Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Democracy with Imperialism: the British Empire

In 1500, when the Turkish Ottoman Empire and China were the world's greatest powers, before Spain had established its empire in the Americas and while the Portuguese were still pirating their way around Africa to Asia, the English were a backward and unimportant people. They had a king, Henry VII, who had come to power through violence. There were no pretensions to having a democratic government run for the sake of the people; holding Parliaments was an ancient but seldom-honored tradition.

What was the evilest empire in the history of the world? The Mongols? The Romans, the Ottomans, the Nazis? For my money it was the British Empire. Which did not exist in any meaningul sense in 1500.

We are not supposed to think that way in these United States of America. The British are supposed to be a good force of history, the main source of the American ruling class and culture, nice people who brought civilization to half the world.

Sure, that is how it must have gone. Hi, would you like to trade almost all of your land for some lessons in how to drink high tea? Welcome to English civilization.

The Brits were a brutal lot. For centuries they just fought each other or, after the Norman conquest, tried to conquer another lot of civilized brutes, the French. United, they conquered Wales, then Ireland. They fought with the Scots for centuries, too, before the two clans were united by royal marriage.

Even before the unity known as Great Britain (or United Kingdom) was formed, the English began mixing trade with piracy. Their royally sponsored pirates became national heroes and provided much of the capital for both colonialism and modern capitalism. The British Navy and Army, working with missionaries, businessmen, and diplomats, became a rather efficient imperial machine. They never did the grand invasion routine beloved by conquerors from Darius the Great to Napoleon. They used political and economic leverage quite effectively to eat the Indian subcontinent bite by bite. They would graciously accept a colony or two from bankrupt Eurotrash kings they had loaned some money or troops to for local wars, or who had lost to the tyrants backed by Britain.

It was a centuries-long process, but over time the people of the British empire murdered millions in war and in cold blood, stole half the world's real estate, and destroyed most of the native economies of their colonies. You might also ask the Irish about how civilized British rule has been.

Which brings us to the issue of democracy. During the development of the British Empire the "middle class" (here I use older, more accurate sense of the term, those above the working class but below the aristocracy) struggled for power with the kings (really Emperors) and their aristocratic inbred idiot relatives. Guess who won? Over the centuries Parliament became stronger, and the House of Commons came to prevail over the House of Lords. Eventually even ordinary, lower-class British men got the vote. Socialist parties and then, more successfully, the Labor Party came to play an important role in politics. By the 20th century, we are supposed to believe, democracy was triumphant in merry old England.

Look at World War I. We are taught in American schools that the U.S. was a democracy and fought with France, Italy, and Britain, collectively the Democracies, against Germany, Austria, and Turkey (still then the vast Ottoman Empire), the Monarchies. That is a load of swill.

Almost no one in the British Empire could vote to elect politicians to set its policies. Only those living in the British Isles could vote. Africans could not vote, nor could Indians or Burmese or the Chinese in Hong Kong. Even the Canadians and Australians could not vote for members of the British Parliament (as white neo-Brits they did have their own Parliaments).

Is that democracy? A billion or so people, and less than 100 million have a say in governance.

I think not. I somehow doubt the citizens of the Indian subcontinent would have voted to have themselves shot when they demanded independence or self-rule.

In Iran (then Persia) they still speak of the nefarious British. They have better memories than Americans, or perhaps less reason to forget what actually happened over the past five centuries.

Class room exercise questions:

Are there any parallels between the British Empire and some other benevolent empire closer to home?

If a minority like the Irish within a political empire vote for their independence, but are voted down by the English majority, is that democracy? Is majority rule the sole test of democratic governance?

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