Imperial measurements

Television is an excellent tool of historical education, but also a limited one. Its limitations lie in the fact that we are rarely taught how to spell the names of places or people, or given the kind or intensity of detail that slows things down. A visual medium will be inclined to emphasise elements of legacy or aftermath, to seek out the products of a historical phenomenon that are still around and can be made visible to the camera. For reasons such as these, Jeremy Paxman’s Empire (BBC1 Mondays) has not been as informative as the tie-in book, but it is nevertheless a decent piece of work, if a little lopsided.

Paxman is addressing an audience, or so he appears to think, that does not need to be persuaded of the evils of imperialism, only given examples of imperial brutality, complacency, or silliness. He approaches the subject from a sensible, modern perspective, using British traits such as scepticism, incredulity and irony to denounce British traits such as hubris, athleticism and arrogance.

Mostly, he finds what happened baffling. Much of what was obvious or coherent to the colonialists is paradoxical to him – the combination of “brutality and pomp”, for example. Paxman started off the first episode by explaining that the British paid local Indian soldiers to fight for them, that the colonised were the fighting force of colonisation. It sounds silly now, but it made sense – of a sort – at the time. In his interviews with Indians or Egyptians, he laughs or furrows his brow if they say something approving or grateful about the British empire. Surely, he seems to be saying, empire means invasion, dictatorship, theft, and nothing else?

This week, Paxman had fun with the idea of “playing the game”. The British treated colonialism itself as a kind of sport – occasionally giving the enemy “a dusting” – and introduced cricket and horse racing to the colonies. The crucial figure here is the athletic, unpretentious hero – a Christian gentleman and a sportsman. Paxman has paid a certain amount of attention to more admirable, modern types, such as TE Lawrence, Charles Stuart (known as “Hindoo”), and Stamford Raffles, but this is very much an argument against empire, and one made with a fair amount of force.

The difference between Paxman’s perspective and that offered by Niall Ferguson back in 2004 is in the view of the gains and benefits of the imperial project. Paxman’s title is simply Empire – which some may find a little parochial, given that there have been other empires, other imperial powers. Ferguson went with Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, which associated imperialism with creation rather than destruction, and modernity rather than outdated practices.

In both series, we are given the familiar facts – the British empire accounted for a quarter of the world’s population, it was the largest empire ever, it “ruled the waves”. But for Ferguson the size of the British empire was a good thing – in some ways, the larger the better. He believes that the British exported a number of western, or European, specialities that everyone can benefit from: the capitalist economy, Christianity, law and order, democracy. Ferguson sees empire as a project of bringing universal values to as many people as possible. Paxman takes the more widespread modern view that empire is a way of imposing rules and values on people who may have their own. If Paxman either overlooks the advantages, or fails to see them as such, then Ferguson may be accused of underplaying the cost in his praise of the gains.

Ferguson’s belief that the past 500 years of western history have established values that are absolute rather than contingent received another airing this week, in China: Triumph and Turmoil (C4 Mondays). At one point he suggested that freedom was a “universal human right”, each word pretty heavy in its implications. Ferguson is a strange presenter. He will set something out in the most extreme terms, making it sound perverse or inexplicable, and then explain it brilliantly. The result is that he can seem myopic and boorish one minute, curious, humane, and sympathetic the next.

In the China programme he provided a diligent portrait of the advantages of autocracy – something he loathes – for a country that, due to its imperial history, is both enormous and diverse. Chinese philosophy, he argued, is essentially anti-revolutionary in message, and the Chinese ethos has always been one that places harmony above freedom, the needs of the whole above the needs of the individual.

This might sound an alien concept to someone with Ferguson’s views, but as a historian he is more interested – this time around, at least – in how things come about than whether they square with his beliefs. The Terracotta Army and the Great Wall were cited as extraordinary collective achievements that would have been impossible without “centralised authoritarian rule”. Ferguson is routinely treated as a right-wing polemicist, but this week he proved far more of a historian than Paxman – and altogether more capable of acknowledging the opposition case.

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