Perhaps the sun has not quite set on the British Empire.
That’s the premise of Kwarteng’s fascinating debut about the long-term and far-reaching effects of British rule. As the son of Ghanaian immigrants to London, educated at Eton and Cambridge, his views encompass the attitudes of both rulers and the ruled. He supports his statement that “instability in the world is a product of [the British Empire’s] legacy of individualism and haphazard policy making” with both fact and logical hypotheses. There never was an imperial strategic plan, he writes, nor directives to those who ruled. “Encourage trade” was the only directive. There were few, if any, instances of policy reversal by London. Colonial leaders ruled as judges, lawgivers and police with no oversight. Most administrators of British colonies followed the principal of masterly inactivity. Decisions made by one colonial ruler would often be overturned by the next one. Tribal leaders, indigenous administrators and monarchs appointed by the English ruled without interference, some wisely, most autocratically to the detriment of the population. Most of these countries continue to struggle to find their own identity. Kwarteng maintains that those who served the empire were not appointed because of their class, but their education and their athletic ability. The Duke of Wellington put it best when he said, “The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing field of Eton.” The author insists that it wasn’t a class-oriented society, but the majority of those who served in the colonies first went to one of the best public schools, preferably Eton, and subsequently studied classics at Oxford or Cambridge. The hierarchical society in the colonies was far more restrictive than any found in England, even though it too was based not on money but on education and status. Rule was serendipitous, and the locals were effectively ignored and left to their own devices—as long as they didn’t interrupt trade.
Kwarteng effectively illustrates the effects of empire in a forceful and thorough book that holds important lessons for today’s leaders—in particular that the cost of invading and occupying a country always exceeds expectations.