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Roman coin of Augustus

In a fiery piece last week on this site, Luke de Pulford denounced the Foreign Office for averting its gaze as genocide is wreaked upon the Yazidis. He urged the British Government to declare it will do all it can to ensure the perpetrators of such crimes are brought to justice.

My purpose in this piece is rather different. It is to wonder how such atrocities can be averted in the first place. Easter Sunday saw a murderous attack, in which at least 70 people died, aimed by a Taliban splinter group at Christians in Lahore.

That was a reminder of the mortal danger posed by malevolent sectarians to all who fall outside their narrow, nihilistic definition of faith, including many millions of Muslims, the unfortunate Yazidis, and Christian communities which have existed since the time of Christ.

How have those Christian communities survived for so long? During the greater part of their history, they accommodated themselves to various empires. For the imperialists, whether Roman or Ottoman, knew they could only rule with the consent of a considerable proportion of the governed, who were generally divided, in any considerable territory, into an almost indescribably complicated mixture of peoples.

The imperialist may arrive as a conqueror, but in order to survive for centuries, finds it indispensable to acquire reliable local allies, who know they would be worse off under any other dispensation.

So empires tend to look with favour on minorities who are prepared to take the pragmatic view, preferring prosperity within the empire to finding themselves on the losing side in the civil war which would follow the decline and fall of Rome or Constantinople.

For a brief spell, by Roman standards, Britain, France and latterly the United States tried to step into the gap left by the Ottomans. But conditions were unfavourable, for this period saw the rise of nationalism.

Nineteenth-century liberals regarded nationalism as an overwhelmingly positive development. The nation was the community within which parliamentary government could develop, enabling a growth of freedom far greater than had been possible in the days of the unwieldy and anachronistic empires beneath which the aspirant nations were stifled and subjugated.

In the 20th century, this optimistic view of nationalism as the precursor to democracy became harder to sustain. In Italy and Germany, two newly united nations, liberalism failed and fascism flourished. In Russia, liberalism also failed, and yielded to a communism which became, like Nazism, a mercilessly expansionist ideology, bent on exterminating those whom it identified as its opponents.

So liberals became less keen on nationalism. Nowadays, they are more likely to support the European Union, which they see as an antidote to nationalism.

Liberals could not, however, bring themselves to renounce or even qualify their approval of democracy. It would be too cruel, too immoral, too unfair to deny the blessings of self-government to any country which demanded them.

After the Second World War, the British Empire was quickly wound up, for in the state of public opinion then existing, no other course was defensible. But as Alec Douglas-Home remarked in his memoir, The Way the Wind Blows, published in 1976, “Looking back it seems we were almost crazily quixotic to persuade ourselves that such political refinements as tolerance of parliamentary opposition, and restraint in the use of political power which it had taken us six hundred years to design, could take root in one or two generations.”

And this crazily quixotic outlook endures to this day. As we watched the Arab Spring unfold on our television screens, it was very difficult to avoid hoping and even believing that here was the long-delayed arrival of democracy.

The present condition of such countries as Iraq, Libya and Syria does nothing to confirm the supposition that the overthrow of a despot will lead to the setting up of a democracy. In Syria, the despot remains in partial control, but no one is now naive enough to suppose that getting rid of Assad would on its own constitute a solution.

In 1968, Ken Minogue published a book, Nationalism, in which he remarked that “joy at independence was often rather muted among tribes like the Ashanti in Ghana, or the Muslims living in India, among the Chinese in Malaysia, and Asians (generally Indians) in East Africa.”

Nationalism, as Minogue observes,

“appears to be a love for an abstraction of the nation, and that abstraction may have none but the most tenuous connection with the concrete national life. Clemenceau loving France and rather disliking Frenchmen expresses this paradox of nationalism. What we find, in fact, is involvement in a fantasy, and those involved in a fantasy are liable to violent and unpredictable rage if the world fails to fit their dreams.”

Pregnant words. But I have strayed from my original purpose, which was to try to say what we should do about the Yazidis, Muslims, Christians and many others suffering atrocious persecution at the very time as I enjoy the luxury of composing this article.

Some of the persecuted we must welcome into our own homes. But a much greater service would be to render their present habitations habitable. And here is it a fatuous illusion (or crazily quixotic, as Home put it) to suppose there is a liberal way of proceeding.

We cannot bring back the Ottoman Empire. Nor, since Suez, has the British Empire been a going concern. Nor are the Americans in the mood to take up the burden. But the unhappy truth is that an empire, even a badly run one, would a offer greater safety to endangered minorities than the present vacuum does.

60 comments for: Democratic cant blinds us to the advantages of empire

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