Kwasi Karteng argues in his book ‘Ghosts of Empire’ (2011) that British imperialism was driven not by a moralistic desire to export liberal democracy but by ‘anarchic individualism and paternalism’. The grand moralistic sentiment of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Hands all Round’ (dedicated to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her sixty third birthday in 1882) was merely childish blather:
‘We’ve sailed wherever a ship could sail
We’ve planted many a mighty state;
Pray God our greatness may not fail
Through craven fears of being great.’
As a declining post imperial nation, Britain remains preoccupied with Empire – and whether, to adopt the terms set by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman in ‘1066 and all that’, ‘the Empire’ was a good thing or a bad thing – or perhaps ‘Right but Repulsive’ as they judged the English Civil War. That kind of debate, which has become sterile and polarised, presupposes that the Empire was ‘a thing’ at all – that is to say a coherent consequence of intent. It has been argued that the British Empire was to some degree accidental: the initiatives of colonial administrators, the ‘men on the spot’ had equal if not greater impact than any master imperial plan hatched in London. The makers of empire were, with very few exceptions, the idiosyncratic products of English public schools who were recruited not on the grounds of their language or administrative skills but their sporting prowess. If a man came from a decent school and ‘played the game’ he would be asked to join the colonial ruling class. These kinds of chaps exalted natural hierarchies and despised democracy, let alone any stronger intellectual fare. Such were the makers of Empire.