Sean Gabb: In Defence of the Empire

This House Regrets The Legacy Of The British Empire

February 19 @ 5:00 pm / 6:30 pm

Sean Gabb

Once the largest Empire the world has ever seen, the contentious legacy of the British Empire has been traditionally seen as a negative influence on the world. Some aspects however have caused historians to emphasise its legacy in a more positive light, pointing towards the dissemination of democracy, common law and education, including the spread of the English language. Critics of the legacy of the British Empire argue that the humanitarian atrocities, interference with territorial sovereignty, and the thin veneer of assistance acted only as a guise for a brutal form of capitalism and control.

There is no argument that the British Empire has had a lasting geo-political influence on the development of the globe, so this week the Manchester Debating Union ask: should we regret the legacy of the British Empire?

Speakers include:


– Professor Jon Wilson
Senior Lecturer in British Imperial and South Asian History at Kings College London


– Dr Sean Gabb
Director of the Libertarian Alliance, PhD in Political and Intellectual History from the University of Middlesex.

– Cllr Oliver Johnstone
Conservative Councillor for Hazel Grove


Date: February 19
Time:  5:00 pm / 6:30 pm
Event Category:


Robert Naylor


Theatre B, Roscoe Building
Theatre B Roscoe Building, The University of Manchester, Brunswick Street, Manchester, M13 9PL United Kingdom



  1. Look forward to the audio. Please bear in mind the comments of Thomas Munro, governor of Madras, in 1813:

    “I have no faith in the modern doctrine of the improvement of the Hindus, or of any other people. When I read, as I sometimes do, of a measure by which a large province has been suddenly improved, or a race of semi-barbarians civilized almost to Quakerdom, I throw away the book.”

  2. Of course, I can think of some negative aspects of the Empire. One is our fawning over the US, which only exists because of the Empire as it existed up until 1776.

  3. Well there is certainly no “fawning” of the United States – indeed British people hardly say a good word about the United States, instead attacking American for everything apart-from-the-things-it-should-be-attacked-for (for example the vast growth in regulations and Welfare State spending since the 1960s).

    As for the British Empire – it is hardly traditional to think its influence was mostly negative, that has been a position that has become mainstream since the 1960.

    Even when I was at school in the 1970s such little textbooks as “The Struggle for Canada” presented the truth that the British Empire (for all its faults) was better than the French Empire in North America (which tried to control every detail of the lives of French colonists) still less the savage indian tribes (back then people were not scared to use the Chris Kyle word “savages”) who spent their time slaughtering each other. The left really try and have it both ways about the indian tribes – claiming that they did not have private property in land (which some tribes did and some did not) and also claiming that the Europeans “robbed” the indians of their land – one can not rob someone of something if they have no concept of the private ownership of it. People who defend collective ownership of land should have a good hard look at, for example, the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. There is no biological reason why American indians should live in dire poverty (they are not “racially inferior”), the communal property ideas of such “islands of socialism” as Pine Ridge are the reason they live as they do.

    It is perfectly legitimate for the Ulstermen (“Scots Irish”), who tended to be ones who advanced the American frontier, to arrive in a piece of land and say “who owns this?” and unless they got a clear reply, to then say “well if no one owns it, it is MINE and I will kill anyone who disputes this in future – but I will not kill you if you respect my newly established private property rights”. After all the “Rednecks” were not actually “racists” (contrary to what is taught now) as they showed by being prepared to intermarry with people who came from the tribes (as long as they gave up their tribal loyalties and became Americans) – the “American Eagle look” does not come from marrying birds. As for killing – someone like John Stark (of Stark’s Rangers of New Hampshire) would kill indians, but would also kill French, or British soldiers, or American “Tory” types, or anyone else who made the terminal mistake of trying to collect taxes without his consent or enforce regulations interfering with his private property rights. I am sure that if John Stark (or Daniel Boone, or Sam Houston, or David Crockett or Kit Carson or…..) were around today they would be happily killing American “liberals” (this, rather oddly, being the name for those Americans who want to interfere in the money making of others) – without the slightest interest in the fact that some of these are blond haired and blue eyed. And nor would this be a matter of killing people for their opinions – on the contrary you could have any opinions you liked, as long as you did not try and act upon them.

    Nor is shooting someone necessarily a sign you dislike them. As Senator “Bullion” (he would only accept in physical gold or silver – it was unwise to show him paper money unless one wished to go to the next world) said of President Andrew Jackson “Oh yes I remember President Jackson, I shot him once, a fine man”.

    Indeed the American War of Independence was sparked off by various hints that the British Empire was going to become more like the French Empire – i.e. try and control the lives of the colonists by taxes and regulations.

    In India such East India Company figures as Clive and Paul Benfield were both greedy and corrupt – but certainly no more so than the Indian rulers they replaced (at least replaced in those areas that came under British rule – about a third of India did not and remained under various Princes till 1947, although if a Prince did become really awful, say decided to burn his subjects or whatever, the British would remove him).

    The “internal improvements” in India pushed by some Governor General types were not economic – but I doubt the leftists know that. So one can happily talk about railways and telegraph lines and sewer networks – and the leftists will be too pig ignorant to know that the taxes to pay for them were more of a cost than they benefits derived from these projects – by the way they were NOT for the benefit of “capitalists” either, they were various Scots-Scots [not Scots-Irish Andrew Jackson types] British representatives in India trying (sincerely trying) to do good. The various projects in the Scots Highlands were uneconomic as well (just as the “roads to nowhere” relief projects of the British government in Ireland in the 1840s made no economic sense at all – but then the British government was desperate to find new ways to spend emergency relief money in Ireland, the money that the ignorant do not know was spent in the 1840s).

    Such things as establishing peace (ending the wars between Indian Princes and vastly reducing bandit activity) were a genuine gain for the people of India. As was ending slavery and stop the burning of widows (and so on).

    In Africa the gains were even more marked.

    Anyone who says that, for example, Lugard in East and West Africa did not do vast good is just mad.

    One might as well say that Raffles should have left what became Singapore (in Asia) a swamp fought over by headhunting savages (the Chris Kyle word again) and Chinese pirates.

    It is true that, from the 1930s, the British Empire became more statist – with Planning Boards and so on (the things that were carried forward, and to an extreme, in post independence Africa and ……), however, in about 1914 the British Empire was without doubt the greatest force for good the world had ever seen.

    Ending war, terrible bandit raids, slavery (an almost universal human thing – till the British turned against it), human sacrifice and ……

    Well everything else that Sean Gabb’s leftist opponents will not want to talk about – or will deny.

    Even Lugard (as far back as the 1920s) was called a tool of the “capitalists”.

    Firstly he was not a tool of the capitalists – he was a driven man, determined to end slavery, human sacrifice and inter tribal war.

    However, had Lugard been a “tool of the capitalists” this would not have been anything to be ashamed of – as capitalism is a good thing, not a bad thing.

    Say that to the Manchester crowd Sean – watch them scream with rage.

  4. As for the last gasps of the old spirit of the British Empire.

    Well firstly every area (they were not nations before the British Empire created them) that got independence in the modern age was more statist after independence than it had been before – so if individual liberty (not some sort of collective “liberty”) is what one is interested in, then the British Empire was less bad (even at the end) than the independent governments that replaced it.

    And such places as Hong Kong (under Financial Secretary Cowperthwait – the good sort of Scot) remained lights of freedom into the modern age.

    Anyone who, for example, thinks that Hong Kong should have been handed over Mao (the largest scale mass murderer in human history) is a nutcase.

  5. In going to do battle with what is (a room full of people of “differing views”), we must remember that the British Empire did more good, to more people, over a wider area, in a shorter timescale, for less money and spent blood on either side, showing less “racism” and fascism, and more liberalism, than any other human polity in the entire history of the world.

    I have carefully moderated my words on this note here now, since many of the debate’s participants and audience on Thursday will have already found this page and will be reading it or will read it. So as you will all see, my above-paragraph does rather understate the case for being proud of the British Imperial Legacy.

    Without it, furthermore, we’d have to be meeting somewhere else, since Manchester University itself would not otherwise exist. We might have had to drive as far as Oxford, or – even worse, somewhat further away on worse roads and moister and colder and windier – Cambridge.

  6. Libertarians who think of Manchester tend to think of the Manchester Free Trade thinkers – however the city was actually a rather statist place even in the 19th century. It had municipal gas, water, (and on and on) long before even Birmingham did (Joseph Chamberlain was actually copying Manchester). People who go to Manchester and say “what a left wing place – the reverse of what it used to be” have misunderstood the history of the place. Even in 1835 when the liberals promised the new elected council would mean lower “rates” (property taxes) than the old Tory dominated Closed Corporation, the exact opposite happened. The rates INCREASED.

    Of course, in Britain, local business taxes and so on are uniform (due to central government intervention – on the Japanese principle). In the United States the left in Manchester would be allowed to do what they liked (local democracy) and Manchester would be like Detroit.

  7. We can only speculate how the world might have turned out without the various Empires and wars. Personally I prefer to believe that since it invariably involved more government rather than less that it was a very bad thing. Everything invokes oppportunity costs of things that might otherwise have been done and, for sure, a lot a lot of people died directly as a result of the British Empire that we have no reason to suppose would have died otherwise.

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