Half a century after it ended, the British Empire remains endlessly fascinating for historians. Not only does its impact on the UK remain a puzzle but much of the world still lives in its shadow - around one-quarter of the world's sovereign states being, as John Darwin puts it, "hewn from its fabric". Many attempts have been made to analyse the empire. Most founder, Darwin believes, because they seek to study it as a monolith, as if a single theory could explain it. Too often, imperial history has been ideological history or missionary history. One of Darwin's targets is Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), which assumed that there was a monolithic British opinion about empire, and that subject peoples were just that - passive and helpless. "The rich and fascinating record of non-Western responses to Western ideas", Darwin believes, "disappears into a crude caricature in which only two reactions were possible - resistance or compliance - and only one permitted."
Unfinished Empire is a wide-ranging, impressive work of historical synthesis, based on massive reading and research. Its central claim is that no single theory of empire is possible since there was never a single vision of empire, but rather different and indeed competing perceptions. There were, for Darwin, "different imaginings of empire - humanitarian, authoritarian, democratic, protectionist, free trading, religious-minded and militaristic". The empire's very diversity precluded ideological coherence. It also precluded a system of government in which proconsuls could impose their will upon the natives under the supervision of "a standardised apparatus of power whose command and control were centred in London". Empire-building, therefore, was "a higgledy-piggledy process in which government policy, or decisions taken in Whitehall, were only a part (sometimes a small part) of the story".
As long ago as 1915, in a wartime tract, Mitteleuropa, a German imperialist, Friedrich Naumann, noticed the "unsystematic character of English imperialism". The "sea and colonial empire, scattered over all parts of the world, is organised quite without system - the English elasticity consists in this: that what we call principles, it regards as working methods". The empire even at its zenith was ramshackle, comprising more than 100 separate political units and some 600 princely states in India. Because it "displayed almost every variety of human community" and because its internal diversity was so great, no single pattern of rule was possible, while a firm imperial policy from London "was always a pipe-dream". It is hardly surprising that the Boer general, Jan Smuts, thought the empire rested on a confidence trick. It consisted, he said in 1899, of "great countries inhabited by antagonistic peoples...without any adequate military organisation in case of disturbance or attack. The dominion that the British Empire exercises...rests more upon prestige and moral intimidation than upon true military strength."
What made empire possible during the "imperial century" from 1815 to 1914 was "a world-historical accident", the combination of a balance of power in Europe and an East Asia too weak to resist foreign incursion. The First World War undermined the European balance and led to the rise of Japanese power in the East. The Second World War, and in particular the series of British defeats from 1939 to 1942, completed the job. Japanese victories destroyed the prestige of the white man in Asia, while the European balance was now dependent upon the US. The rest was epilogue: decolonisation had become inevitable. The imperial moment was an exceptional one, based on temporary geostrategic contingencies. But precisely because the empire could be "imagined and experienced in such various ways", its demise could occur in the post-war years "amid a mood of public indifference" without the traumas that scarred, for example, Belgium, France or Portugal. Imperial Britain could be transformed into a small island off the continent of Europe without too much psychological dislocation.
Unfinished Empire displays its author's enthusiasm for his subject, but Darwin's appraisal of the achievements and burdens of empire is cool and detached. As is so often the case, the severe empiricism of the historian proves fatal to the pretensions of the ideologist and the propagandist. John Darwin, already pre-eminent among historians of British imperialism, has provided what is to my mind the most sophisticated and plausible interpretation of British imperial history. This monument of disinterested scholarship will confirm his reputation.
Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain
By John Darwin
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25.00
Published 6 September 2012