by Nathaniel Mehr

A terrible complacency has for some time been seeping into centre-left discourse on the question of empire; in this short book Andrew Murray, best known for his work as chair of Stop the War, looks critically at how a humanitarian reading of imperialisms, past and present, is becoming obscured by the dogmatic rantings of pro-imperialist celebrity journalists such as Christopher Hichens.

A good chunk of the first half of this book consists of a straightforward comparison between the violence inflicted on Europe by Nazi Germany and the barbarism of British colonialism and US neo-colonialism in order to highlight significant parallels of brutality and repression. That such a comparison is likely to be dismissed as tenuous and reductive by many commentators, and politely ignored by others, is symptomatic of the problem Murray is examining. His analogy is pertinent, if only because the priority given to the Second World War in our school curriculum has tended to define British values in terms of irreconcilable opposition to the barbarism of the Third Reich and everything it stood for. Britain’s “finest hour” became the foundation of her credibility in world affairs in the post-war period. The effect has been to facilitate the operation, in the court of public opinion, of a presumption of good faith with regard to British military adventures, past and present, so that the horrors of torture, cruelty, indiscriminate killing and systemised brutality that facilitated British colonial expansion have been consigned to that singularly vague condescension traditionally reserved for victims of less important atrocities.

But whereas, until relatively recently, the polite thing was to gloss over the more sordid aspects of British imperialism and its post-war American successor, the past few years have witnessed the rise to prominence of a number of less fastidious historians who have acquired some degree of celebrity status by espousing a forthright and bullishly pro-imperialist line. Their rise has coincided neatly with the “war on terror” and its associated conflicts, and it is surely a measure of the progressive values of publications such as The Guardian and the New Statesman that they have repeatedly given substantial column inches to the work of Niall Ferguson and his ilk, thus helping to enhance the credibility of an anachronistic and neo-colonialist adventurism as well as furnishing the cynicism of New Labour’s foreign policy with something resembling an intellectual component. Men like Niall Ferguson are dangerous, and that is why The Imperial Controversy is an important and timely book.