Ghosts Of Empire by Kwasi Kwarteng

51ogjsn4srl-_sx324_bo1204203200_Kwasi Kwarteng is a Conservative MP, and a Brexiter at that.  This may or may not be relevant, but I thought it was worth setting out there first thing.  In this history of the British Empire he picks six regions that came under British rule at some point (Iraq, Kashmir, Burma, Nigeria, Sudan, Hong Kong) and gives a sort of brief history and analysis of them during and after British control.  He doesn’t set out with an idealistic opposition to empire (although I suspect he might be happy to if pushed), instead he strikes at a different argument.  In a purely functional sense the Empire was chaotic, anarchic and badly managed – disinterest and a focus on individuals allowed for a massively (and constantly changing) diversity of policy.

Kwarteng’s writing is sometimes repetitive, and often uneven.  In Nigeria, for instance, I came away with a desire to read post-colonial literature but no idea why the British were actually there.  However, he does use each region to show troublesome aspects of the empire – the strict hierarchy of Hong Kong; the division sowed in Sudan; the priority given to particular cultures in Nigeria; the arbitrary decisions made in Kashmir; and the pointless adventurism of Burma.  There may be bigger and better arguments against imperialism, but Kwarteng still convinces with the argument that even on its own terms, the empire was problematic.  As a final footnote, as a Tory MP it does feel like he occasionally pulls punches – some relatively mild criticism of Chris Patten seems to back off, and he feels possibly a little too pragmatic on the topic of class.

Line In The Sand by James Barr

51edrh7kngl-_sx326_bo1204203200_I couldn’t help but compare this book to Robert Fisk’s epic The Great War For Civilisation.  James Barr’s book covers the conflict in the Middle East from the Anglo-French meetings in the first world war up to Israeli independence in 1948.  Fisk’s book featured his experiences of the Russian and American wars in Afghanistan, the Gulf War, Iraq, the Algerian civil war, Israel, Syria, and whatever bits of Lebanon that didn’t make it into his previous book, Pity the Nation.

Fisk’s book is much more personal.  There may be flaws or mistakes, but he is passionate, opinionated, and well informed.  It is a devastating read in places.  A chapter into his father’s experience with a firing squad in World War One provides context.  Jumping from the Armenian Genocide, to torture in Algeria and then to his own investigations into arms manufacturers – it’s not a light read.  It is however very, very engrossing.

James Barr’s book has a lighter tone (most things would in comparison to Fisk) and a tendency to focus on historical character, with the distance that seventy plus years can give.  It reads like a disaster slow unfolding (especially since we know the current state of things), but there are easier moments (the eccentricities of Orde Wingate or the adventures of T.E Lawrence).  Both books have a running theme of mismanagement from the western powers – uninformed decisions, petty diplomacy and careerist politicians and bureaucrats who have landed the role and can’t wait to leave (mixed with the occasional maverick fighting for their own pet cause).

The distance makes Line In The Sand an easier read, and it may have been easier for Barr to write, but ultimately it is a sad prequel to the modern situation in the region.  Both books are well written and even handed accounts of the 20th (and 21st) century history of the region, and definitely worth reading.