Politics & Policy

A Paleo-Conservative Guide to the British Empire

In all honesty, they have to rather like it.

Yes, yes, I know. Many Paleos shudder at the mention of the word “empire,” rather as nineteenth-century old maids used to shudder at the mention of Lord Byron — but really, I ask you: When a Paleo watches Zulu, whose side is he on? Does he really cheer when, in the movie Khartoum, a dervish hurls a spear into the chest of General Gordon? Is he roused to say, “Damn right!” when the Kali-worshipping guru in the film Gunga Din gives his nationalist-fanatic speech to the sergeants three (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Victor McLaglen)? When a Paleocon hears the strains of God Save the Queen does he truly have an incurable desire to stand up and shout, “Oi, what about the Irish?”

True Paleos, I suspect, if they are honest, have to rather like the largest empire the world has ever known, the British Empire; and they would probably agree with Mark Steyn that “insofar as the world functions at all, it’s due to the Britannic inheritance.” Some I know get a bit carried away with that hatred which is passed along through mystic chords of bog-trotting memory or Teutonic apologetics, which cast Britain, and England in particular, as a sort of super-villain, a prejudice that unites Iranian Islamists, Lyndon LaRouchers, members of the IRA, and the glossy Sergei Eisensteinesque agit-prop of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart and The Patriot.

But a true Paleo might remember James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, which nails liberalism as the force that “motivates and justifies the contraction [of Western power, as can be charted on historical maps], and reconciles us to it.” He will remember that among the 39 articles of liberal faith identified by Burnham is No. 14: “Colonialism and imperialism are wrong”; and No. 20: “All nations and peoples, including the nations and peoples of Asia and Africa, have a right to political independence when a majority of the population wants it.” Others of the 39 are similar. He might even remember that Christopher Dawson pointed out, in 1932, that the Bolsheviks regarded the British Empire, “not without reason as the chief element of cohesion in the divided ranks of their enemies.” Certainly in 1940, the British Empire was the only element of cohesion in the ranks of the enemies of the combined forces of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, fascist Italy, Vichy France, and Imperial Japan, or what Evelyn Waugh called “the Modern Age in arms.” In that battle, too, it’s pretty clear which side a Paleocon should be on — on the side of the British Empire against the Modern Age.

And a particularly thoughtful Paleocon might even see in the experience of the British Empire some prescriptive remedies for what ails Western Civilization. How about, for instance, the idea of limited government? By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, in the 1920s the British government and its vast empire operated on a budget about 40 percent less, in constant dollars, than the state of California’s budget for 2012. Perhaps that’s not surprising when you consider that Britain ran the Sudan with a civil service of 140 men, and governed India’s then-300 million people with about 100,000 British soldiers and civil servants. (California has more than twice as many full-time state employees.)

The British Empire certainly did not go in for “nation-building” in the “let’s export the democratic welfare state” sense. The British believed they governed well, and did well for the people they governed, but they always had to ensure that the sum of benefits minus costs was in the black. The British had tremendous national interests, for instance, in Afghanistan (a potential Russian invasion route to India) and Iraq (oil), but they would never have spent a trillion dollars occupying these countries, as we have done. For the most part, they kept them in line with occasional punitive expeditions (Afghanistan) and the RAF supporting a British-imposed pro-Western monarch (Iraq). 

The British Empire set a beneficial example in another sense too. It was tolerant. On issues that truly mattered — an independent judiciary, limited government, abolishing slavery and widow-burning — they enforced British standards of fair play, ordered liberty, and decency. But they were also quite content to let Arabs be Arabs, Masai be Masai, and so on. They did not politicize society or, another way of putting it, nationalize it. They ruled with the lightest of authority, often through local elites, and had a famous affection for the “warrior races” (which they were keen to defeat and then bring on their side). As a Frenchman once marveled, “Wherever the British have penetrated we meet British officers who believe the Bedouins, the Kurds, the Ghurkhas, the Sikhs or the Sudanese, whichever they happen to command, to be the most splendid fellows on earth. The French do not share this passionate interest in other races — they only praise individuals or communities insofar as they have become Gallicized.”     

George Santayana’s famous observation bears repeating: “Instinctively the Englishman is no missionary, no conqueror . . . he travels and conquers without a settled design, because he has the instinct of exploration. His adventures are all external; they change him so little that he is not afraid of them. He carries his English weather in his heart wherever he goes, and it becomes a cool spot in the desert, and a steady and sane oracle amongst all the deliriums of mankind. Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master. It will be a black day for the human race when scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics manage to supplant him.” How true. And between the British Empire and its enemies among the Bolsheviks, the National Socialists, the scientific blackguards, conspirators, churls, and fanatics, I know which side any true conservative should plant his colors.

H. W. Crocker III is a bestselling author whose most recent book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.


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Colin Powell, R.I.P.

Colin Powell, R.I.P.

We had substantial disagreements but recognize that he will be remembered for a long, consequential career of service to a country that he loved.