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But the differences that Jackson points out between Scotland and Ireland mean that Scottish independence, despite the victory of the SNP in the elections to the Scottish Parliament in May, is not very likely. Many in the SNP are coming to the view that a federal solution with financial autonomy may offer a better solution for Scotland than separatism. Jordi Pujol, leader of the nationalists in Catalonia (which, like Scotland, has extensive devolution), has called himself a non-separatist nationalist. A split in the SNP between separatists and federalists is just as likely as a split in the United Kingdom. As Jackson emphasises, historians have concentrated too much on those who repudiated union at the expense of those who helped sustain it; and his book is a valuable corrective to such distortions. It is all too easy to underestimate the strength of a United Kingdom in which, even in Scotland, 80 per cent of those who voted in the 2010 general election supported parties that believe in the union. England remains a pole of attraction and not only for the English. Perhaps the last word should lie with Kipling: ‘If England was what England seems/An’ not the England of our dreams,/But only putty, brass an’ paint,/’Ow quick we’d drop ’er! But she ain’t! ’
There is no reason why ‘Britain’ should not be substituted for ‘England’ in Kipling’s poem. To order this book at £35, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
kwas i kwarteng
The Brute Facts Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt
By Richard Gott (Verso Books 568pp £25)
Richard Gott’s Britain’s Empire: Resistance, Repression and Revolt is a comprehensive and passionate denunciation of the militaristic side of imperial life. Gott narrowly focuses on a period in which much of British imperial rule was established. He starts with the Seven Years’ War and finishes his lengthy account with the Indian Mutiny in 1857.
The tone of the book is consistent and somewhat monotonous. Outrages, violence, the brutal repression of rebellions, and exterminations are detailed with almost metronomic regularity. Gott claims that this ground-up approach to imperial history is new, but Marxist and other leftleaning historians have been extolling the virtues of subaltern history for years. In fact, Gott’s entire book has the atmosphere of a 1970s Marxist department in one of our newer universities, where lecturers in tweed jackets and polo-necked jumpers railed against the class system, while employing Filipino nannies.
Despite this, Gott has unearthed a number of surprising stories. The description of the Maori resistance in New Zealand is poignant. Other instances of imperial repression include the ruthlessness with which Britain put down the Irish rebellion of 1798, and the savage treatment of rebel slaves in South America. The details of these rebellions are drawn from a wide range of sources, even though the footnotes are not as detailed as one might expect (no page numbers, for instance, are given in the notes).
While it is important to remember the negative aspects of empire, an exclusive focus on military matters reveals very little about the administrative or ideological underpinnings of the imperial project. There are no shades of grey, no rays of light in this uniformly dismal story. Imperial soldiers and militaristic figures parade through the book, yet no attempt whatsoever is made to understand them. They appear merely as pantomime villains.
The importance of Gott’s book is its range – many instances of imperial brutality are catalogued with almost gleeful precision. It is also true that much of the tough, fighting side of empire has been glossed over in a series of saccharine,Boy’s Ownaccounts,which tend to romanticise the achievements of British soldiers and generals. Gott provides a useful corrective. Other historians may easily jibe at the lack of cultural history, but I can appreciate what Gott is trying to do.
The relationship of culture to the British Empire is an enormous subject in itself, and it is perfectly justifiable to treat the political and military aspects of the British Empire without referring to it. Despite this, any student of imperial history should be aware of certain cultural and sociological features.
Slavery was an unalloyed evil; the Victorian public school was of central importance to the empire; logistical difficulties meant that the man on the spot had a wide degree of discretion; many imperialists had an overweening sense of racial superiority and social arrogance. These facts are certainly characteristic of the later period of Gott’s account, yet he only engages superficially with them.
The culminating episode of Gott’s account is the Indian rebellion of 1857–8, which he describes as ‘the climactic moment of the first century of empire’. Yet the British Empire reached its zenith fifty, if not seventy, years after 1857. The Gold Coast, Nigeria, Sudan and Upper Burma were all acquired in the period of high Victorian imperialism between 1885 and 1914. After the First World War Britain gained, in the form of a mandate, Iraq and Palestine. She also took control of many of Germany’s former colonies, including Cameroon and South West Africa.
It must be recognised that any historian writing about the British Empire will necessarily commit egregious sins of omission. Whole tracts of the British imperial experience will be ignored, or made light of, by any writer attempting to grapple with this immense subject. When one considers a book on imperial history, one should be mindful of the words of Theodore Roosevelt: ‘It is not the critic who counts … the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.’ In this respect, Richard Gott should be admired for the enthusiasm, dedication and thoroughness with which he has set about his task. To order this book at £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 57
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