Archive for the ‘British Empire’ Category

Tribal Politics

June 29, 2018

The MSNBC news show Morning Joe is a vehement critic of the Trump administration, often to the point that it fails to recognize when something positive occurs, such as the meetings with North Korea. The show’s focus on people more than policies has coincided with polls showing a strengthening of Republican support for the President which is now in the mid 40% range, and much higher amongst registered Republican voters This seems remarkable at a time when the child separation from parents at the border issue dominates the headlines. It is a warning to Democrats, who have produced few leadership candidates to-date and need to make a strong showing in the 2018 midterm elections. It is also possible that the strong Republican support for Trump is due in part to the decline in people declaring themselves Republican, and thus the remaining hardcore results in a high percentage figure.

To return to Amy Chua’s thesis about problems created by societies being segregated into tribes (see previous posting). She makes an interesting observation that the British Empire consisted of a multitude of countries each one made up of often warring tribes.

“In India, some forty thousand British Officers and soldiers governed approximately 200 million Indians for nearly two hundred years. By contrast, America could not hold Vietnam for ten years, couldn’t stabilize Afghanistan for five, and couldn’t unify Iraq for even one.” (16)

There are many differences between the British and American situations then and now, and the British had their failures especially three times in Afghanistan, a country which no power (British, Russian or American) seems able to govern. But the concept of any society consisting of tribes or interest groups is a useful one in today’s world, where communications technology allows individuals to form tribes to pursue narrow interests. One example is the formation of tribes by sexual proclivities, from male and female “Facebook lists more than 50 gender designations…..Originally LGB, variants over the years have ranged from GLBT to LGBTI to LGBTQQIAAP as preferred terminology shifted and identity groups quarreled who should be included and who should come first.” (184).

Tribal politics has arisen in Europe with the distinction made between citizens and the influx of undocumented foreigners (not unlike the US). Germany, France, Italy, Hungary and Spain have seen the rise of populist parties and leaders. And the Brexit vote was due in part to pressures to limit the inflow of foreigners in the face of EU policies.

North America’s geographical circumstance, bordered by the Arctic, Atlantic and Pacific oceans discourages easy migration, but where the land border exists with Mexico problems abound. Canada is fortunate in a geographical sense but similar pressures of increasing tribalism could emerge here. The seeds already exist in part with French/English, east/ west, urban/rural, male/female, religious groupings, and others. These could germinate into something unsettling.


Dunkirk – a miracle? Perhaps but “wars are not won by evacuations.”  

September 30, 2017

The escape of British and allied forces from Dunkirk is labelled by some as a miracle. If the Germans had captured the more than 400,000 rescued troops and then invaded England and forced an armistice, the global landscape (and my life) would have been very different.

German plans for the occupation of England and then the other parts of Great Britain included the following, described in detail in William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon and Schuster (1990) 782-785:

  1. Males between the ages of 17 and 45 inclusive would be interned and dispatched to the Continent.
  2. All those opposing German occupation would be liable to immediate execution.
  3. Immediate execution would also befall those who failed to turn in firearms or radio sets within 24 hours.
  4. The German forces would be organized from a headquarters in London with centres in Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh, or Glasgow if the Forth Bridge was blown up.
  5. Individual Germans were named to undertake management of the occupation.

These plans were more detailed and repressive than in many other parts of Europe occupied by the Germans. Among Himmler’s papers was found a list of individuals who would be incarcerated. Aside from the obvious political leaders were authors including Virginia Wolf, E.M. Forster, Aldous Huxley, J.B.Priestley, Stephen Spender, C.P.Snow, Noel Coward, Rebecca West, Bertrand Russell, Harold Laski, Beatrice Webb and J.B.S.Haldane.  

Dunkirk was followed by Hitler planning for the invasion of England by weighing the relative strengths of the opposing armies, navies and air forces. He judged that while his army was better trained and equipped, England had the stronger navy, and while Goering boasted that the Luftwaffe would wipe out the RAF, this turned out not to be the case, as became apparent during the Battle of Britain which commenced in earnest in September 1940.

German and British air raids began in the summer of 1940 with the German raids increasing in ferocity in September. London received 57 consecutive nights of bombing from September 7th to November 3rd 1940. Because invasion would require the cross-channel transport of personnel and equipment, Hitler became convinced that it was a risky proposition. At the same time, he was anxious to open up a front in the East, where he could gain land by invading the Soviet Union and fulfill his dreams of a German empire to match the extent of the British Empire and the US.

While Dunkirk marked a turning point in the war, the miracle was hardly a victory. Churchill noted in Parliament on June 4th, 1940 that “wars are not won by evacuations.”

Clump minus 10 – Déjà vu all over again

October 28, 2016

Some Republican voters are threatening violence in the event that their candidate loses on Nov 8th. Similar responses have been heard before in recent years in different parts of the world leading to unpleasant outcomes.

How do nasty people come to power? Usually it is because they have either legitimate or some degree of public support. And that seems to be the situation in the US where the Republican candidate for the presidency has the undivided support of thirty to forty percent of the electorate. What he would do with that support, if elected, is of concern to Canadians, and if he is not elected they should still be concerned since that support remains. A review of the fairly recent past is instructive of what might happen.

Consider some of the leading nasties of my lifetime. Mussolini (1883-1945) and Hitler (1889-1945) were voted into office and then destroyed the institutions and procedures which had given them power. Franco (1892-1975) gained power through a military coup, and then exercised dictatorial powers with the help of the Catholic Church, and his Italian and German allies amongst others. Stalin (1878-1953) and Mao Zedong (1893-1976) seized power after civil wars and never let go. Italy, Germany and Spain over time evolved into functioning democracies, while Russia and China remain totalitarian states.

Where are the good guys? Churchill (1874-1965) affirmed that some form of parliamentary democracy was the least-worst of known political systems. It provided a political beacon to numerous countries, both within and outside the former British Empire, and is practiced there today. When the time came, he was voted out of office.

In the US in recent years, both Roosevelt (1882-1945) and Eisenhower (1890-1969) provided democratically sanctioned political leadership. Roosevelt died in office, while Eisenhower left after completing two terms as President.

Two other politicians of note (and there are many others) are Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948) and Nelson Mandela (1918-2013). Both had unusual paths to power, but left behind functioning democracies, although with various blemishes.

Freedom House rates countries and populations on their freedom in several dimensions. The long run trend is for greater freedom globally, but in the last ten years 105 countries have experienced a net decline in freedom while 61 have seen a net increase (Freedom House website).

The political scene in the US after the election will not be a pretty one whoever wins. All countries will be affected in the aftermath.

Rule or Cruel Britannia

October 5, 2016

Tears of the Rajahs (Simon and Schuster, 2015) by Ferdinand Mount, describes how the British East India Company dealt with the local populations on the Indian subcontinent from around 1600. It was often not a pretty picture and provides more ammunition to British Empire bashers.

I am aware of the list of documented atrocities and Mount helps to confirm them. But there is another side to the story, at least regarding the state of India and the countries which were once part of the Empire. Like most major happenings, there is a good and bad news story to recount. This one links to what is discussed under the rubric of globalization and suggests a good news outcome.

There are several stages and meanings to the idea and process of globalization. A world map for 1905 (I have one on my wall) shows countries of the British Empire coloured red. They include the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, parts of Africa, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar), and numerous places like Malaysia, Singapore and a series of rocks and islands. Until 1776, the thirteen American colonies would also have had a reddish hue, and in many ways still do.

From around 1600, and from a geographic viewpoint, the process of globalization lead to Britain becoming the world’s main superpower. On the way it had to compete with Holland, Spain and France in North and South America, in Africa and in parts of Asia. Naval superiority aided by piracy helped to establish British footprints around the world.

Soon after 1905, the British Empire started to decline, and within fifty years of the end of WW1 it was over in a political, economic and military sense, but not, I would suggest, in a cultural and political sense. Its political institutions had become established in North America, Australia, New Zealand, the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere. No formal empire existed, but in its place the British Commonwealth, now the Commonwealth, was formed, reinforcing British views on many issues. English has become established as the common language for international interactions. Even the EU is reported to be considering retaining English as its working language after Brexit.

Another stage of globalization began after 1945, when the US became the main superpower challenged only by the Soviet Union and its satellites. By 1990, the Soviet Union had dissolved and Russian influence diminished globally and especially in central and eastern Europe. Meanwhile China was on the rise following the death of Mao and the reign of Li Peng. While China has become a global economic player, its neighbor Japan has receded somewhat from the global economic scene.

The foregoing is a ridiculously brief summary of how globalization has evolved geographically and politically over the past 120 years, but it does suggest quite a change over a reasonably short period of time. Few if any forecast these changes five years before they occurred. The same is true today and those who make even short term forecasts, say 2-3 years, are usually wrong.

Another dimension of globalization is more economic and technology related. Steam engines, railroads, cars and planes were technological changes stemming from the 19th century. The past several decades have seen the spread of computer-communications technology affecting different areas of economic, political and social activity. Enormous changes have taken place in numerous areas of our lives. These have been rapid and difficult to predict, but entrepreneurs are active around the world, as are criminals who have created a whole field of cyber-security.

In sum, the globalization initiated by the British Empire, although faded in some ways, is still very much present associated with the spread of democracy, certain human values, the English language and many types of sporting activity. How it got there was not always a pretty picture, but in the long run the results have not been too bad. Large parts of the world today still have a reddish hue. Rule rather than cruel Britannia is probably a better summary of many aspects of globalization today.

How to view today’s refugee crisis

September 20, 2015


  1. There are seven billion people in the world compared with less than two billion in 1900. Some are much better off economically and in other ways than others. The less well off try to improve their circumstances, either where they now live or by moving to better (wealthier) countries.
  2. The world is divided into countries which are artificial entities administered by governments which have established rules for who may reside in a country. They try to get other countries to agree to these rules. Most of them do, but there arise problems of enforcing the rules which deal with things like approved migrants, temporary foreign workers, tourists and refugees.
  3. Enforcement is weakened by a combination of greater information about conditions in different parts of the world (reduced communication costs), reduced travel costs, and the willingness of people to take personal risks which may result in death.
  4. The concept of a sovereign country that can enforce rules about the crossborder movement of persons is being seriously undermined, and may lead to governments attempting to control their borders by force.
  5. The conditions surrounding the present (2015) flow of refugees is sufficiently different from similar past flows that it requires new thinking. Previous empires, Roman, Ottoman and Communist for example, contained the seeds of their own destruction, so capitalism and democracy, as practiced in different parts of the world, may have similar seeds germinating.
  6. One more specific comment on today’s situation in the Middle East. Many point to the causes of unrest as arising from the Sykes-Picot agreement about the establishment of boundaries at the end of WW1 re Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Transjordan. Underlying this agreement was the demise of the Ottoman Empire which had lasted for around 600 years. An excellent BBC documentary (available on the Internet) examines the Ottoman Empire and is worth viewing). Past history and modern conditions appear to me to be causes of the present flows of refugees.


Do Empires make a Difference?

April 5, 2015

The Ottoman and British Empires
Two decades before I was born, the Ottoman Empire ended and evolved into a group of new countries superimposed on old real estate. About the same time (1918-1960s) the British Empire also wound down. These large entities, both of which had had centuries of global political and economic influence, came to an end. They were followed by two superpowers or kind of empires, the U.S. and the USSR which exist today (the latter as Russia), both with waning influence, more so in the case of the USSR, and both engaged in international conflicts.

Fast forward to 2015. How are the influences of these two empires reflected in today’s geographical areas and issues of conflict? Empires make a difference, but often in unpredictable ways. Is it the case, that the toxic situations which now exist in the Middle East, North Africa, Greece, the former Yugoslavia and the Ukraine for example, can be linked to events surrounding both but especially the Ottoman Empire?

My schooling was deficient (probably in many ways). It exposed me to the history of the Roman and British empires, but with little attention paid to the Ottoman Empire. Understanding the rise and fall of the Ottomans may be a crucial factor in appreciating what is happening today. Those interested can view a three part BBC television series (available on the web) which provides an excellent summary of the rise and demise of the Ottomans.

Similarities and differences

  1. The genesis of the Ottoman Empire was a town in Turkey, whence it expanded to rule parts of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. A map shows the furthest scope of the Ottomans with its boundaries of influence waxing and waning over six centuries from the 1300s. See: (other maps on the web provide similar information.)


  1. Today’s Arab Spring and recent conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and southern parts of what was the USSR such as the Ukraine and the Crimea, coincide with areas once controlled by the Ottomans. Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a risky form of argument, but it may be worthwhile seeing whether the circumstances of the Ottomans help explain today’s conflicts.


  1. Another major player to consider at least for part of this period is the role of the British Empire. As a maritime empire with its lands spread around the world, the British, English at first, had a variety of preoccupations. North America evolved as a colony of settlement, at first with people mainly from what became the UK, and then from other European countries and later those from Asia and Latin America. Australia and New Zealand were also settlement colonies, unlike the Indian subcontinent where the British went mainly for reasons of trade in competition with other European countries, especially Portugal, France and the Netherlands in the East Indies. Maritime power and control over trade routes were crucial to Britain’s imperial development. In India, England interacted with an ancient civilization.


 “In the beginning there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an undeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses. The first nation was India. The second was England. (Indian Summer, Alex Von Tunzelmann, 11).”


  1. Places like the West Indies, Gibraltar, Malta, Hong Kong and the Falkland Islands were colonised for reasons of either control over trade routes or for trade itself. British actions involving the Suez Canal were also trade related. While the Ottomans were not uninterested in trade, part of their motivation was to expand political control over neighbouring lands, and to tax the subject peoples


  1. The religious dimension was different for the two empires. While Christian missionaries were active in parts of the empire such as Africa, in India the British rulers were content to let the local religions (muslim, hindu, sikh) operate with minor interference to prevent practices like suttee (widow burning), which was outlawed by the British Raj in 1829. Trade predominated in British territorities, and different religions could pursue their traditional customs if they didn’t interfere with trade.


  1. The religious dimension of the Ottoman Empire was different. The lands they ruled embraced Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious sects, and the holy places of worship in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. The Hagia Sofia, originally a Christian place of worship for the Greek Orthodox Church from 537 to 1483, converted to an Imperial Mosque until 1931 when it became a museum. The Ottomans appeared adept at ruling peoples of different religious faith. They extended their reach to neighbouring lands, but had little interest in developments taking place further afield, such as across the Atlantic. They appear to have imploded but for reasons other than religion. I am not sure why, but while the British Empire was continually revitalising itself, until it finally became overextended at least financially, the Ottomans were more inward looking and were gradually pushed back, especially after their defeat by the Austrians at Vienna in 1683.


    The two empires cooperated and competed at various times after 1800. The Crimean War (1853 – 1856) pitted Russia against an alliance of France, Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Competing religious factions saw the Russians promoting the interests of orthodox Christians and the French the rights of Catholics in lands controlled by the Ottomans. The British and French also allied to prevent the Russians gaining territory and power at the expense of the Ottomans who were declared “the sick man of Europe.” In particular, the British wanted to prevent Russia getting access to the Mediterranean which could threaten its trade route to the east. The Suez Canal opened in 1869, but the Mediterranean was seen as part of the trade route before this. Three Afghan wars were also fought by the British in order to prevent southward expansion by Russia, a country short of warm water coastal ports.


    The British and Ottoman empires came into direct military conflict when Turkey allied with Germany against Great Britain during WW1. Churchill promoted the action which led to the British defeat at Gallipoli in 1915, but overall defeat of the axis powers resulted in the final dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in the peace negotiations after 1918. Gallipoli also saw the rise of Ataturk as the Turkish ruler who would create a modern Islamic state where Christians and Muslims coexisted, although not always peacefully. Today Turkey has a leader who is leading more towards Muslim side of the coin.


  1. Today, the footprint of the British Empire is found in the Commonwealth, an association of 53 countries, two of which Madagascar and Rwanda were never part of the Empire. The member countries account for 25% of the world’s land area, about one-third of the world’s population and 17% of world GDP. If the US is added, the share of world GDP climbs to 35%. Before its rebellious exit, the US was the jewel in the imperial crown. The Commonwealth countries are united by a combination of language, history, culture, shared values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law.


  1. A similar report card for the Ottoman Empire would be viewed less favourably in most parts of the world. The most obvious difference is that today, racial and religious violence is taking place in many of the places which were once ruled by the Ottomans. Even if there is not global acceptance of universal human rights, which are seen by some to be western-oriented rights, there is universal horror of the torture, beheadings and genocidal tendencies taking place in parts of the world. Most of these places were once part of the Ottoman Empire. Maybe it’s a coincidence and I repeat, post hoc ergo propter hoc is a tricky path to follow,but its worth thinking about. It coincides with David Pilling’s conclusion (Financial Times Feb. 27, 2015) that “The Middle East is completely imprisoned in the past. Nobody can let go.”


Lee Kwan Yew and post colonial nations

March 26, 2015

“Lee (Kwan Yew) would surely regret not having survived just a few more months to witness Singapore’s 50th anniversary celebrations this August. But he can rest in peace knowing that the country he led from 1959 to 1990 is the world’s most successful post-colonial nation. Gulf monarchies are laden with bling but vulnerable to wars, coups, and falling oil prices. Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together. Meanwhile, Singapore has grown from having a per capita GDP of $516 in 1965 to about $55,000 today.” (Foreign Policy, March 22, 2015)


In many ways Singapore is a gem, but rating it in contrast to countries like China, India and the US is an apples and grapes situation. There are just too many differences (Singapore 4.6 mil v. China 1.4 bn population) to make comparisons interesting except in a few ways. Singapore is politically stable, if not wholly democratic, efficiently managed, has experienced continuous economic growth, is safe and willing to try policies such as road pricing, and prepared to drop whatever does not work. Its civil servants and politicians are well paid and severely punished if they engage in corruption. The statement that it is “….the world’s most successful post-colonial nation…,” and that “Africa needs another half-century to heal its colonial scars. India is only beginning to get its act together,” which caught my attention.

Much is written about the impact of the British and other European Empires, and it will always be possible to provide both glowing as well as highly critical assessments. Mine takes countries in today’s world and looks at some of them in the light of their former imperial connections. To what extent can the good and naughty parts be assigned to previous colonizations? How are these countries working today?

  1. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all rank highly in various political, economic and social country league tables. There is plenty to criticize in each but they rank way above countries which are obvious dictatorships like Russia, China, North Korea and those in the Middle East. Areas of today’s Middle East, such as Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq were parts of the Ottoman, British and French Empires, but it was the Ottomans who had the longest sway over these areas until 1918.


  1. The Indian subcontinent with today’s India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and merging into Malaysia, Singapore and Borneo have all been part of the of the British Empire and now Commonwealth; all have experienced economic and political progress with improved human rights, some obviously more so than others. Each has had to combine different racial and religious groups.


  1. Africa is a more difficult region to assess. It is a land area with enormous physical differences from the northern Mediterranean coast to the desert region to the south, and then to South Africa. Dutch, British, French, Portuguese, Belgian, Spanish, German and briefly Italian colonization took place. Only in a few of these areas such as South Africa and parts of East Africa, did political and economic progress occur. Bechuanaland and Mauritius are often held up as examples of successful development but these have relatively small populations, 1.8 mil and 1.4 mil respectively – the Singapores of Africa.


  1. Those who travel from East to South Africa today tell of the poverty in urban and rural areas, and mainly subsistence farming which is labour intensive with little mechanization. In many places, especially in rural areas, nothing much seems to have improved in centuries, either where there has or has not been an imperial presence. My overall impression is that, while not much improved with colonization, without it these regions would be living in the tribal type circumstances which prevailed before the colonists arrived. These people would not be living where a contemporary version of the universal human rights is recognized as it is in many parts of the world. Foreign aid has attempted to promote development but it may be that it is a deterrent and countries should devise their own path to development.


  1. There are other parts of the world which were touched by the British Empire, such as the Caribbean and parts of South America with investment and trade. The empire also traded with China (opium), Japan, and Russia amongst others. And western Europe was drawn into economic relationships as well as wars involving the British Empire. While the outcome reveals a mixed record which does not lend itself to accurate measurement as there is no agrred upon metric, it is probably a better one than would have existed without the British presence.

The History of England by Peter Ackroyd, that is excluding Scotland, Wales and Ireland which later combined with England to become the United Kingdom, concludes that England was itself a colonized country with invasions mainly from folk in Scandinavia and north-west Europe. These were assimilated with those who were native to England to morph eventually into England and later the United Kingdom. Whatever the ingredients were which allowed this small piece of real estate to create such an empire was itself the product of colonizers. Maybe geography had something to do with it. Centuries earlier England was joined to the French mainland, and the 26 mile stretch of water between England and western Europe did not exist. If it had, perhaps the history and geography of western Europe would have been different and Britain’s empire never existed.

How are we to use history?

March 4, 2015

“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.

Empires and Caliphates – anything new here?

February 27, 2015
It is a struggle to sort out who dislikes whom in the Middle East what with Al Quada, ISIS/ISIL, Sunni and Shia Muslims and warring factions within each group. It appears to be both a series of civil wars going on within the Muslim community and a wider conflict which at times carries to the outside world, to other religions and to other places. Its aim is to spread the faith, or a version of it, globally, and thereby change people’s way of life, and destroy the faith of others.
An informative article by Audrey Kurth Cronin, “ISIS Is Not a terrorist Group,” appears in Foreign Affairs, March/April, 2015. A principal argument is,
But ISIS is not al Qaeda. It is not an outgrowth or a part of the older radical Islamist organization, nor does it represent the next phase in its evolution. Although al Qaeda remains dangerous—especially its affiliates in North Africa and Yemen—ISIS is its successor. ISIS represents the post–al Qaeda jihadist threat.
While Al Qada is described as a terrorist organization, ISIS is a pseudo state. It has an estimated 30,000 fighters (of varying quality), currently controls territory in Iraq and Syria, has military capabilities which allows it to engage in sophisticated military operations, funds itself through sale of oil, hostage taking, black market dealings, revenues from supporters abroad and other means. It aims to establish a caliphate with its own version of the Muslim faith.
What is a Caliphate?
There is much more to learn from Cronin’s article. Here, I explore the idea of a caliphate and how it relates to the region’s history. According to Wikipedia, a caliphate is a type of Islamic government which can have a Sunni and Shia version.
”… led by a caliph or leader as a successor to the prophet Muhammad The  Sunni branch of Islam stipulates that, as a head of state, a Caliph should be elected by Muslims or their representatives. Followers of Shia islam, however, believe a Caliph should be an Imam chosen by God from the Ahl al-Bayt (the “Family of the House”, Muhammad’s direct descendants). In 2014, the extremist group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant declared itself a Caliphate; …its authority remains unrecognised by any country.”
A caliphate is a form of empire with religious overtones. ISIS/ISIL operates in a region which was once part of the Ottoman Empire. It covered a geographical area of today’s Middle East, extending westwards into parts of Europe, including some of Northern Africa and eastwards towards the Indian subcontinent. An illustration of this is contained in from 1300AD to 2001Ad (type in Ottoman Empire in the search box).
This website shows over time the geographical spread and shrinkage of the Ottoman Empire until its demise at the end of WW1 leaving Turkey as a separate country. At its height it covered not only a large land area but a population of different religions which often engaged in civil wars as well as fighting against each other. The crusades pitted Muslims against Christians; protestant and catholic Christians often opposed each other as did Shia and Sunni Muslims. The present is a continuation of the past over much of the same territory.
Today’s narrative tends to take its starting point as the postcolonial borders of countries which emerged from arrangements drawn up after 1918 by mainly the French and British under the eye of the League of Nations. They delineated countries like Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and later on Israel and Jordan emerged as separate countries. But the story and conflicts did not start then. They are mainly a continuation of what happened in previous centuries including the crusades from the eleventh century which involved Christians, Jews and Muslims fighting themselves and each other. Religion is often a bloody sport. The latest proposal for a new Muslim Caliphate provides a footnote (at present) to this historical record.
What’s different today?
Each generation, encouraged by academics, thinks that what they are experiencing is new, but this is seldom the case, or only new in particular dimensions. Geographically, land and sea areas remain the same over centuries. One difference is that demographically there are far more people in the world and Middle East today than there were in the past. Up to 1900, the world population had remained for centuries at around one billion. It is now seven plus billion and expected to climb to over nine billion. That is change worth noting especially when you consider its location, religion, economic and social wellbeing. For example, in 1900, a world population of 1.6 bn was located 60% in Asia in contrast to 2000 with a world population of 6bn and 54% in Asia, that is almost twice the world population 100 years earlier.
Today over half the world’s population is in a smallish area of the world including China, the Indian subcontinent, Indonesia the countries of south-east Asia. A map of the globe shows how geographically concentrated half of the world population is, and how spread out is the remainder. Today, China and India each has a total population only slightly smaller than the global population in 1900.
The other area to recognize as being new is technological change. Summed up in terms like globalization, this change includes the impact of transportation and communications both of which have experienced declining costs of moving people, goods and services. The use of social media, foreign outsourcing of production, employment of temporary foreign workers, and the “uber” sharing method of producing goods and services have all changed the location of production domestically and globally, and made more efficient use of existing resources. At the same time it has changed the demand for different types of skills and altered the career patterns for individuals.
What has this got to do with the Middle East cauldron of violence? At the moment (Feb 2015) the violence is conducted as guerilla warfare or terrorism. This is a far cry from WW1 trench warfare, WW2 trench, air and naval warfare with recognizable troops who wore uniforms, and when captured received some protection from the Geneva Convention rules of warfare. These conflicts saw guerilla tactics used, but generally opponents would give prisoners reasonable care. There were exceptions. Japanese treatment of prisoners was often similar to those meted out today by ISIS/ISIL.
Today ISIS/ISIL engage in unconventional warfare using whatever weapons they can buy or capture from their opponents. They execute their prisoners in a brutal fashion, unless they can sell them back to their native countries or trade them on a black market. ISIS/ISIL fighters can be called guerillas, terrorists, criminals, the label does not matter. It’s what they do that matters as are their actions reported daily in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and now parts of Africa including Egypt, Libya and Nigeria.
The violence taking place in the Middle East and in countries with connections to the Middle East, for example in Europe, North America and Australia is not new in general terms. Religious conflicts fill the pages of history books. What has some newer aspects are the means by which the conflict is conducted, and that is because of technological developments. Some people remain as evil as their predecessors, but they are now able to perform their acts in different ways. Whether they are called terrorists or criminals is immaterial. Their actions are horrific including to most of those who profess the same religion. This too has happened before, for example, when Germans of the Christian faith supported the murderous actions of Hitler. At the moment, prospects for the success of a new Caliphate may seem remote but this does not mean there will no more violence in and outside the Middle East……and responsibility cannot just be assigned to post-colonialism.


The End of Pax Americana; what will follow?

February 6, 2015

A review of Clyde Sanger, Malcolm MacDonald, Bringing an End to Empire, McGill-Queen’s Press, 1995.

A chance reading of Malay and Thai history brought me to this biography of Malcolm MacDonald (1901-1981), son of British Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald. Malcolm’s career as MP, cabinet minister and diplomat covered not only the winding down of the British Empire but influenced many of the measures taken in SE Asia, the Middle East, especially Palestine (Israel and Jordan), parts of Africa, Canada and Ireland. This makes him one of the most knowledgeable participants in the end of empire. Clyde Sanger has done a remarkable and informative job of documenting MacDonald’s professional and personal life. The two are intertwined as is often the case.

This biography, as well as any other I have read (a few it must be admitted) allows the reader to appreciate how the empire ended, and whether it did or what replaced it. The book gives the reader a glimpse of the empire during this period, what caused the changes and what emerged in its place, which is what we live with today.

A  global tour shows developments in several colonies and dominions. The Middle East is one of the most interesting where MacDonald negotiated the conditions in Palestine which is now Israel, Palestine and the neighbouring countries.  As Colonial Secretary MacDonald wrote (from Constant Surprise, pp. 161,165, of Macdonald’s unpublished biography) :

“By the summer of 1938 the situation in Palestine was appalling. The quarrel between the Arabs and the Jews there had reached a vicious stage; and the problem was made more complex by the fact that the former were supported by all the nearby independent Arab nations and the latter were supported by the influential Jewish communities and their powerful friends in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere…”

Eighty years later, has anything changed? One thing is that there are many more people living in this area.

Malcolm MacDonald was British High Commissioner to Canada 1941-46, liaised closely with Prime Minister Mackenzie King, whom he had known since before the war, as well as with some of Canada’s distinguished diplomats and senior civil servants. At that time, domestic and foreign policy was conducted on a more personal basis, and MacDonald’s relationship with British politicians and officials from his earlier times allowed him to influence Canada’s domestic and foreign policy, and to alert British politicians to the likely reaction of Canada to measures flowing from London.

Malcolm MacDonald was a part of the ending of Pax Britannica which lasted from the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 to 1914. It was followed with a 31 year gap by the Pax Americana in 1945, which now appears to be weakening. In the former period, Britain was seen to be the dominant world power, while in the latter it has been the US. When the ending comes, it happens quickly. In earlier times, there was a Pax Romana which too ended.

Today, the signs are writings dealing with America in decline (a number of recent books have decline in the title). America in Retreat by Bret Stephens is a thorough discussion of weaknesses displayed by the current US administration, and argues that the US should be more assertive with regards to the Middle East, the Ukraine, China, Europe and Africa. Elsewhere, the retiring Economist editor (Jan.31, 2015) paints a depressing picture of the US, “…Washington remains synonomous with gridlock.”  And “The only way to feel good about American democracy is to set it beside Brussels. Woefully unaccountable and ineffective……”

Jon Stewart in the Daily Show provides a comedic take on US issues which are of serious concern to domestic and world politics. It has become an important way of presenting and influencing political issues. A related sign of global change is the weakening of the Washington consensus which proclaimed that democracy and capitalism would liberate the world. Francis Fukuyama, a proponent of this after 1989 is revising his views in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay, where a reviewer summarises Fukuyama’s views that “…. unless liberal democracies can somehow manage to reform themselves and combat institutional decay, history will end not with a bang but with a resounding whimper.”