This non-fiction journey through six former British colonies is very timely, as five of them made the news this year: Hong Kong (protests); Kashmir (India revoking its special status); Burma (the Rohingya massacres and war crimes charges in the Hague); Iraq (continuing unrest and instability) and Sudan (protests and the ouster of longtime dictator, Omar al-Bashir). The sixth country, Nigeria, has thankfully had a relatively quiet 2019.
Kwarteng’s overall thesis is that the British governed their colonies on an ad hoc basis, with policy being determined by the particular colonial officer who rose to power in each colony, and changing when that officer changed. He explores the thesis colony by colony, showing us how the events in each particular location have largely contributed to the current instability there. For example, in Hong Kong, he traced how uninterested the British were in giving democratic rights to the populace until the Thatcher years, ie: right before the scheduled handover to China. Not only did this mean that democratic ideals hadn’t had a chance to take any foothold before the handover, but it also strained relations between China and the West because China saw it as an underhanded move aimed at the Chinese state as opposed to a real belief in democracy. It’s a really interesting history to look back on now as protests seeking more automony are rocking Hong Kong. The other countries are equally interesting and throws the recent events in those countries into a new light.
The criticisms I read of this book tended to focus on either a) Kwarteng apologizing for/excusing the British; and/or b) the history not being fulsome enough (leaving out India, choosing these particular countries rather than others, etc.). I don’t find either of these criticisms particular compelling. Firstly, I didn’t read anything in this book as apologizing for the British- to the contrary, the impacts of the decisions the British made are often appalling, and Kwarteng traces these lines neatly- this accords blame not absolves it. Secondly, the complaint about this book not being fulsome enough is ridiculous- the British Empire was huge, there is no way to address it in a single book. If you have an interest in India or other colonies specifically, I’m sure there’s a book out there that gets into it, and you can read that book with Kwarteng’s thesis in mind- see if it fits there too (or write your own book about it!).
My only criticism is that I find with most non-fiction books- its hard to keep interest piqued through a long non-fiction book. Parts of this were slower and I had to really focus, but the subject matter still feels important, and I’m glad I worked through those parts- the background knowledge I gained is more than just obliquely interesting; it actually helps me better understand current events in these six places.