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A Great and Wonderful Experiment

H.W. Crocker III's politically correct homage to the British Empire.

By From the November 2011 issue

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The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire
By H. W. Crocker III
(Regnery Publishing, 384 pages, $19.95)

"THE BRITISH EMPIRE was a great and wonderful social, economic and even spiritual experiment," wrote Noel Coward in his diary in February 1957, "and all the parlour pinks and eager, ill-informed intellectuals cannot convince me to the contrary." Coward was writing only three months after the Suez Crisis sounded the final death-knell for that empire, yet even now, more than half a century later, a (very) few brave souls are prepared to agree with him publicly, now foremost among them H.W. Crocker III. He points out how for more than 50 years, liberals, socialists, Communists, and other ill-informed intellectuals have depicted the Empire as "a vehicle of rapacious self-serving capitalists responsible for racism, slavery, and oppression on a global scale," but in this well-researched and very well-written revisionist work, he goes on completely to expose their libels.

Crocker argues that despite wresting themselves from the orbit of the British Empire, America's Founding Fathers were not anti-imperialist per se; indeed in 1755 John Adams foresaw the transfer "of the great seat of Empire to America," Thomas Jefferson described the U.S. as "the empire of liberty" and James Polk announced after the Mexican War to have "added to the United States an immense empire." George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Alexander Hamilton were similarly actuated by the desire for what Crocker calls "an American Empire of their own—and were partly motivated by the British Empire not being imperialist enough."

"To hate the British Empire is to hate ourselves," Crocker tells his fellow Americans, "for the United States would not exist if not for the British Empire. It was that empire that created the North American colonies, giving them their charters, their people, their language, their culture, their governments, and their ideas of liberty." Of course since hatred of America is a continuing leitmotif of liberals, socialists, and Communists, one can understand why since the 1960s' cultural revolution the British Empire has been about as popular as Richard Nixon and Agent Orange in the groves of transatlantic Academe. Other enemies of that empire are cogently listed by Crocker as "United Nations bureaucrats, liberal internationalists, native kleptocrats, and Third World Communists and National Socialists," and with that lineup it's very clear which side he's on. (Crocker does not mince his words, describing the British parlor pink intellectual Lytton Strachey as "a homosexualist (and sado-masochistic) subversive.")

The main body of this book comprises excellent potted biographies of many of Britain's greatest imperial figures, including Sir Francis Drake, Sir Henry Morgan, Lord Cornwallis (ably rescued from the obloquy of Yorktown), Sir Walter Raleigh, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Charles Napier, Clive of India, Lord Curzon, Lord Mountbatten, Lord Kitchener (who Crocker argues was not homosexual), Lawrence of Arabia (ditto), Sir Richard Burton, Glubb Pasha, Sir Stamford Raffles, Ian Smith, Sir Thomas Blamey, and Sir Gerald Templer. His summation of the achievements of these men's careers is that "The Empire was incontestably a good thing."

Yet of course that is very much contested, so in the course of this hard-argued book Crocker deals with all of the criticisms of the Empire. Of the Irish Potato Famine, for example, he points out the obvious, for anyone who has studied it, truth that "there was no intentional effort to starve the Irish or inflict genocide on Ireland." Yes, the British government acted far too late, was too inflexibly ideologically committed to laissez-faire, and relief efforts were insufficient, but it had not encouraged the Irish entirely to depend on a monocrop agriculture that had experienced serious blights over the past two decades. Sir Robert Peel's government actually fell over the repeal of the Corn Laws, and Crocker also reminds us that food exports from Ireland during the crisis were undertaken in part to provide cash for jobs for indigent tenant farmers. It certainly wasn't Britain's finest hour, but for New York's Governor Pataki to state in 1996 that "History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish the food they needed to survive" is a foul blood-libel for which he still hasn't apologized. The state of New York is still ordained by law to teach the Potato Famine in terms of "genocide, Slavery and the Holocaust." (It was, of course, the British Empire that abolished slavery in 1807, half a century before America, and which spent £20 million, or 37 percent of government revenue, freeing West Indian slaves in 1831 alone.)

As well as the Potato Famine, Crocker is very good on other "shamrock-shaded myths" about Ireland, which he describes as "England's Tijuana." "Ireland's second religion was hate," wrote Rudyard Kipling, who is hated by liberals but rightly lauded in this book, and Crocker unpicks many of the myths that Irish republicans have invented about England over the centuries. He also recalls an amusing moment during the 1921 partition talks when the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, good-naturedly teased the Irish nationalist leader Eamon de Valera by pointing out that the Celts never had a word for "a republic," a concept given to them by the English.

Although Crocker is quite right that Ireland played a "less than stellar role" in World War II, that was not true of the Great War, when the island was still part of the Empire. Only a handful of republicans took part in the Easter Rising in 1916; meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of loyal Irishman of both religions were fighting for King and Country in the trenches of the Western Front, and the 50,000 who died represented a higher per capita ratio than Canadians, and only a slightly lower one than New Zealanders and Australians.

THE BENGAL TIME of 1943, wrongly blamed on Winston Churchill by the enemies of Empire, is here correctly ascribed by Crocker to "a combination of natural disaster and the Japanese occupation of Burma, from which Bengal previously received much of its rice." The footnotes of this book are an education in themselves, and full of penetrating insights. "Once, during the final campaign against Chanda Sahib," one informs us, "Clive of India stumbled behind enemy lines into a gang of six armed Frenchmen, but managed to convince them they were surrounded: three surrendered and three fled. Clive led a charmed life on the battlefield."

Although Crocker gets the circumstances of the Amritsar Massacre absolutely right, having gone back to the best sources for that tragic and wholly avoidable incident, his inclusion of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, as one of the paladins of Empire is a mistake. The communal massacres of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs each by the others during the Transfer of Power in India in 1947–48 were the direct result of Mountbatten's self-imposition of an impossibly tight deadline, which Crocker seems to blame on the Labour Government in London. He writes of the deadline being "inexorable" and the massacres as "inevitable," given the absence of British troops in the North-West Frontier Province and Punjab, but it was Mountbatten who decided both to foreshorten the deadline drastically and to send troops home before India was successfully partitioned. Crocker is right, though, to conclude that "What is astonishing is that the slaughter caught Labour and Indian politicians by surprise. British imperial die-hards, who accurately predicted what would happen, had been dismissed as reactionaries."

These are mere quibbles in what is otherwise a fine and, in the present politically correct climate, also an immensely brave book. Like Noel Coward's British Empire itself, Mr. Crocker has embarked on "a great and wonderful experiment."

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About the Author

Andrew Roberts is the author of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 and, most recently, The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War