Gotham Diary:
27 June 2012


We don’t have the word. In French, formation can mean “training.” Déformation professionelle is therefore a clever description of the ways in which a profession, especially an inward-looking one, can warp an exponent’s outlook. I’ve been inspired to take the idea a step further, to suggest that an élite can fall into the trap of mis-training its cadets, going in as it were. Instead of teaching them what they’ll need to know, it teaches them — something else. Something like Latin, Greek, and rugby. That the thesis behind Kwasi Kwarteng’s intriguing examination of six colonial muddles, Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern Age. Even today, Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan and Nigeria all bear the unhealed wounds of imperial interference and mismanagement (the sixth case, Hong Kong, makes a wickedly ironic contrast). Another thing that they have in common is the overwhelmingly public-school background of the Englishmen responsible. Kwarteng is not wrong to see a connection.

Instead of developing an overarching imperial policy and making sure that it was implemented, Whitehall relied on the holders of a narrowly-defined set of credentials to run the Empire. Anyone capable of surviving the rigors of the great public schools and of earning a decent degree at Oxford or Cambridge — and especially anyone who could add to these achievements the glory of a “blue” — was deemed the best candidate for an administrative position, and administrators were vested with vast discretion. Kwarteng talks of “individualism,” and that may be appropriate in a British context, but, as an American, what I see is widespread uniformity of outlook coupled with a rather naive faith in “initiative.” To complete an education that was at least as demanding athletically (and socially, as in “team spirit”) as it was academically was regarded as proof of all-purpose good judgment. And why not? The British Empire did not include England itself. Nor did it include the Anglophone Dominions that were established in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with a view to avoiding further mutinies on the American model. The British Empire included only lands inhabited by human beings thought to be ineffably inferior to the cream of civilized manhood skimmed from England’s venerable schools. Anyone from that class of gentleman was surely entitled to govern the rest of the world.

The frequent reversals in local policy that Kwarteng laments — the most ruinous, probably, was effected in Sudan, where a “Southern Policy” was reversed after sixteen years of thorough implementation — resulted not from an excess of individuality in imperial staff but from the accidents of personal outlook (which may be what Kwarteng means by “individuality”). One man might be attracted to Islam, and another hate it; neither disposition would be the result of their studiedly aloof schooling. Such differences appear to have been regarded almost as hobbies, as innocent and inconsequential eccentricities. But such was the power vested in imperial administrators that slight irregularities in the overall uniformity of their background could produce sharp contrasts. In Hong Kong, a governor capable of speaking several dialects of Chinese was succeeded by one who could manage no more than “the easy parts of a newspaper.” Any genuine individualists, it seems to me, would have been weeded out in the vetting process.  

Kwarteng’s conclusion about Hong Kong encapsulates the whole book.

Hong Kong’s history goes to the heart of the nature of the British Empire. In reversion to China under a regime of “benign authoritarianism,” the term Chris Patten used to describe British rule, shows a remarkable continuity. Hierarchy, defence, government by elite administrators, united by education in the same institutions, in largely the same subjects, were all features of British imperial rule which were also characteritic of officials in imperial China. The story of Hong Kong also confirms the enormous power wielded by colonial governors. If Sir Mark Young had been succeeded by administrators who shared his vision, the history of Hong Kong might well have been very different. Lastly, Hong Kong showed, in many ways, how changes in Britain were not reflected by changes in the wider empire. Patten was a child of the liberal 1960s and blindly believed a version of his country’s history that presented the British Empire as an enlightened liberal force, spreading democracy and freedom to the furthese shores of the earth. Margaret Thatcher had grown up through the Second World War, listening to, and believing, Churchill’s late Victorian rhetoric that invoked Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” imagery; she genuinely shared the Whiggish notion that British history, with its Magna Carta and Glorious Revolution, was the story of the development of “freedom” and liberal democratic ideas of government. So far as this idea was true for Britain, it did not apply to any real extent to the administration of the British Empire, which was always a wholly different political organization from Britain itself. The British Empire had nothing to do with liberal democracy and, particularly in Hong Kong, was administered along lines closer to the ideals of Confucius than to the vivid, impssioned rhetoric of Sir Winston Churchill, or even Shakespeare.

I harp on “individualism” not because I disagree with Kwarteng’s thesis — I don’t — but because I believe that there are lessons in Ghosts of Empire that Americans need to learn, and that “individualism” will get in the way of the learning. Not only does a preponderance of leading business executives share advanced degrees from a handful of elite institutions, but the training provided by these schools is itself blinkered by elitism — by the conviction that their faculties know best what they ought to teach. As a result, few professors at our great law and business schools have anything like the practical experience that we insist upon for doctors and engineers. (Many of the former, I would venture, have never spent any significant time outside the academy.)

We learned long ago, from A Jewel in the Crown, that the Empire provided an exalted way of life to Englishmen and -women of unremarkable middle-class backgrounds. Kwasi Kwarteng shows that it also provided an outlet for their autocratic impulses. Perhaps the empire came to be seen as a perversion of British life precisely because it filtered out upstarts and grandees from the sceptered isle.