Follow Britain's Lead in Building an Empire?

News Abroad

Mr. Fleming's new book, The Illusion of Victory: America in World War I, was published by Basic Books on June 1.

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It is time to put an end to this talk about the United States becoming an empire, and comparing our war in Iraq to the British empire's occupation of that unfortunate country after World War I. Even more misleading is the claim that America's current hegemony bears any real similarity to the British empire's long reign over an estimated 440,000,000 people around the world.

Let's start with the word empire. Once there was nothing wrong with it. After the Revolution, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other prominent Americans often spoke of the American empire. For them the word meant a nation that ruled an extensive territory. But there was a signal difference between the American and British use of the term. Thomas Jefferson defined it for all time after the Louisiana Purchase, when he rejoiced in the creation of an empire of liberty. This was not a word ever used by British empire builders.

The British empire was created on the Roman model. They claimed that they practiced liberty and democracy at home, but not in the provinces. Overseas the King in Parliament had the final word. This was the issue that triggered the American Revolution.

More to the point, the Americans were well aware that in the 18th Century, British liberty was a joke. In a total population of 8 million, only 215,000 people had a vote. The political system was controlled by the aristocracy. More than 50 percent of those who held seats in Parliament between 1734 and 1832 had a blood relative in the Parliament immediately preceding them. Major cities such as Manchester had no representatives whatever, while sparsely populated counties had as many as 44, usually controlled by the local aristocrat. So called pocket or rotten boroughs had only a half dozen voters, who sold their votes for thousands of pounds.

The system was made to order for exploitation by the few, and this was the hallmark of the British empire. They exploited their own lower classes as ruthlessly as they exploited their overseas subjects. When Benjamin Franklin visited Ireland in 1771, he was appalled by the poverty of the inhabitants and how crushed they were by the ruthless application of British power. "The people live in wretched hovels of mud and straw, are clothed in rags and subsist chiefly on potatoes," he wrote a Boston friend. "Our New England farmers of the poorest sort are princes compared to them."

The visit had not a little to do with Franklin's decision to support American independence. By 1775, he was writing from London to an American friend: "When I think of the extream corruption of this old rotten state ... I cannot but apprehend more mischief than benefit from a closer union."

The British reformed their electoral system in 1832, but it remained far from universal suffrage until after World War I. The class system remained intact. As Britain launched its war against Germany to make the world safe for democracy, only 28 percent of Englishmen had a vote. By the end of the war the trade unions had forced the conservatives to raise the percentage of voters to 78 percent. Not until 1927 did they achieve universal suffrage.

The class system, meanwhile, continued to disfigure the British empire. In India, Burma, Hong Kong -- wherever they acquired territory, the British inflicted a demeaning sense of inferiority on the peoples they ruled, which haunts the world to this day.

A dramatic scene sums up this aspect of the British empire more graphically than any argument. At the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, the head of the Japanese delegation proposed an amendment to the League of Nations covenant (charter) declaring the equality of all the planet's races. The Americans approved the idea. The British refused even to consider it.

His Majesty's men were not about to tell the tens of millions of Indians, Africans, Egyptians, Malayans and other nonwhites in their empire that they were equal to Englishmen. Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour dismissed the proposition as an "18th Century idea." Premier Billy Hughes of Australia bellowed he would get the first ship back down under if this notion passed. The French had the same attitude toward their empire. The Japanese proposal was rejected.

Even more upsetting to the British was the Irish determination to seek independence based on Woodrow Wilson's declaration that every people had the right to self determination. The British, sensing it might be the first step to the unravelling of their empire (which it was) scorned the idea. They persuaded Wilson to approve a clause in the League of Nations' covenant declaring the current territory of all the nations who joined the league was inviolate.

A delegation of Irish Americans arrived in Paris and put terrific pressure on the president. Wilson in turn pressured the British prime minister, David Lloyd George to let the Irish-Americans visit embattled Ireland. Behind the scenes, Lloyd George called them "accursed brutes" but he let them into the country.

In Ireland, the Irish-Americans were hailed as heroes and saviors. They were soon telling large crowds that millions of Irish-Americans backed Ireland's demand for self determination. It did not take Lloyd George long to start complaining about their "scandalous speeches." The Irish-Americans were not only taking part in Irish politics, they were encouraging "a rebellious movement." It was as bad as 1776!

On May 9, the Irish-Americans arrived to address a crowd in front of Dublin's Mansion House, where the Irish Parliament met. British troops seized the building and opened fire from the windows and roof. The crowd fled, leaving the American visitors trembling with horror and outrage. They were soon telling everyone that the British ruled Ireland by brute force.

Through friends in America, liberal magazines such as the Nation and numerous newspapers were soon reprinting a report issued by the Irish Americans, which listed dozens of atrocities committed by British troops and claimed political prisoners were being held in abominable conditions. Soon came stunning news from the U.S. Senate. By a vote of 60-1, the solons passed a resolution calling on President Wilson to get a hearing for Irish independence at the peace conference. It was a first large step to Ireland's liberation, which came two years later.

Does this sound as if the Americans of 1919 had any respect for the British empire, or any desire to imitate it? On the contrary, it underscores that the difference between the British and American approach to international affairs came down to that crucial word: liberty. The Americans were for it, everywhere. The British were against it. In no way shape or form does the British Empire offer us an example to imitate in our current struggle for a peaceful democratic world.

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Josh SN - 7/9/2003

Good show. "Cavil" hmm.

Naill Ferguson went on about how he saw some similarities between Iraq in 2003 and Egypt in 1882.

Me? I often see Mussolini's efforts to restore Italy's honor.

Don Williams - 7/9/2003

History shows that a small wealthy elite get rich from empires but that most citizens of the hegemon are greatly harmed. The reason is that the profits go to the few while the costs are dumped on the many.

Empires require a huge military to keep order, twist the arms of local leaders,etc. The costs of maintaining that empire--both in tax money and blood -- are dumped on the home country's workers and middle class while the wealthy elite grab the profits.

The wealthy elite also layoff many workers in the home country --or force them to accept low wages -- by moving capital abroad.
The import of cheap foreign goods and workers also drive the standard of living down for many home country citizens.

Finally, the concentration of wealth promotes widespread corruption within the government of the home country --ensuring that the profits of the few are protected from the protests of the many. If need be, the wealthy elite will support imposition of a dictatorship to quell social unrest associated with the widespread poverty caused by their policies.

The above outcomes can be seen in every empire --from the Roman Republic on. See Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Decline of the Great Powers".

The advocates of globalization never mention the great shortcomings and costs. That's because most economists are lying shitheads --more interested in protecting their grants and consulting contracts by rationalizing corruption than in speaking the truth.

Michael Meo - 7/7/2003

Well, Mr Fleming, you have established beyond cavil that in 1919 the American government differed with the British government on the question of rights for the wogs. The problem, however, is that this has little to do with the thesis against which you started to aqrgue, namely that the present American empire is in many ways a recrudescence of the previous British one.