The Second Anglo-Indian Empire
Will we see the Modi-fication of the Tory Party?
‘It would have been more accurate to talk not of a British, but of an Anglo-Indian empire,’ Robert Tombs wrote in The English and their History.
Rather than being a straight case of one people ruling another, the historian meant, the Raj was controlled by a highly-intwined elite comprising British administrators and adventurers, and Indian aristocrats.
British rule in India was complicated, emerging with the rapacious but courageous men of the East India Company, who married local women (sometimes more than one) and behaved like any previous conquerors. Left alone they might have likewise assimilated, or formed a sort of caste of their own, but they needed help from home, and the people back in Britain had competing ideas about what to do with the subcontinent.
‘Radicals, both secular and Christian, believed in the universality of progressive values,’ Tombs wrote, ‘which they considered Britain had a duty to uphold’. There were the utilitarians, who were what we would now call cultural imperialists; Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote a paper on education in India, saying that money should be spent on teaching English and European science, not ‘medical doctrines which would disgrace an English Farrier’ including ‘History, abounding with kings thirty foot high… and Geography, made up of seas of treacle and seas of butter.’
Then there were the more conservative-minded, keener to preserve local traditions, especially if it made Hindus and Muslims less likely to revolt and damage their profits. There were even some who wished to have no part in empire, who would in later decades come to be called Little Englanders; Richard Cobden looked forward to the ‘happy day when England has not an acre of territory in Continental Asia’.
As time went by, the obvious contradiction of an increasingly democratic and liberal state subjecting millions of people to its rule — sometimes cruel, sometimes benign, but never consented to — began to nag. John Robert Seeley, Cambridge historian of empire, asked in 1883: ‘how can the same nation pursue two lines of policy so radically different…. despotic in Asia and democratic in Australia?... Why do we… involve ourselves in the anxiety and responsibility of governing two hundred millions of people in Asia?’