Ghosts of Empire: what Kwasi Kwarteng’s book tells us about him – The Guardian

A 2010 book on the British empire by the man set to be chancellor shows a very different worldview to that of some of his Tory colleagues
The British empire was an anti-democratic, poorly governed institution that created some of the world’s worst geopolitical flashpoints. Steeped in public school snobbery, it otherwise had very little unifying ideology.
“Much of the instability in the world is a product of its legacy of individualism and haphazard policymaking,” Kwasi Kwarteng concludes in Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World, published a few months after his election in 2010 as the MP for Spelthorne. He claimed to be sidestepping the “sterile debate” over whether “empire was a good or bad thing”, but the book’s conclusions are quietly, firmly critical.
There is nothing contentious about his arguments, and his narrative has none of the fury of Sathnam Sanghera’s Empireland, but the book was still described as controversial by some reviewers on publication, simply because it was seen as startling that a Conservative MP would reject Niall Ferguson’s then recent boosterish revisionist take on empire.
Ghosts of Empire has been less closely scrutinised than Kwarteng’s subsequent publication, Britannia Unchained, which he co-wrote with fellow MPs including Liz Truss, Priti Patel and Dominic Raab. But now that he is widely expected to be named chancellor within days, the business secretary’s back catalogue is being pored over for insights into his political worldview.
The Conservative party’s culture war on empire continues to rage. While Kwarteng’s rejection of nostalgia for empire is barely remarkable, it makes him an outlier among senior Tories. In a Spectator piece in 2002, Boris Johnson wrote that the African continent “may be a blot, but it is not a blot on our conscience”, adding: “The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge any more.”
Michael Gove said too much history teaching was informed by postcolonial guilt, and these sentiments have been echoed by newer ministers. Suella Braverman claimed recently that “the British empire was a force for good”, pointing to the “administration, the civil services, the infrastructure, ports, railways, roads”. Kemi Badenoch said that while “terrible things” happened under the empire, there were also “good things” and “we need to tell both sides of the story”. Nadhim Zahawi agreed that children should be taught about the empire’s supposed benefits, arguing: “Iraq was left a legacy of a British civil service system that actually served the country incredibly well for many, many decades.”
In his book, Kwarteng rejects any attempt to portray the British empire as an enlightened liberal force promoting democracy around the world. “Far from being harbingers of liberal pluralism, the servants of empire were naturally at home with the idea of human inequality, with notions of hierarchy and status.”
What else does the book reveal about Kwarteng? As the new prime minister’s closest colleague, how might this perspective help shape the new government’s thinking?
Firstly, he is very well informed about this subject. It is sad that this is remarkable, but it is significant at a time when it has been accepted that civil servants and politicians have become so ignorant about Britain’s colonial past that the Home Office is in the process of devising an education module designed to instruct officials about the legacy of empire.
Accepting a series of recommendations designed to ensure her department avoided a repeat of the Windrush scandal, Patel promised to launch a mandatory training session on race, empire and colonialism for all staff. There was official recognition that the ignorance of politicians and officials on this subject had led in part to the scandal in which thousands of people who moved to Britain from its former colonies were wrongly classified as being in the country illegally.
Presumably Kwarteng’s readiness to confront the failings of empire will make him unsympathetic to the cheerleading patriotism of his colleagues – a relentless positivity that has led, for example, to officials refusing to make public a Home Office-commissioned history of immigration legislation that concluded: “The British empire depended on racist ideology in order to function.”
Kwarteng’s book studies six areas in detail – Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Sudan, Nigeria and Hong Kong – looking at how catastrophic mistakes by British colonial administrators continue to make large parts of the world dangerously unstable. He describes how the establishment of the puppet Hashemite dynasty in Iraq was a disaster and how British colonisers’ rash decision to install a Hindu maharajah to rule over Muslim-majority Kashmir had dire consequences.
He has a particular fascination with analysing the establishment roots of the administrators (we learn a lot about which prep school, public school and Oxbridge college the colonisers attended, and whether they were more taken with cricket or Eton fives).
His chapter on Sudan reveals that of the 56 senior administrators taken on between 1902 and 1914, 27 had a blue from Oxford or Cambridge; they played polo in Darfur, organised lavish balls in Khartoum, and their chaotic administrative decisions had calamitous results.
You would hope that his familiarity with the fallout from mistakes made by colonial administrators might give him a different perspective on Britain’s responsibility towards people crossing the Channel to seek asylum in the UK.
There are currently as many as 1,000 people from Sudan and South Sudan in Calais hoping to cross to the UK, according to Care4Calais; the vast majority of them do not have money to pay people smugglers for places on the small boats crossing the Channel, and spend longer trying to smuggle themselves into lorries. Will his understanding of the roots of the conflict make him more thoughtful about the wisdom of threatening to dispatch those who risk their lives to seek sanctuary here to asylum processing centres in Rwanda?
The book is well written and full of memorable detail. We learn that Lord Kitchener’s weird father had such an aversion to bed linen that he forced his family to use newspapers instead of blankets.
We discover that General Charles Gordon was delighted to be posted to Sudan, declaring before he left: “I dwell on the joy of never seeing Great Britain again, with its horrid, wearisome dinner parties and miseries.” If Kwarteng’s budget statements are written in an equally lively style, it will be a source of some happiness for lobby correspondents.
Kwarteng (educated at Eton, Cambridge and Harvard, and born to Ghanaian parents) offers a biting analysis of hierarchy and snobbery that moulded the empire, detailing which rank of Indian princes were allowed to send Christmas cards or albino tiger skins to Queen Victoria, and setting out the table of precedence in Hong Kong’s colonial administration, which made clear that the superintendent of prisons was seven points lower in the rankings that the manager of the railways.
He divides administrators between cads and bounders and reliable, unassuming, understated operators. Colleagues should assume he will be watching for any modern echoes of bureaucratic absurdity and storing them up for his memoirs.
His sharpest criticism of empire is of the “anarchic individualism” that ran through it. “The reliance on individual administrators to conceive and execute policy with very little strategic direction from London often led to contradictory and self-defeating policies, which in turn brought disaster to millions,” he writes. There are moments where you wonder if the criticism of the inconsistent, haphazard way that Britain’s imperial rule was imposed might equally be applied to the Conservative party’s reshuffle-heavy rule of the UK over the last decade.
This article was amended on 30 August 2022 to correct a reference to Kwasi Kwarteng being educated at Oxford University. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge.