PRIDE AND PREJUDICE
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.