Kwasi Kwarteng’s “Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World”

There is a lot to learn from Kwasi Kwarteng’s Ghosts of Empire. The text itself serves as a wonderful example of a historical work that can be palatable for the masses without sacrificing academic rigor or scholarship—exhaustive in detail and citation, but written in plain language. On a political-slash-historical level, Ghosts of Empire is proof of a certain self-awareness on the other side of the pond that will hopefully make its way over soon: the citizenry’s understanding of their country’s past mistakes, acknowledged without fear of public admonishment.

In the introduction to the American edition, Kwarteng, a Tory MP since 2010, explains the relevance of his subject to Americans whose interest in the British Empire itself might only be passing. Addressing the argument put forth by Niall Ferguson and others for Pax Americana—basically that in the absence of a civilizing power like the British Empire, America must use her resources to quiet the world’s most troubled areas—Kwarteng offers his general view of colonialism. Empires, he argues, “through their lack of foresight and the wide discretion they give administrators, lead to instability and the development of chronic problems.”

(Let’s set aside Ferguson’s blatant and awful moral relativism and [cultural] superiority complex, as any discussion of his power in pop-history makes me want to lobotomize myself.)

This “wide discretion” given to various colonial administrators is central to his argument, that the Empire itself cannot be viewed as a broad thing, that it was a flimsy and foundation-less structure built upon the whimsy of a few men—some of whom were bright and well suited to the task, some of whom lacked poise enough to tie their own shoes—and that this lack of order or purpose contributed to the issues faced by these territories after British departure.

In other words, these postcolonial growing pains are not accidental, but can be traced back.

Kwarteng argues this well. In a clever—and perhaps wholly unintentional—fashion, Kwarteng divides his book into six sections focusing on six different British colonial enterprises. In each, he briefly summarizes various moments of note. But there’s little correlation in each section; that is to say, what’s happening in Iraq seems totally apart from what’s happening in Kashmir. Though each part of the empire was united by dominion—and certain conditions, like financial constraints caused by economic troubles, for example—they were ruled by different men from different places, with different tastes and different motives.

While each section might stand to the reasoning of Kwarteng’s central argument about the futility of imperial endeavors, they are their own little selves—six chapters that stand on their own.

Additionally, Kwarteng supports his arguments with vigorous research—namely, character sketches. While his summary of Gertrude Bell’s “idealistic” view of the Arabs was incomplete and somewhat redundant, it served to draw a contrast between one prominent member of Britain’s colonial class and any other; that is to say, Bell’s input as to what to do in Iraq may have had some weight, but her thoughts and goals were far apart from the Britons more driven to reap the spoils of the area’s vast oil reserves.

Kwarteng’s prose is, at times, difficult and a little clunky. (Perhaps this is just my reaction, and the result of having read—predominantly over the months since graduation—American fiction in the age of Franzen.) At the end of “Rivals,” a chapter on Iraq, Kwarteng labors to ensure his reader understands the closeness between the installed rulers of Iraq and the British establishment, concluding his argument with an awkward, unnecessary repetition.

But on the whole, there is little to argue with in Ghosts of Empire. Kwarteng’s understanding of economic history—his focus at Cambridge—is apparent, as is his appreciation for his own heritage. Born to Ghanaian parents in London, Kwarteng has an appreciation for the documented (and undocumented) awfulness of life under a directionless, improvised regime. And as a Western politician particularly aware of the lack of stability in former colonial possessions like Sudan and Kashmir, Kwarteng’s unique perspective jumps off the page.

(And if I might close with something a little too political…)

This awareness on Kwarteng’s part is rich for this reviewer. Contrast Kwarteng with noted wart Dinesh D’Souza, who has made a career out of saying indefensibly awful things. (Blaming Abu Ghraib on liberal immodesty re: sex might not even make his top thirty worst statements.) It’s D’Souza’s view of Barack Obama that is especially intolerable. D’Souza—like many of his conservative friends—likes to harp on the fact that Obama’s father was Kenyan and, given that he was, must have resented his British rulers. (Who could blame him?!) This means that Obama, too, is anti-colonialist, which makes him anti-west, etc., etc.

But here is Kwarteng, himself an MP in Britain’s conservative party, writing a book about the facts of his own country’s history; taking issue—more often than not—with the Empire. Could you imagine such a thing in America? A book—written by a politician—critical of America’s past? Perish the thought.

None of this is to take focus away from Kwarteng’s serious, thoughtful scholarship. He has done the work that so many historians (and history students, like myself) fail to: perform tireless research, neatly construct an argument around this evidence, trim the supporting documentation so it is palatable, present it.

It sounds elementary. Of course, were it simple, Kwarteng’s debut wouldn’t have stood out so much. As someone more invested in thoughtful writing about Britain’s imperial follies, I’m hopeful his political career allows for future work of this sort.

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