, the country with the world’s second largest Muslim population (Indonesia 209m, India 176m, Pakistan 167m, Bangladesh 133m), the interaction is mainly peaceful, except for a few outstanding past exceptions.


All religions encourage their followers to read certain works, but as far as I know only Muslims require devout followers to memorise large portions, in their case, of the Koran. Given a person’s limited time for study, this can only be done at the expense of reading more widely in other fields of learning. This practice helps explain Amitav Gosh’s view that “the Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past.”


History and the empire; history of the empire

The list of British Empire horror stories is well documented such as the slave trade, opium trade, racial events in South Africa, Kenya and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the Amritsar massacre, the Bengal famine, and the treatment of native peoples in North America and Australasia. But there is another side. What the empire left behind helped to shape countries which have prospered politically, economically, and socially. Not all the countries, but the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand had strong imperial connections and are doing reasonably well, as is India. Former British colonies in Africa have a more mixed record, but are probably doing better than any likely counterfactual set of circumstances might portray. Without the empire, my guess is that people would have often remained living in tribal societies not known for their adherence to today’s recognized human rights. The rise of ISIS/ISIL is in some sense a return to or reappearance of tribal type religious conditions.


History of the empire or parts of it is described in Arnold Smith with Clyde Sanger, Stitches in Time, The Commonwealth in World Politics, (General Publishing, 1981). The Commonwealth (originally the British Commonwealth and now the Commonwealth of Nations, as opposed to the Commonwealth of Independent States made up of former Soviet republics) is the country club for imperial alumni.


Today it includes two countries which were never part of the empire, Madagascar and Rwanda, but which had neighbouring ties to it. It excludes the US which before its rebellious exit was a jewel in the imperial crown. The Commonwealth today consists of 53 states, covering 25% of the world’s land area, with about one-third of the global population and about 17% of world GDP (measured in PPP). The countries are united by a combination of language, history, culture, shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. If the US was added, the share of world GDP would increase to 35%.


There have been five secretary-generals of the Commonwealth since its establishment in 1965. For the first ten years, Arnold Smith, a Canadian, held the position followed by persons from Guyana, Nigeria, New Zealand and presently India.


Stitches in Time is a valuable account of the first ten years. It shows how the empire morphed into the Commonwealth, by breaking, but not entirely severing, the political bond with the UK, while maintaining the ingredients for nation building required for the creation of states with values ascribed to by members of the UN…even if not practised by many of them.

Several of the initial Commonwealth countries had rocky starts as described by Smith and Sanger, including Singapore, Malaya, Kashmir as part of India and Pakistan, Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), Pakistan and Bangladesh, Cyprus, Uganda, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea. The secretariat helped ease these national growing pains. Today it describes its activities as follows:

“Commonwealth organizations are involved in diverse activities, from helping countries with trade negotiations to encouraging women’s leadership, building the small business sector, supporting youth participation at all levels of society and providing experts to write laws.

The Commonwealth Secretariat promotes democracy, rule of law, human rights, good governance and social and economic development. We are a voice for small states and a champion for youth empowerment.

The Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation (CFTC) was set-up in 1971 and is the principal means for the Commonwealth Secretariat to provide technical assistance to Commonwealth countries. Our approach emphasises country ownership by delivering technical assistance on a demand-driven basis.” (from Commonwealth website).


In The Royal Commonwealth Society Journal, Dec 1961, Arnold Smith concludes on a positive note:

 “In my judgment the peoples of the little island of Britain have probably accomplished more for the social and political advancement of mankind than any other people: the development of English as an approximation to a world lingua franca, the development and spread of parliamentary democracy, the industrial revolution. Decolonisation involved some temporary ambivalence of attitude and outlook, but compared with other empires it was accomplished remarkably gracefully. A hundred years from now, I suggest, historians will consider the Commonwealth the greatest of all Britain’s contributions to man’s social and political history.”

I leave it to the historians to debate this.


What Stitches in Time contributes is to show how facets of the British Empire, which, despite starting in Elizabethan times, only flourished for a brief period from around 1800 to 1914, have become embodied in today’s societies and nations in what I would consider to be positive ways.

Today, there are a variety of global indices which could throw light on the impact of Britain’s imperial past. Aside from national economic data such as GDP, employment, and income distribution, various organizations publish a range of data:

Economic Freedom of the World Index (Fraser Institute)

Worldwide Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders)

Freedom in the World (Freedom House)

Freedom of the Press (Freedom House)

Index of Economic Freedom (Wall Street Journal and Heritage Foundation)

CIRI Human Rights Data Project (University of Connecticut)

Democracy Index (Economist Intelligence Unit)

Polity Data Series (Polity Instability Task Force funded by the CIA)


While each index may be promoted by those with some axe to grind, considerable information by country exists for an assessment of the contribution of the British and of other empires past and present.


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