Friday, 26 December 2008

The sun never set - only the name changed.

This is a map of the British Empire, at its height in the 1920s:

It is, however, too small scale to fully demonstrate the extent, neglecting as it does Gibraltar, Malta and Cyprus in the Mediterranean alone - not too mention all the other strategic islands that flew the union flag. For example, Jamaica, Tobago,the Bahamas, Trinidad, Ascension Island, The Falklands, Ascension, etc etc.

When I went to school, we were taught to be proud of this achievement. We were shown the pink parts of the map - the corridor from Cairo to Cape Town - the expanses of Canada and Australia, the splendour of the "jewel in the crown", India. We were taught to be proud of those who had created it, such as Clive of India, Cecil Rhodes and others of their ilk. We were taught of the role of the private corporation, The East India Company, in this Imperial project. We were fed on Rudyard Kipling and Dr Livingstone and "the white man's burden"- the bringing of civilisation to benighted savages. All the paraphernalia of Empire was lauded and celebrated. We were taught to be proud.

We were not, of course, taught of the mass murders, treachery and slavery that made this possible. Not in primary school - any - and there was not much- of that sort of stuff was left to when we got older and attitudes had already become engrained. As children of those who had struggled through the war years, the rhetoric was all about "Their finest hour" and "the struggle for civilisation". It was simplistic and did not stand up to the scrutiny of study. It was a flag-waving celebration of cultural superiority that is still strong enough in the British psyche, however, to allow such racist and atavistic thugs as the British National Party to gain electoral success.

I want, however, to go back 80-odd years and look at the military resources that held this empire together. At its height, the British empire had 36 major bases - the Roman Empire having had only one more - 37. That was all it took to maintain control - for a while, as no empire lasts forever. Today, of course, the Roman and British empires are history. The final flurries from the disastrous Suez war to the sordid Falklands war finally revealed the toothless lion. The Age of Empires was past.

Except it is not. Today, the United States has, according to the Pentagon, 761 military bases across the world - over 20 times the British or Roman deployments. Of the 194 countries in the world, the US admits to having armed forces stationed in 39 of them. Which does not include either Afghanistan or Iraq. There is more about this on this link here. The rhetoric has changed a bit - no longer is it the "white man's burden" but it still talks about bringing "civilisation" or "democracy". At the point of the gun, perhaps, but all in the best interests of the benighted.

What is this if not Empire? I remember from my history lessons that there were two British Empires. The first, we were told, came to an abrupt and somewhat bloody end in 1776 when the 13 colonies declared independence. Then the second Empire was created. But this was not in fact the truth - sure, the 13 former colonies - now states - were no longer ruled from London but the imperial imperative still prevailed as the colonists moved west, accompanied by genocide. All that had changed was the name. The first British Empire morphed into the USA.

Thus it simply continues the imperial dream and as all empires seeks ever to expand. It may call itself a republic and claim to act in the name of democracy but as far as foreign policy goes there is an overwhelming Imperial arrogance - made so clear by the unapologetic and blatant breaches of international law by the outgoing administration. Should Obama, as seems highly likely, fail to bring these criminals to account then he is implicitly sanctioning the crimes they committed in pursuit of their imperialistic dreams. For if he does not, then no-one can since the US does not recognise the jurisdiction of any international court. It is the arrogance of power - and as such will invite nemesis.

European history shows that empires fall - and that they seem to fall very soon after they reach their apparent zenith. The city in which I now live, Budapest, is full of the faded splendour of its brief period as an Imperial capital. This lasted only decades until that Empire died in the trenches of World War One and was dismembered by the Treaty of Trianon. The second British Empire lasted a little longer but it only took a couple of decades after 1945 before it collapsed. As the USA, the current name of the first British Empire, seeks ever to expand its dominion, it is rapidly reaching the point of implosion. Perhaps that has already been reached in the deserts of Iraq and - that graveyard of Imperial dreams, Afghanistan. Not to mention the current economic disaster.

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