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.