Uk student’s file british traditionalism

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(5 weeks: September – October)


  1. Lead-in


  1. Obligatory material



  • Reading 3: MONARCHY

  1. Additional texts

  • Reading 4: Compulsory Voting May Reinforce the Resentment Young People Feel Toward the Political Class

  • Reading 5: Why Does the UK Love the Monarchy?

  • Reading 6: It's the Queen's 60th Anniversary: Why Is Britain Still a Monarchy?

  • Reading 7: The Royal Family is a Bargain for Britain

  • Reading 8: The Changing Politics of Social Class


(based on Conclusion Chapter from Empire. How Britain Made the Modern World by Niall Ferguson. Penguin books LTD, London, 2004)

Task 1

Skim the text and find out what the British Empire contributed to the world according to the author.

The British Empire is long dead; only flotsam and jetsam2 now remain. What had been based on Britain’s commercial and financial supremacy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and her industrial supremacy in the nineteenth was bound to crumble once the British economy buckled under the accumulated burdens of two world wars. The great creditor became a debtor. In the same way, the great movements of population that had once driven British imperial expansion changed their direction in the 1950s. Emigration from Britain gave way to immigration into Britain. As for the missionary impulse that had sent thousands of young men and women around the world preaching Christianity and the gospel of cleanliness, that too dwindled3, along with public attendance at church. Christianity today is stronger in many of her former colonies than in Britain itself.

It cannot be denied, however, that the imperial legacy has shaped the modern world so profoundly that we almost take it for granted. Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world. Without the influence of British imperial rule, it is hard to believe that the institutions of parliamentary democracy would have been adopted by the majority of states in the world, as they are today. India, the world’s largest democracy, owes more than it is fashionable to acknowledge to British rule. Its elite schools, its universities, its civil service, its army, its press and its parliamentary system all still have discernibly4 British models. Finally, there is the English language itself, perhaps the most important single export of the last 300 years. Today 350 million people speak English as their first language and around 450 million have it as a second language. That is roughly one in every seven people on planet.

Of course no one would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished5. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of indigenous6 peoples. Yet the nineteenth-century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the twentieth century too it more than justified its existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.

Task 2

Find the author's arguments supporting his claim about the British Empire promoting

  • free capital flow

  • free trade

  • free labour

Say whether you agree or disagree with the author’s opinion and give your reasoning.

There would certainly not have been so much free trade between the 1840s and the 1930s had it not been for the British Empire. Relinquishing7 Britain’s colonies in the second half of the nineteenth century would have led to higher tariffs in their markets, and perhaps other forms of trade discrimination. The evidence for this need not be purely hypothetical; it manifested itself in the highly protectionist policies adopted by the United States and India after they secured independence, as well as in the tariffs adopted by Britain’s imperial rivals France, Germany and Russia in the 1870s and after. Britain’s military budget before the First World War can therefore be seen as a remarkably low insurance premium against international protectionism. According to one estimate, the economic benefit to the UK of enforcing free trade could have been as high as 6.5 per cent of gross national product. No one has yet ventured to estimate what the benefit to the world economy as a whole may have been; but that it was a benefit and not a cost seems beyond dispute, given the catastrophic consequences of the global descent into protectionism as Britain’s imperial power waned8 in the 1930s.

Nor would there have been so much international mobility of labour – and hence so much global convergence of incomes before 1914 – without the British Empire. True, the United States was always the most attractive destination for nineteenth century migrants from Europe; nor did all the migrants originate in the colonising countries. But it should not be forgotten that the core of the US had been under British rule for the better part of a century and a half before the war of Independence, and that the differences between independent and British North America remained minor.

It is also worth remembering that the significance of the white dominions as destinations for British emigrants grew markedly after 1914, as the US tightened restrictions on immigration and, after 1929, endured a far worse Depression than anything experienced in the sterling bloc. Finally, we should not lose sight of the vast number of Asians who left India and China to work as indentured9 labourers, many of them on British plantations and mines in the course of the nineteenth century. There is no question that the majority of them suffered great hardship; many indeed might well have been better off staying at home. But once again we cannot pretend that this mobilisation of cheap and probably underemployed Asian labour to grow rubber and dig gold had no economic value.

Consider too the role of the British Empire in facilitating capital export to the less developed world. Although some measures of international financial integration seem to suggest that the 1990s saw greater cross-border flows than the 1890s, in reality much of today’s overseas investment goes on within the developed world. In 1996 only 28 per cent of foreign direct investment went to developing countries, whereas in 1913 the proportion was 63 per cent. Another, stricter measure shows that in 1997 only around 5 per cent of the world stock capital was invested in countries with per capita incomes of 20 per cent or less of US per capita GDP. In 1913 the figure was 25 per cent. A plausible hypothesis is that empire – and particularly the British Empire – encouraged investors to put their money in developing economies. The reasoning here is straightforward. Investing in such economies is risky. They tend to be far away and more prone10 to economic, social and political crises. But the extension of empire into the less developed world had the effect of reducing such risks by imposing, directly or indirectly, some form of European rule. In practice, money invested in a de jure British colony such as India (or a colony in all but name, like Egypt) was a great deal more secure than money invested in a de facto ‘colony’ such as Argentina.
Task 3

Read the text and decide whether the author makes a convincing case for the (British) Empire as a form of government.

Look more closely at the countries/regions you may be studying and say whether the author’s claims are in fact true. Supply facts to support your view.
For all these reasons (see text A), the notion that British imperialism tended to impoverish colonised countries seems inherently problematic. That is not to say that many former colonies are not exceedingly poor. Today, for example, per capita GDP in Britain is roughly twenty-eight times what it is in Zambia, which means that the average Zambian has to live on something less than two dollars a day. But to blame this on the legacy of colonialism is not very persuasive, when the differential between British and Zambian incomes was so much less at the end of the colonial period. In 1955 British per capita GDP was just seven times greater than Zambian. It has been since independence that the gap between the coloniser and the ex-colony has become a gulf. The same is true of nearly all former colonies in sub-Saharan Africa, with the notable exception of Botswana.

A country’s economic fortunes are determined by a combination of natural endowments (geography, broadly speaking) and human action (history, for short); this is economic history’s version of the nature-nurture debate11. While a persuasive case can be made for the importance of such ‘given’ factors as the mean temperature, humidity, the prevalence of disease, soil quality, proximity to the sea, latitude and mineral resources in determining economic performance, there seems strong evidence that history too plays a crucial part. In particular, there is good evidence that the imposition of British-style institutions has tended to enhance a country’s economic prospects, particularly in those settings where indigenous cultures were relatively weak because of thin (or thinned) population, allowing British institutions to dominate with little dilution. Where the British, like the Spaniards, conquered already sophisticated, urbanised societies, the effect of colonisation were commonly negative, as the colonisers were tempted to engage in plunder rather than to build their own institutions. Indeed, this is perhaps the best available explanation of the ‘great divergence’ which reduced India and China from being quite possibly the world’s most advanced economies in the sixteenth century to relative poverty by the early twentieth. It also explains why it was that Britain was able to overhaul her Iberian rivals: precisely because, as a latecomer to the imperial race, she had to settle for colonising the unpromising wastes of Virginia and New England, rather than the eminently lootable cities of Mexico and Peru.

But which British institutions promoted development? First, we should not underestimate the benefits conferred by British law and administration. A recent survey of forty-nine countries concluded that ‘common-law countries have the strongest, and French-civil-law countries the weakest, legal protection of investors’, including both shareholders and creditors. This is of enormous importance in encouraging capital formation, without which entrepreneurs can achieve little. The fact that eighteen of the sample countries have the common-law system is of course almost entirely due to their having been at one time or another under British rule.

A similar point can be made about the nature of British governance. At its apogee in the mid-nineteenth century, two features of the Indian and Colonial services are especially striking when compared with modern regimes in Asia and Africa. First, British administration was remarkably cheap and efficient. Secondly, it was remarkably non-venal. Its sins were generally sins of omission, not commission. This too cannot be wholly without significance, given the demonstrable correlations today between economic under-performance and both excessive government expenditure and public sector corruption.

The economic historian David Landes recently drew up a list of measures which ‘the ideal growth-and-development’ government would adopt. Such a government, he suggests, would

  1. secure rights of private property, the better to encourage saving and investment;

  2. secure rights of personal liberty … against both the abuses of tyranny and … crime and corruption;

  3. enforce rights of contract;

  4. provide stable government … governed by publicly known rules;

  5. provide responsive government;

  6. provide honest government … (with) no rents to favour and position;

  7. provide moderate, efficient, ungreedy government … to hold taxes down (and) reduce the government’s claim on the social surplus.

The striking thing about this list is how many of its points correspond to what British Indian and Colonial officials in the nineteenth and twentieth century believed they were doing. The sole, obvious exceptions are points 2 and 5. Yet the British argument for postponing (sometimes indefinitely) the transfer to democracy was that many of their colonies were not yet ready for it; indeed, the classic and not wholly disingenuous twentieth-century line from the Colonial Office was that Britain’s role was precisely to get them ready.

It is a point worth emphasising that to a significant extent British rule did have that benign12 effect. According to the work of political scientists like Seymour Martin Lipset, countries that were former British colonies had a significantly better chance of achieving enduring democratisation after independence than those ruled by other countries. Indeed, nearly every country with a population of at least a million that has emerged from the colonial era without succumbing to dictatorship is a former British colony. True, there have been many former colonies which have not managed to sustain free institutions: Bangladesh, Burma, Kenya, Pakistan, Tanzania and Zimbabwe spring to mind. But in a sample of fifty-three countries that were former British colonies, just under half (twenty six) were still democracies in 1993. This can be attributed to the way that British rule, particularly where it was ‘indirect’, encouraged the formation of collaborating entities; it may also be related to the role of Protestant missionaries, who clearly played a part in encouraging Western-style aspirations for political freedom in parts of Africa and the Caribbean.

In short, what the British Empire proved is that empire is a form of international government that can work – and not just for the benefit of the ruling power. It sought to globalise not just an economic but a legal and ultimately a political system too.

  • Reading 1

Pre-reading questions:

    1. How would you define a democracy?

    2. What are the types of democratic government in the modern world?

    3. What are the main features of Britain’s democracy?

    4. Based on the title, do you expect the article to focus on the strengths or deficiencies of Britain’s democracy? Skim the text to decide whether you guessed correctly.


Professor Stein Ringen

University of Oxford

February 2007

The answer to this question is: not very good! Of course Britain is a democracy and a solid one, but there are many solid democracies and in this family British democracy is of only mediocre quality.

In my book What Democracy Is For I rank twenty-five of the most respected democracies in the world according to their quality on a scale from 8 (high quality) to 0 (low quality). In that ranking, Britain is on level 3. The best quality of democracy is found in some of the smaller countries with political cultures of egalitarianism, such as in Scandinavia (Norway and Sweden are on level 8 and Iceland on level 7). In Europe, Italy ranks the lowest, on level 0, and France and Germany are on level 3 and 4 respectively. The two great model democracies, those of the British Westminster model and of the United States with its pioneering democratic constitution are both in the bottom range of the ranking.

This is not where British democracy should stand or be expected to stand. The Westminster Model has very much going for it. It is embedded in an ancient and firm culture of liberty. It has evolved organically out of British history and experience and was never invented or imposed. Parliament is a model of careful and pragmatic deliberation. The press is robustly free and radio and television of the best anywhere, including in political scrutiny. Governance is stable, effective and by and large honest.

We should therefore expect British democracy to compare favourably with democracy anywhere else. In fact, however, it does not. Among the world’s solid democracies, Britain compares unfavourably. In spite of all it has going for it, it turns out to compare badly in democratic quality.

Democratic deficit in Britain
My concern here is neither with non-democracy nor with weak and second-rate democracies. I am interested in the solidly established democracies and with differences in quality within this exclusive family. I can therefore take some things for granted that I do not have to bring into my comparisons, principally that civil and political rights are established. Even in this the solid democracies are not fully equal but the differences are marginal. In Britain these rights are certainly enshrined in the political and social order and there is no need to question the system on this account. That is very much part of what British democracy has going for it.

However, freedom depends on more than civil and politic rights. It is now widely recognised in political philosophy that values such as freedom and justice rest not exclusively on rights but also on the means to make effective use of rights. For freedom, rights are basic but in addition the individual needs to be in command of a modicum of physical and human capital to be able to live as the master of his or her life. The protection of freedom, then, is a complicated matter of good government. Citizens depend on governance for the effective protection of liberty and rights, for the regulation of economic and social life for equality of opportunity, and for protection against at least extreme deprivations in the resources of freedom. While in all solid democracies citizens enjoy basic civil and political rights, there is a great deal of difference between them in the effectiveness of governance measured against the modern understanding of freedom.

Now back to Britain and the experience of the Britons in the delivery of security of resources. British democracy displayed a burst of energy in the aftermath of the Second World War. The British people had fought through the war together. An idea of social justice had emerged which came to be seen, at least in part, to be what the war was fought for. This idea was articulated in particular in the Beveridge Report on social security. It was an idea of universal social protection, and idea about extending to everyone the protection it is the purpose of democracy to deliver.

This idea was put into effect in the great reforms of the late 1940s: family allowance, social security, income support and above all the National Health Service. Here was a democracy performing at its best. In the NHS, that was displayed magnificently. Health care in Britain pre-NHS was a shambles. There were areas where it was excellent: good, free and universally available. But about half of the population did not have access to a family doctor and the poor mostly had to pay for health care.

With the NHS the government cut through the rot, nationalised the whole system of hospitals, brought all General Practitioners into the national service, and abolished inequality by giving everyone the access the privileged had had previously. In hindsight, this was an astonishing achievement, and an astonishingly democratic one.

However, if we look more carefully at those reforms and how they evolved, we find that British democracy was not able to sustain that once-in-a-lifetime democratic burst.

First, the NHS was never able to deliver what was promised. It immediately ran into deep financial problems and has ever since been cash strapped. By the end of the century, the effects of accumulated underinvestments were visible in poor standards, inefficiency, low morale within the service and low confidence in the population. British democracy proved unable to maintain its own creation. It is possible that the NHS is presently being revitalised with new investments, but the jury is still out on this and I for one remain sceptical.

Second, no similar effort materialised in that other great area of British inequality: education. The situation here was the same as in health care, or worse. A minority of children, here a small minority, the children of the rich, had access to excellent schooling in private schools behind a wall of high fees, while the majority of children languished in second-rate, underfunded and underperforming public schools. It is conspicuous that British democracy, at the time when the need to follow through from rights to resources was so well understood in health care, was unable to mobilise the same understanding and resolve in education. As a result, the British school system remains to this day deeply undemocratic and school policy limited to perpetual tinkering with the public sector with no inclination or ability to break down the inequality of the private-public division.

Third, in spite of impressive welfare state reforms the system that emerged proved incapable of affording the population that most basic of democratic protections: protection against poverty. Poverty rates in Britain, both among the elderly and among children, have remained high. It was thought that the post-1945 welfare reforms would finally overcome poverty. When that anticipation failed, British democracy, instead of reforming again, settled down to an embarrassing acceptance of persistent poverty among affluence. It is a matter of record that poverty rates in Britain were exceptionally high by European comparison all through the second half of the twentieth century. It is the proud boast of the present government that it is on the path to abolishing poverty, at least among children, but that boast is premature. It is trying to do so with the help of carefully engineered means-tested benefits. We have enough knowledge from social policy theory to say that this strategy can reduce poverty, which it is indeed doing, but that it cannot eradicate it, that it is arbitrary in its effects because it is never target efficient – as was put dramatically on display by the Parliamentary Ombudsman in the scandal of out-of-control overpayments and underpayments of tax credits in Britain in 2004-5 – and that it comes at the price of indignities and harassments reminiscent of the old poor-law regime. In the best European welfare states poverty has been eradicated – so we know it can be done. But British democracy remains on the defensive in poor relief because it has been unable to mobilise the resolve and resources to put itself on the offensive.

These are examples of the democratic deficit in British governance: its potential is not realised in delivery. British democracy should do better but there is not enough force in the system to carry through to the difficult matter of delivering protections in all relevant forms to all citizens.

The democratic deficit is understood and recognised in the population. Voting participation is low and falling, in particular in local elections. Membership in political parties is in free fall. Confidence in the democratic institutions is low and falling, as is documented in repeated British and comparative value surveys. So low is now confidence in democracy that in spite of local democracy having been all but killed off – and in spite of citizens being far more interested in local than in national issues – there appears to be little or no demand or appetite in the population for this crucial building block in the democratic architecture to be restored.

Political commentators sometimes suggest that trends towards disenchantment with politics are evidence of “new values”, such as individualism or post-materialism. But there is little evidence in favour of that interpretation. Democratic values are adhered to as strongly as ever. Where the matter has been examined, from Costa Rica to Norway, citizens are better informed about political and social issues and as interested as ever. They are not turning “apolitical” but they are becoming more critical. If interested and informed citizens are more critical it is not because they are ignorant or indifferent, it is because they are making judgements. Their critical judgements come from their experience of shortcomings in the democracies they value. It is no good blaming citizens; they are good enough. There is a crisis of trust across the democratic world, but not because citizens are abandoning established values or in other ways failing. Citizens do trust less, but not because they are becoming less trusting. They trust less because their democracies are less worthy of trust.

Where to reform
In the British case two reforms present themselves as particularly urgent, both now under debate high up on the political agenda.

First, there is a need to re-invent local democracy. Devolution is well and good but does not reach local democracy and could contribute to further weakening it. What is needed is what a Smith Institute study calls double devolution, not only to regions but also to proper local units. Britain needs more and smaller local political entities – municipalities – with more decentralised responsibility and authority. British democracy needs many more elected politicians to represent citizens’ interests. There are possibly too many members of Parliament but certainly too few elected politicians locally. This is a big order, a matter of reinvention. As it is now, Britain does not have proper local units to devolve democracy to.

Second, political parties should be freed from dependency on big money and made answerable to members. It is time to put a full stop to all private donations to political parties and campaigns – from individuals, from businesses, from unions, even from candidates’ own pockets – and make political parties economically dependent on members. It is not enough to make political donations “transparent”; it’s too late. Nor is it enough to limit the size of donations, for example to £50 000 as has been suggested. The narcotic of free money has numbed political sensitivities. Here, now, today – in fact and not only possibly in the future – the political use of money is destroying the people’s democracy, in Britain near as much as in the United States. Democracy does not need mega-expensive politics. The money that circulates ends up in the pockets of advertisers, consultants, pollsters and advisors represents a gigantic subsidy to a class of political hangers-on. Professional politics is top-down politics and contributes to increasing the distance between citizens and their representatives. It would improve democracy if political budgets were cut and members given power in parties. There are no compelling reasons why rich individuals, businesses and organisations should be allowed to use their wealth to undermine the protection ordinary people should have from democratic governments.

These reforms are practical and doable. They are issues under consideration and firmly established on the political agenda. British democracy has much going for it and should do better. These two reforms would revitalise British democracy, infuse it with citizenship pressure for performance and lift it from mediocre to high quality.

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