BOOK REVIEW: 'The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire': A Different Way of Looking at the History of the Superpower That Came Before the U.S.
Long before we were embroiled in conflicts in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, the British Empire -- yes, the one on which the sun never sets -- was there, writes H.W. Crocker III in "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire" (Regnery Publishing Inc., 384 pages, index, $19.95). Like previous Politically Incorrect Guides, Crocker's look at the British Empire turns conventional wisdom -- which says that empires are by definition bad things -- on its head.
Iraq, like Palestine and Transjordan, was handed to the Brits in the aftermath of World War I -- called "the Great War" in those days -- after the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, was carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey by the victorious Brits and French, with France getting Lebanon and Syria. What was left of the Ottoman Empire became Turkey -- the republic -- not the bird! in 1923.
The British, Crocker writes, had to contend with many of the same foes as we are encountering now in both Afghanistan and Iraq and they had to deal with the fate of Palestine as Jews and Arabs fought each other -- and both fought British soldiers. Crocker discusses at length British soldiers like John Bagot Glubb, AKA "Glubb Pasha," who came to Iraq in 1920 and later headed the Arab League, fighting the nascent Jewish army for control of Jerusalem. He also deals extensively with T.E. Lawrence, "Lawrence of Arabia." Both men, as well as others, fell in love with the romantic image of Arabs, and some, like Harry St. John Philby, father of the traitor and soviet spy Kim Philby, even converted to Islam.
Missing in the book is any reference, even slight, to another British soldier, Major General Orde Charles Wingate (1903-1944), who came to Palestine in the 1930s and ended up aiding the Jews of the mandate, setting up Special Night Squads to protect Jewish communities from Arab raiders. No fan of the Arabs, Wingate was a highly religious Christian and ardent Zionist. Assigned to the British Mandate of Palestine in 1936, he began training members of the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that became the Israel Defense Forces in 1948 when Israel declared independence. Wingate, today a national hero in Israel, was involved in several other military missions in the Sudan and later with the Chindits in the China-Burma-India front in World War II. He died in a plane crash in that front. Crocker writes about many eccentric British army officers and Orde Wingate certainly qualifies.
What can we learn from the British Empire? Crocker writes that with more than 75 percent of Americans believing the United States' economy is getting worse, we can see how the British -- the pre-socialist British, that is, he emphasizes -- provided a model of limited government, thrift, and economy that we could still stand to learn from today. I might add that probably the greatest gift we colonists received from the British Empire was the magnificent English language. But, as an English major, I'm not exactly unbiased!
Everywhere the British went, they managed to set up frameworks for democracy that exist today, in most places. I can think of a country where I lived for several months in 2008, Belize in Central America. The tiny country, formerly a British colony called British Honduras, with about 300,000 people in an area the size of New Hampshire (about 9,000 square miles) is a member of the Commonwealth and is a parliamentary democracy. It has avoided the dictatorships and the civil wars of fellow Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua --- former Spanish colonies of the region -- in large part because it was settled by the British, Crocker would argue. Belize isn't perfect, but it hasn't experienced the violence of neighboring Mexico and the other countries I mentioned.
A small force of British soldiers remains in Belize to train Belizean troops and to keep Guatemala -- which considers Belize to be part of their country-- from invading Belize. I often saw British soldiers in uniform at the big supermarket on the Northern Highway of Belize City. They looked as if they could handle just about anything, as they did in Malaya (now Malaysia) under Gerald Walter Robert Templer, the "Tiger of Malaya" in the 1950s. Templer succeeded in doing in what became Malaysia, what the U.S. and its allies failed to do in Indochina -- driving out the Communists.
In an section (Pages 233-243) that is particularly relevant, given the basket case that Zimbabwe is today under Robert Mugabe's misrule, Crocker discusses Ian Douglas Smith (1919-2007), a decorated Royal Air Force officer and the man who led the Unilateral Declaration of Independence for Rhodesia that was almost universally attacked, despite being supported, Crocker writes, by a majority of black Rhodesians.
Crocker's sprawling book says that the British Empire was actually the greatest establishers and defender of freedom in history—despite what the PC professors and pundits would preach. After participating in the African slave trade, with the connivance of African chiefs and Arab slavers, the British changed course and abolished the slave trade in 1807 and slavery in 1833 -- and used the massive power of the British Navy to enforce the change.
In his very readable (especially for conservatives and libertarians!) book, Crocker reveals:
* How, far from being anti-imperialists, America's colonists were more British than the British and wanted to create an empire of their own.
* How Mahatma Gandhi, a British trained lawyer, praised the British Empire for what it had done for India. During World War II, when many Indians were flirting with the Nazis and the Japanese, Gandhi said that "India would be nowhere without Englishmen" making the point that the Germans and Japanese were not the models to follow (Page 145).
* How the British Empire handled today's troubled hot-spots—like Africa, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and Pakistan
What the world would be like if the British Empire were still governing a quarter of the globe—hint: everyone would be a lot better off, Crocker says.
If all you know about the British Empire was what you learned in high school or college or at the movies, "The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire will be enlightening -- and surprising. But you have to approach this P.I.G. with the proper open-minded attitude, checking your Political Correctness at the door.
About the Author
H.W. Crocker III is a bestselling author who frequently writes about military history. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide™ to the Civil War, Robert E. Lee on Leadership, Triumph, Don’t Tread on Me, and the prize-winning comic novel The Old Limey. His journalism has appeared in National Review, The American Spectator, The Washington Times, and many other outlets. Educated in England and California, Crocker lives on the site of a former Confederate encampment in Virginia.