At the very first European History lecture I went to at Edinburgh University in 1969, the lecturer told us about a student he’d once tutored who had submitted his first essay in response to the question “Why did the Spanish Empire fall?”
The student’s answer was very brief. Extremely brief, in fact. The student’s essay consisted of one sentence:
“The Spanish Empire fell because it was God’s will.”
The lecturer then went on to tell us how he’d dealt with the situation. Without disagreeing with the student’s viewpoint, he’d explained that what was wanted in essays was much more detail, and an explanation of the process by which the various protagonists at the time had carried out “God’s will”.
In those days, it was possible to achieve a 2:2 without a great deal of effort or intellect, simply by following and repeating a Marxist historiographical interpretation of history. “The chief tenets of Marxist historiography are the centrality of social class and economic constraints in determining historical outcomes.” Getting a 2:1 or better (only one student, out of nearly 300 in my year, got a First) required either a very good Marxist interpretation, or a different approach.
The book I’m reading just now, Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, by Kwazi Kwarteng, takes a very different appproach. Some of his arguments are persuasive, but I think he overplays the importance of individuals in changing the course of history. He says, for example, “The individual temper, character and interests of the people in charge determined policy almost entirely throughout the British Empire.” I can’t agree with that very general statement, even though he proceeds to give a number of good examples, such as the history of Kashmir and the Instrument of Accession whereby Maharajah Hari Singh agreed to accede to the Dominion of India (this lead to three wars between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and indicents such as The Siege which I wrote about recently), the influence of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and events surrounding the annexation of Burma.
Where I do agree with Kwarteng is in his statement that, concerning the British Empire, “There simply was no master plan. Individuals had different interests; centralising forces were often dissipated by individuals on the ground, even when powerful characters, sitting in Whitehall, were trying to shape events in the empire.” There were trends, but nothing like a master plan, especially when you consider the different governments with differing attitudes towards expansion.
Kwarteng provides some interesting facts concerning those who helped develop the British Empire. In the majority of cases, those who served abroad in various capacities were not from the upper classes, but were rather middle class and professional. A staggering one-third of those who joined the Sudan Political Service, for example, were the sons of clergymen.