THE POLITICALLY INCORRECT GUIDE TO THE BRITISH EMPIRE
By H.W. Crocker III
Regnery, $19.95, 394 pages
Reviewed by Brett M. Decker
London-based financier Robert Agostinelli predicted to a mutual dining companion recently that I would only order Sapphire and tonic for pre-supper cocktails. “In his mind, drinking Bombay gin is one little way to help keep the Empire alive,” the chairman of the Rhone Group explained, pointing out that a portrait of Queen Victoria adorns every bottle. And he was right. Seemingly minor habits mean a lot for the tweedy set that worships Evelyn Waugh, suffers to keep old Jaguars running and names their offspring after English monarchs.
The zeal of Anglophiles tends to be overdone - like food in Old Blighty - because it needs to compensate for an anti-historical political correctness that has infected academia, twisting an objectively positive institution - the British Empire - into something bad. One writer has done more than hoist a few G&Ts for queen and country. Harry Crocker’s new book, “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire,” sets the record straight about the small island that governed a quarter of the planet and had a civilizing influence on the rest of it.
This politically incorrect guide is true to its name and doesn’t shy away from controversial subjects. It carefully recounts how Britannia used the Royal Navy and land forces to put the African slave trade out of business, to the chagrin of many Americans. The author also explains that the blood feud between the Irish and their British overlords wasn’t originally over religion (both lands were Catholic), but rather, “England regarded Ireland as an uncongenial, barbarous, mystifying colony - but one necessary for the defense of the realm because it was an all too convenient jumping-off point for possible invasions.” To add injury to insult, the reader is reminded that the first English conquest of Ireland in 1169 was at the request of an Irish king and approved by the pope (who happened to be English), and that Christianity was originally brought to the Emerald Isle by St. Patrick, an Englishman.
The most impressive takeaway after reading this work is the enormity of the imperial undertaking and the efficiency with which it was run. India, with more than 300 million souls, was occupied and managed by a mere 100,000 Britons. By comparison, California pays over 206,000 full-time bureaucrats to mismanage 37 million residents of the Golden State. It took pints upon pints of personal sacrifice and a stiff upper lip to rule so much territory and most of the seas for so long. As Mr. Crocker summarizes, “Young men, straight out of school, could find themselves in distant lands acting as lawgivers to primitive tribes and dangerous brigands; they were men of conservative sentiments, liberal ideals and boyish pluck.”
The history of Albion’s empire is dominated by colorful names such as Captain Morgan, Wellington, Raffles and Lawrence of Arabia, all dashing personalities whether a battlefield commander, pirate or businessman. One of the less-familiar personages from the past is Sir Gerald Templer, the general whose vision snuffed out the 12-year uprising led by ethnic Chinese communists in modern-day Malaysia in the 1940s and ‘50s. “The shooting side of this business is only 25 percent of the trouble; the other 75 percent is getting the people of this country behind us,” the “Tiger of Malaya” explained in 1952. “The answer lies not in pouring more troops into the jungle, but in the hearts and minds of the people.” The late U.S. Air Force Gen. Edward Lansdale, a longtime CIA operative, was a disciple of Sir Gerald’s counter-insurgency strategy based on winning “hearts and minds” and implemented aspects of it into operations that subdued the Huk rebellion in the Philippines in the 1950s and showed promise during our early years in Vietnam in the 1960s. Many of Templer’s ideas were resurrected again with success after America liberated Iraq.
The value of Mr. Crocker’s book isn’t only in what it says, but what it implies. “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” offers a cautionary tale for Americans who don’t believe the sun could ever set on our great land but who are nonetheless skeptical of the U.S. responsibility to lead the world. Even the grandest nations collapse when a people no longer believes in itself or its mission.
Late in life, Winston Churchill sighed, “I have worked very hard all my life, and I have achieved a great deal - in the end to achieve nothing.” The former prime minister was lamenting the demise of the empire he hoped would continue to be the guarantor of peace and a force for good in the world. Yet, as Mr. Crocker puts it, “When Britain could no longer maintain the Pax Britannica, it became the Pax Americana.” Despite the sun having mostly set on the British Empire, the old limeys’ high-minded values of limited government and individual rights endure through its former colony, America, which took up the important burden as Western Civilization’s chief proselytizer. Chin-chin to that.
Brett M. Decker is editorial page editor of The Washington Times. He is coauthor of the new book “Bowing to Beijing” (Regnery, 2011).