Benefits of Empire: A review of Matthew Lange’s Lineages of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power

      Comments Off on Benefits of Empire: A review of Matthew Lange’s Lineages of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power

Excerpts from the Literary Review of Canada September 2009

As a young boy I collected stamps, a hobby I shared with my paternal grandmother. Every Saturday we would delve into a black trunk full of stamps – a legacy of my grandfather, who had died on the operating table in 1944, while my father was serving in the RCAF. Amongst my favourites was the two penny Canadian ‘XMAS 1898’ featuring a map of the world with the British possessions inked in red. Its inscription: ‘We hold a vaster empire than has being’ was drawn from Sir Lewis Morris’ Song of Empire, an ode written for Queen Victoria’s 1887 Silver Jubilee. The map, a Mercator projection that made the Empire look even bigger, was based on a design by Sir George Parkin, then principal of Upper Canada College (and maternal great-grandfather to Michael Ignatieff).

The stamp is testimony to one of the advantages of Empire –  the Imperial Penny Post, a ‘freer trade’ idea to lower the tariff on postage to two pence within the wider Empire. Proposed at the 1898 London Postal Conference by Canadian Postmaster General, William Mulock, it caught the imagination of British Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Chamberlain saw it as another means of cementing imperial ties at a time when writing letters was as popular, at least amongst the elite, as today’s e-mail. As historian Peter Waite’s tale in the Beaver (December 2007) records, Muloch triumphantly sent the first letter bearing Parkin’s map on Christmas Day 1898 to his British counterpart, the Duke of Norfolk.

It was, arguably, yet another example of the kind of positive imperial initiative that gave meaning to one of our enduring colonial legacies, our constitutional mantle of ‘peace, order and good government’. It is the colonial legacy that McGill sociologist Matthew Lange examines in Lineages of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power…

My own experience in colonial Hong Kong, especially in the period after Tiananmen Square, suggested that the vast majority of Hong Kongers, if they had been permitted a vote, would have happily chosen to retain colonial rule. The vast majority, after all, had already voted with their feet when they left the Mainland and crossed into Hong Kong. Indeed, the fences in the northern territories, manned by the celebrated Gurhkas, were there to keep the flow at bay although the British devised, at least in the early years after Mao consolidated his hold, a kind of Darwinian safe touch policy whereby if you made it to the island you were considered ‘home free’. Is it any wonder that Milton Friedman considered Hong Kong the epitome of free enterprise?

When considering the developmental impact of institutions, however, it is also worth noting that adopting either the Westminster model or its American derivative is clearly not enough to guarantee success.  With some notable exceptions, including Hong Kong and Singapore, post-colonial states in Asia, Africa and Latin America have mostly failed to achieve levels of growth or political stability associated with the United States or the ‘old Dominions’ such as Canada and Australia.

In a celebrated 1994 interview in Foreign Affairs, Singapore’s founding leader, Lee Kuan Yew, provided his own explanation for the state’s unusual success.  He attributed it to ‘Confucian values’ and lectured the West on its failures, arguing that “We use the family to push economic growth. We were fortunate we had this cultural backdrop: the belief in thrift, hard work, filial piety and loyalty and the extended family, and, most of all, the respect for scholarship and learning.”Lee Kwan Yew is right –  at least in his larger argument that culture does matter.

The late American political scientist Samuel Huntington had a similar view, arguing in favour of the centrality of culture in shaping institutions and, subsequently, political outcome. In Who are We? Huntington (p.59) asked: “Would America be the America it is today if in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it had been settled not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is no. It would not be America; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.”

Frank Fukuyama points out that successful governance also depends on religious and cultural traditions. In an essay in his edited Explaining the Development Gap Between the United States and Latin America (2007), Fukuyama argues that “the informal matrix of norms, beliefs, values, traditions, and habits that constitute a society are critical for the proper functioning of formal institutions, and a political science that pays attention only to the design of formal institutions and fails to understand normative and cultural factors will fail.”

While Lange doesn’t deal with the ‘old dominions’ the British experience, especially in America, had a significant influence on its governance patterns in the rest of the empire. The debacle in 1783 at Yorktown, where “almost barefoot,” British officers behaved like “whipped schoolboys” while the British military band played a dirge titled “The World Turned Upside Down” significantly changed British colonial strategy. Canada became the first beneficiary with the Quebec Act’s recognition of diversity in language and religion. A similar pragmatism influenced the substantial self-rule that was subsequently conceded to Canada and other white-settler dominions…

see also comment Re: “Benefits of Empire” by Colin Robertson