The history of the British empire has never been free from controversy. Historiographical battles have addressed motivations for imperial expansion, reasons for decolonisation, and the extent to which ordinary British people participated in – or even knew about – the empire overseas. This is, of course, perfectly usual; the historical profession exists as a series of interlocking debates and, as new generations of scholars approach evidence in new ways and ask new questions, they also challenge on older interpretations and more traditional ideas. The recent controversy over British imperial history, however, has had a different flavour. Rather than an argument about methodology, sources, or the interpretation of historical events, the debate has instead engaged with ethical questions that get to the very heart of the history of British imperialism.
There has long been a schism within historical writing on British imperialism around the evaluation of imperialism’s qualities or justifications. Niall Ferguson’s Empire, published in 2003, argued that empire had, on balance, been ‘a good thing’. It was critiqued by many historians of empire, including Andrew Porter and Linda Colley, for lacking complexity and nuance by making a positive moral judgement about imperialism based on ideas about idealism and creativity and ignoring darker topics of power, violence, and exploitation. Largely shrugging off these criticisms, Ferguson doubled-down on his approach to imperial history with his 2011 book Civilisation, which detailed the ‘killer apps’ (competition, science, the rule of law, modern medicine, consumerism, and the work ethic) that had allowed the West to conquer ‘the rest’. Indeed, Ferguson has few qualms about assuming the mantle of an overtly pro-Empire scholar. Last year, he responded to a YouGov poll, showing that more than half of British people polled believed that they should be proud of the British empire, with the simple Twitter message: ‘I won’.
Categories: British History