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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

Q and A with Kwasi Kwarteng, M.P.

Kwasi Kwarteng is an English M.P., Cambridge graduate, and, in his spare time, historian and author. His recent book, Ghosts of Empire: Britain's Legacies in the Modern World, is one of the most interesting treatments of this perennially favourite topic in the last decade and recently reviewed in the New York Times. Going back into the archives, he profiles six imperial trouble-spots – including Iraq, Kashmir, and Burma – where the ghosts of imperial adventure and administration continue to haunt modern politics. Dr. Kwarteng kindly took the time to speak with the Indigo Non-Fiction Blog.

Indigo Non-Fiction Blog [INFB]: Ghosts of Empire tells compelling stories about the individuals who administered the British Empire. In contrast to frequent academic focus on broad themes – economics, society, non-elites – what drew you to individuals at the top in a kind of “great men” model of history?

Kwasi Kwarteng [KK]: At University, I studied classical history under the influence of Marxist inspired academics. Their focus was very much on structural issues behind history, “themes” if you like. They talked about the ancient economy and society in very general terms, and were interested in what they called “subaltern history” – the study of non-elites. I think their approach to history was entirely wrong. As a politician, I think individual responsibility and decision making lie at the heart of events. I also think this type of history is much more interesting than broad brush assertions about the nature of the class struggle in Ancient Greece, for example.

My experience in politics, and business organizations, has led me to believe that individuals have huge influence for good or ill. On a more practical note, this is the kind of history that people have always wanted to read, from the days of Gibbon and Macaulay to now.  I can’t think of that many Marxist inspired history books that have sold as well as Anthony Beevor’s Stalingrad, Simon Sebag Montefiore on Stalin or Andrew Roberts’ The Storm of War. The public has the correct intuition that individuals are interesting, and crucially important in history.  That’s why biographies are still widely read. From an early age, I have thought that narrative, driven by individuals, is at the core of good historical writing.  You only need to look at the first Western historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, to understand this.

INFB: Staying with the role of individuals. You describe imperial history as the often anarchic result of individual choices – the classic “empire acquired in a fit of absence of mind”. Do you fear that this may absolve the institutional empire, such as civil services which executed policy, of its worst excesses by shifting responsibility to individual viceroys and governors?

KK: Actually I don’t say much about the notion of the Empire being “acquired in a fit of absence of mind”. Putting an emphasis on individual responsibility does not mean that these actions are somehow accidental or “absent minded”. I think you are right to suggest that institutions themselves, for example the Colonial Office, had a part to play, but my point about individualism was mainly about culture. We forget the extent to which the late Victorians worshipped the cult of the individual. I have an entire chapter on Lord Kitchener describing this. They believed in individualism almost as a philosophy.   It was this feeling that I wanted to get across in the book.

INFB: This role of public-schoolboy Oxbridge administrators is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting themes in the book, and lasts until Chris Patten in 1997. In contrast, lawyers and technocrats staff modern governments. What allowed a group of men educated in the liberal arts to run the largest empire in the world?

KK: People often ask how a group of young men, educated in Latin and Greek, were able to run an empire. This question misunderstands the nature of British culture and society in the Imperial era. Individual responsibility, grit and determination, what the Victorians called “character”, were regarded as infinitely more important than any technical skills an official might possess. In this context, classical education which, after all, to the Victorians, was an education in “ethos” – ethos is simply an ancient Greek word meaning character – could breed an Imperial elite of administrators.

Examples drawn from ancient history, literature and general culture were viewed as being far more fundamental than technical proficiency.  There were of course many technicians, civil engineers, doctors, surveyors and architects involved in Empire. It’s just that for political leadership the British looked to generalists, usually educated in the classics. This bias towards generalists is summed up in Winston Churchill’s quotation, “I want scientists to be on tap, not on top.” This may appal modern sensibilities, but it is an accurate description of how the Empire worked.

INFB: The parts of empire you focus on – Iraq, Sudan, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria – are the trouble spots of both imperial and modern times. So, I have to ask about the obvious omission – why no comment on mandate Palestine?

KK: If I had included a section on Palestine, this section would have dominated responses to the book, and I was anxious that no individual section should take too much attention. Other areas which I could have discussed were Kenya, Cyprus, and, of course, South Africa. In writing about the Empire, an institution which lasted 400 years and spanned a quarter of the globe, some selection is inevitable. I could have done the book in lots of different ways, but ended up with a structure I was happy with.

INFB: The depth of archival research behind the book is impressive and the archives are, perhaps, another ghost of empire. They are located in Britain and tell the story from the British point of view. How much opportunity was there to tell the other side, even if only the stories of native elites who cooperated with the British?

KK: There was some opportunity to deal with the “native” elites – people like the Sardauna of Sokoto and Sardar Patel did leave some memoirs and correspondence, yet it is true to say that the overwhelming portion of my research dealt with archives held in Britain. These archives held material emanating from “native” princes and chiefs, but it right to say that their flavour is particularly British. I did not view this as a problem, given that my principal objective was to understand the nature of the British imperial culture from the point of view of the rulers and Whitehall. Again, as an active politician I am more inclined to be more interested in the mindset of decision makers than the usual concerns of academics in “subaltern” history. I think there is room for both but my interest in individuals, and my belief in their capacity to affect outcomes, naturally led me to one approach.

INFB: Do you hope to continue writing in this area? Ghosts of Empire was, for me, the most interesting imperial history since Niall Ferguson’s Empire and takes quite a different approach. It would be great to see more of your research.

KK: I will certainly write other books of a historical nature. I am not convinced that I will always write about Empire, and may branch out into other areas like financial history and international relations. Having said that, I will probably come back to Empire at some point.

INFB: You’re an historian, author, and sitting MP – sometimes a hazardous combination! Since you focus on the history of the world’s trouble spots, and appear sometimes implicitly to comment on their current state, I have to ask about the role of politics. Was there any political review or self-editing in the book? Can MPs write about these areas without fear of the party Whip?

KK: There was no political review, as you put it. Most of the research had been conducted before I was elected to Parliament and I feel, certainly in Britain, that politics and history are sufficiently distinct to be able to follow where my historical research leads without fear of censure. Politicians should be able to conduct historical research, if their leisure time permits, in a free way. In Britain this has always been the case. I have the honour of belonging to the British House of Commons, whose members over the past five centuries have included great historians such as Gibbon and Macaulay and, before that, Francis Bacon and Thomas More, who wrote histories as well as other works. More recently, MPs like Winston Churchill and our current Foreign Secretary William Hague, as well as my own contemporaries Tristram Hunt, Chris Skidmore and Ben Gummer have all written works of history.   This is a good tradition, which I feel has enhanced the British Parliament.


The Indigo Non-Fiction Blog would like to thank Kwasi Kwarteng, and his publicist Jennifer Lynch at PublicAffairs, for their time and assistance in facilitating this blog.

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