Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World

Joanna Bourke contests a relatively benign appraisal of Britain’s imperial heritage


Reviewed by: Joanna Bourke
Author: Kwasi Kwarteng
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price (RRP): £25


The British empire was an anti-democratic experiment. It encouraged instability and fostered chronic, long-term problems for local peoples. In many ways, imperial policies lagged significantly behind those in Britain: this was particularly the case in the development of democratic institutions.

Nevertheless, argues Kwasi Kwarteng (writer and Conservative MP), British imperialism has to be explored in its own terms and judged according to the politico-cultural contexts in which it operated. Not surprisingly, then, he views the empire’s legacy as “neither wholly good, nor wholly bad”.

This book is a detailed history of imperial relations in Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong. Kwarteng presents a relatively benign image of the British empire as ruled over by “natural leaders”.

It was meritocratic and individualistic. Officials “on the ground” possessed immense power: Whitehall only rarely interfered.

This was the source of instability. Literally overnight, when one official was replaced by another, policies could be reversed. Elitism ruled supreme.

The men who ran the empire were strong-willed characters like Horatio Herbert Kitchener, who never wavered in promoting their own political vision and insisting upon their moral entitlements.

Local chiefs played a crucial role, too, particularly when they were transformed into hereditary rulers. Indeed, Kwarteng reminds us: “In Kashmir, a Hindu family were established rulers over an overwhelmingly Muslim kingdom. The Dogras ruled Kashmir for a hundred years, and the effects of their rule are still felt today… Monarchy was a particularly British instrument of policy”.

The problem is that he tells us this twice, using identical words. Repetitiveness, long digressions and a blunt narrative style mar this entire book. Kwarteng has a habit of giving readers too much information, the relevance of which is not always clear.

There are also some problematic assumptions. Kwarteng is convinced that, in the British class system, “talent and industry” could trump “family” or “breeding”. At the very least, this doesn’t help explain the relative absence of women from the imperial project.

There is also a disturbing vagueness in Kwarteng’s use of the term ‘the British’: who or what, exactly, is ‘the British’? It turns out to be a rather narrowly defined group of white, highly-educated men.

All the same, Kwarteng does provide readers with many fascinating details about this failed experiment and presents us with an astute critique of American and British imperialists today who look to the empire as a model for 21st-century interventions. 

Professor Joanna Bourke is the author of What it Means to Be Human (Virago, 2011)

See also


Dominic Sandbrook – “For all their flaws, I admire Britain’s empire builders”