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the story of one man that tells the com­pli­cated big­ger story: the fact that there was never a plan for the Em­pire, that it was an ac­ci­dent driven by cap­i­tal­ists and ad­ven­tur­ers and ec­centrics, fol­lowed by an at­tempt to im­pose or­der on dis­or­der.

“ There was never a plan,” says Pax­man, “ and one of the points that is made by peo­ple who look back at it is to as­sume that there was. There were a suc­ces­sion of buc­ca­neers, pi­o­neers, there were spasms of anx­i­ety and there were vi­sion­ary mo­ments, but there was no plan.”

And there’s some­thing else we can nd in Gor­don’s story, as well as this per­soni cation of the good and bad of the Em­pire, and it’s one of the last­ing cliches of im­pe­ri­al­ism: the English­man stiff-up­per-lipped in the face of ad­ver­sity. But as Pax­man is keen to point out, much of the Em­pire wasn’t English at all – it had a Scot­tish ac­cent. And some of the bru­tal­ity – and there was a lot of it, graph­i­cally and hon­estly laid out by Pax­man in his book – had a Scot­tish hand be­hind it.

“The Scots were enor­mous Em­pire­builders; they pro­vided every­thing from colo­nial gov­er­nors through to ship sur­geons. No­body took to Em­pire with greater gusto than the Scots.”

Pax­man stops sud­denly and laughs. Here he is, talk­ing about Scot­land and the Scots and he knows the sub­ject has the po­ten­tial to be risky for him. Af­ter a few seem­ingly dis­parag­ing com­ments about Scot­tish politi­cians and glad­i­a­to­rial clashes on TV with the likes of Ge­orge Gal­loway and John Reid, Pax­man has been ac­cused of be­ing at war with Scots. But when the sub­ject comes up, he uses that cooly dis­mis­sive tone of voice you’d recog­nise from News­night. “I am sup­posed to have this war with the Scots which is com­plete non­sense – you’re just easy to wind up and have fun with, that’s all. That’s the truth. You can al­ways get a rise out of a Scot.”

And be­sides, Pax­man’s the­o­ries on Scot­land’s role in the Em­pire and how it has af­fected the Scots and the English are not per­sonal, they’re based on months of re­search – and his con­clu­sion is de­ci­sive: we built the Em­pire, and the Em­pire built us. In fact, he even sug­gests the end of Em­pire has also shaped us and may ex­plain the in­creas­ing strains on the union.

“I don’t think Alex Sal­mond can be en­tirely ex­plained in these terms but it’s an el­e­ment in it – if you look at the Act of Union, the cir­cum­stances in Scot­land at the time and the dash­ing of Scot­tish im­pe­ri­al­ist am­bi­tions at Darien, I don’t find it sur­pris­ing that there is a de­sire to throw in their lot with the English. Like­wise, I don’t nd it sur­pris­ing that once the Em­pire’s gone, there’s a gen­eral sense with the Scots of: well, it’s time to in­vent some­thing else, to weaken the links be­cause those forces that led to the links in the rst place are more fee­ble.”

Pax­man says the same kind of forces are at work on the role of the Bri­tish abroad. He says our cur­rent po­si­tion in the world – how we look at it, how we be­have in it, idio­syn­cra­sies such as our per­ma­nent seat on the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil and our will­ing­ness to get in­volved in for­eign ex­pe­di­tions – all owe a large amount to Em­pire. Even now, he says, Bri­tish prime min­is­ters can never quite avoid swish­ing round the world in a faded frock coat, can never en­tirely stop them­selves from speak­ing in a vaguely im­pe­rial tone of voice.

Which ex­plains Iraq, doesn’t it? “There were a mul­ti­plic­ity of rea­sons in­volved,” says Pax­man, “not least the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the Bri­tish PM and the pres­i­dent, but also the his­tor­i­cal re­la­tion­ship be­tween Bri­tain and the United States which it­self is of course a con­se­quence of Em­pire – I don’t say that we went into Iraq be­cause we had an em­pire, I think I say that the readi­ness to get in­volved in a ven­ture like that owes a great deal to an im­pe­rial past.”

And aside from Iraq, there are pos­i­tive lin­ger­ing ef­fects of the Em­pire, says Pax­man. For ex­am­ple, it has left us in­volved in many char­i­ta­ble and hu­man­i­tar­ian ways all around the world and this is when the ques­tion of the bal­ance of shame and pride comes up. “If you’re ask­ing for some kind of weigh­ing up of good and bad, we have to say: there were good and bad and if you were go­ing to be colonised by any­body, prob­a­bly bet­ter to be colonised by the Bri­tish than many oth­ers.”

What Pax­man doesn’t think we should do is apol­o­gise for the Em­pire, not even its worst ex­cesses such as slav­ery. “ I can’t see the point of this fash­ion for apol­ogy. We have to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for our own ac­tions and if one has per­son­ally or as a na­tion done some­thing wrong, you should apol­o­gise but these are things are things that hap­pened so long ago they were d o ne by d i f f e r e nt peo­ple in a dif­fer­ent time. If some­one had done it in liv­ing mem­ory, there would be a case but I don’t think there is.”

In the end, Pax­man thinks that how­ever you bal­ance the good and bad, the Em­pire has been mis­rep­re­sented – pop­u­lar cul­ture has cer­tainly left us with the i dea of t he Bri­tish buf­foon in the pith hel­met and the no­ble in­dige­nous peo­ple ght­ing for self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and while Pax­man says there are el­e­ments of truth in that cliche, the re­al­ity is far more com­plex.

“ There were shame­ful things but there were many things that we should be rather proud of. What I did no­tice go­ing around was a re­spect for the rule of the law and a le­gal sys­tem that is read­ily in­tel­li­gi­ble. Then there’s the build­ing of schools, hos­pi­tals, roads, bridges, rail­ways. These are all pos­i­tive achieve­ments. We can ar­gue end­lessly about the mo­ti­va­tion of those who built it but in terms of many of the prac­ti­cal things that it left be­hind, the Bri­tish Em­pire has had a re­ally bad press.” Em­pire: What Rul­ing The World Did To The Bri­tish by Jeremy Pax­man, Pen­guin, £25.

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