H.W. Crocker III is the author of the new book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.”
An author of numerous books, Crocker’s writings have also appeared in the National Review, the American Spectator and the Washington Times. He recently agreed to answer some questions from The Daily Caller about his new tome.
Why is your book so politically incorrect?
Well, it’s hard to imagine anything that enrages the politically correct more than “colonialism” — in their eyes it encapsulates every sin imaginable: it is racism, exploitative capitalism, assertive Christianity, and Western triumphalism all in one.
Why was the British Empire, as you write, “incontestably a good thing”?
As a Catholic priest once told me, the three greatest blessings to the world were Christianity, Penicillin, and the British Empire. It’s certainly incontestable that no power on earth did more to abolish the slave trade, promote free trade, and advance the idea of free institutions, limited government, and disinterested justice than the British Empire. The British Empire also smashed Napoleon Bonaparte and at one point in the Second World War stood alone against the combined forces of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan.
What made Pax Britannica superior to other empires that came before it?
One thing was its size: it governed a quarter of the globe. It was the biggest empire the world has known. Another was that it was run on a shoestring. The British Sudanese civil service governed the Sudan with about 140 men; 100,000 British civil servants and soldiers governed an India of 300 million people. Compare that to the more than 206,000 full-time state employees in California, a state with about 37 million people. The British also always thought that ultimately, whatever other motives might be involved — pride, profit, patriotism — the ultimate justification for the empire was the benefits it brought to the governed. The British believed that they indeed kept the peace — the Pax Britannica — and delivered fair-minded government, progress, and moral improvement, not just in abolishing slavery or putting down piracy but doing away with some foreign customs, which even tolerant Britons thought were beyond the pale, like widow-burning.
What are the greatest achievements of the British Empire that Americans would be surprised to learn?
It’s amazing to me how many Americans ignore the plain truth that the United States would not exist were it not for the British Empire. We were an extension and creation of the empire. We took our ideas of liberty and law from the British. Indeed, to hate the British Empire is to hate ourselves. I like to point out that George Washington was still toasting King George in the early days of the Revolutionary War, and that after the war, Washington and John Jay and Alexander Hamilton (himself the British West Indies-born son of a blue-blooded Scotsman) steered American foreign policy in a pro-British direction, against the wishes of the Francophile Thomas Jefferson.
Can you be simultaneously for liberal democracy and supportive of empire? Isn’t it, as some would argue, in the DNA of Americans to oppose empire?
The British Empire did more to advance the ideal of liberal democracy than any power on earth. It is because of the British Empire that parliamentary government is accepted as a sort of global norm. If you were to name the great liberal democratic states, you’d probably tick off the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and Britain itself. Even in tyrannies, like Zimbabwe, a former British colony, the powers that be go through a charade of elections and their judges still wear white wigs because to their people it is British institutions that have legitimacy.
The idea that America is, by rights, an anti-imperial power is a myth, and a harmful one when it has been backed by force, as in the Suez Crisis in 1956 (which is perhaps the classic example) or in Franklin Roosevelt’s belief that the great challenge after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would not be restraining the Soviet Union, but getting the British out of India and Hong Kong. As FDR said, at least Stalin was not an “imperialist.” That was Churchill’s crime.
But the fact is the founders wanted an empire of their own. I’m often struck by how few Americans realize that “empire” was a good word to the founders. John Adams foresaw the transfer of the great seat of empire from London to America. Alexander Hamilton refers to America as an “empire” in Federalist One. George Washington thought of America as a “rising empire.” Thomas Jefferson not only called America “an empire of liberty” but wanted to annex Canada (that was actually an American war goal in both the Revolution and the War of 1812). One of the colonists’ grievances against the British was that the British did not favor the colonists’ westward expansion. The British had to pay the costs of Indian wars, so they wanted to set aside the area west of the Appalachians as Indian territory. Americans already saw themselves as the pioneers of a continental empire and were appalled that the British would try to put limits on their manifest destiny. Manifest Destiny — clearing Spaniards out of Florida, buying the French out of Louisiana, and annexing northern Mexico (and later Hawaii) — was the American way of empire.
What were the greatest mistakes of the British Empire?
The greatest mistake was failing to conciliate the North American colonies — though in the end it didn’t turn out badly for either of us: the British Empire grew bigger, and we’ve obviously done quite well.
Do you believe British meddling in the Middle East or Africa is at all to blame for the current turmoil in those regions? Some argue that the British arbitrarily drew borders in those regions and that this is at least partly responsible for much conflict?
British “meddling” in the Persian Gulf and Africa ended the slave trade. In the Middle East, the British delivered the Arabs from the Ottoman Turks, who were a belligerent power in the First World War. Insofar as these countries have exploitable resources, it was the British that made them profitable. British Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States were all pro-Western powers. The British were in large part responsible for the creation of Israel, which I suppose you could put on the turmoil side of the ledger, but some would think it has had balancing benefits.
In Africa and the Middle East, I don’t know that you could say that the British Empire was as much to blame for any current turmoil as other suspects are: like nationalism, not to mention socialism and dictators who took their countries in an aggressively anti-British direction. It is generally true that the greatest railers against imperialism and neo-colonialism in Africa and the Middle East are the most oppressive dictators.
For some dysfunctional former British colonies, do you think they would be better off if Britain was still ruling over them?
Absolutely, I think that’s undeniable.
Why did Winston Churchill support the continuation of British imperialism?
Churchill thought of the empire as a great and beneficent thing. He also lamented what might follow British retreat. He rightly regarded India, for instance, as a geographical abstraction held together only by the British who could stand above and adjudicate differences between Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs. He predicted that if the British left India it would be a disaster for the Indians, that the subcontinent would be drenched in blood from inter-communal strife. He was exactly right; that was what followed independence and partition in 1947.
What do you believe led to the decline of the empire?
Churchill once said that he could defend the British Empire against anything but the British, and that was really the issue. After two world wars, the British people were exhausted, ready to lay down what they saw as an imperial burden, and accept the ministrations of the new welfare state. There was also a creeping liberal relativism; more voices questioned Britain’s imperial mission: who are we to judge? who are we to rule foreign peoples? The British Empire grew and sustained itself when Britain was a confident civilization. It expired when that confident glow was replaced by exhaustion and doubt. There’s a lesson in that for us too.
Finally, for the drinkers among us, you write about Captain Morgan. Who was he and how was he related to the rum?
Morgan was a British buccaneer who was arrested and sent to London — where they knighted him and returned him to Jamaica as deputy governor with orders to put an end to piracy. As for rum, he liked to drink it … a lot.