Kwasi Kwarteng, Niall Ferguson, and the Ghosts of Empire

20 09 2011

Kwasi Kwarteng (born 1975) is a historian and British Conservative MP.  His career includes work as a financial analyst for a hedge fund, getting a PhD in history, and standing as a parliamentary candidate. Very impressive.  You can read Linda Colley’s review of his most recent book, Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World , here. You can watch Kwarteng talk about his book below.

In Ghosts of Empire, Kwarteng challenges the neo-conservative view that the British Empire. Historian Niall Ferguson rose to prominence in the noughties by making a robust defence of British and American imperialism. Indeed,  he called on the United States to behave even more like the old British Empire and occupy Iraq on a permanent basis. According to Ferguson, the British Empire helped to spread capitalism and liberal values throughout the whole world and was, therefore, a Very Good Thing. More than any other single individual Ferguson has contributed to the rehabilitation of the British Empire’s reputation in recent years, an intellectual project that helped to legitimate present-day Anglo-American imperialism.

In sharp contrast, Kwarteng’s interpretation of the imperial past is far more nuanced and much more negative: he shows that the British left many toxic legacies in different corners of the world. Although less stridently anti-imperial than some of the books published by historians on the left of the political spectrum, it is utterly different from Ferguson’s neo-conservative view.

Here is the really interesting thing. Kwarteng’s political sympathies are very much with the free-market right of the British Conservative Party. Among other things, he has advocated putting tolls on every road in the UK on the grounds that free roads are the “last vestige of socialism.” He appears to share much of Ferguson’s free-market philosophy. Yet his attitude to Empire is radically different.

We are witnessing the start of an interesting debate within the political right on the lessons to be derived from the history of imperialism.

I suspect that most academic historians will be more sympathetic to Kwarteng’s interpretation that than of Ferguson, since it is more nuanced, more grounded in the primary sources, and more consistent with the historiographic mainstream. One wonders whether his ideas will be as influential with the general public as those of Ferguson.



One response

11 02 2012
DAVID E OWEN Louisville Ky USA

Kwasi Kwarteng holds the British Imperialists to account for the mess they made when relinquishing power over places like Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, and Nigeria.” Kwarteng is making the same mistake the British made, and the Americans are currently making, in Iraq and Afghanistan. And that is that in five to eighty or even 100 years of occupation a foreign power can change a culture and stamp out tribalism and religious hatreds.

I am fairly well informed in British history, and lived five years in Nigeria – including the Biafra War. In Nigeria as well as Iraq, the British left in addition to fine economic infrastructure and the rule of law, a model for self government. That tribalism, religious hatred and corrupt government has nearly destroyed these nations, is not the fault of imperial Britain. As for the Palestine Mandate, the Palestinians and the Arab League were given every opportunity to work out an accord with the Jews, Americans, British and even the UN, but failed to do so.

Maybe I’m writing this because I hate that empire has been turned into a bad word, and as a bad word has been wrongly applied to America’s international influence. The big difference between empire and America’s global reach, is that the British controlled their client states, and American efforts to effect world wide stability are like herding cats.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: