Overall, was the British Empire a good or a bad thing? Taken in the round over its half-millennium history—between John Cabot landing in Newfoundland in 1497 and the hand-over of Hong Kong in 1997—did the British Empire contribute or detract from the sum of human happiness? The standing of the empire is the most contentious historiographical battleground in British public discourse, and Kwasi Kwarteng has tossed a grenade into the struggle with “Ghosts of Empire.” He describes the book as “a post-racial account of empire, insofar as it does not regard the fact that the administrators were white, while the subject people were from other races, as the key determinant in understanding empire. There is clearly more to understanding the British Empire than racial politics, important though that was.”
Mr. Kwarteng is a black writer of Ghanaian origin who might have been expected to adopt the classic left-wing analysis of the British Empire as an exploitative, racist kleptocracy. Instead, he has written a far subtler and more nuanced critique. He is also an Old Etonian, a Cambridge University history Ph.D., and a Conservative member of Parliament. He almost glories in his own elitism; it’s hard not to warm to someone who expresses his grateful love to his parents in the dedication to his book, using Latin.
The Marxist characterization of the imperialist elite as a bunch of asset-strippers does not wash with Mr. Kwarteng, who rightly portrays them as among the most idealistic group of administrators in the history of mankind. They presided over the spread of responsible governance and the application of the rule of law—often in places that had little conception of those ideas, much less experience of them.