Magazine article The Spectator

Currying Favour

Magazine article The Spectator

Currying Favour

Article excerpt

When my grandfather, General Sir Archie Nye, was appointed governor of Madras after the war, he left a grey and austere post-war Britain, which had just elected a Labour government, for a world of polo, palaces and power. He knew that his role was to help organise an orderly transition to independence, but in the meantime this austere soldier, whose career had begun in the ranks, lived like a prince. Neither he, nor my grandmother touched cash at any point during their week, except on Sunday, when the whitegloved butler would be waiting at the door with their contribution to the church collection ready on a silver salver.

After independence, he stayed on as high commissioner in Delhi, and became friends with Nehru and the other Indian leaders. Sir Archie died the day after my christening, and so I never knew him, but on his behalf I feel a personal investment in the history of the British in India.

So I make no apologies for reviewing, a month after it was broadcast, a programme about the Raj, shown as part of the Timewatch series (27 October, BBC 2). It featured the views of my friend Andrew Roberts, the historian who has, with typical good timing, finished his definitive work on Lord Salisbury at a moment when the Cecil family has once again taken centre stage in British politics.

The programme appears to have originally been intended as a showcase for Roberts's belief that India benefited enormously from being part of our Empire. The BBC sent Roberts to India, where he was duly photographed in a number of appropriately colonial poses; as a passenger in a rickshaw, sitting in the prow of a boat and being rowed down a river, walking amid crumbling colonial monuments, and so on.

His voiced-over commentary explained that Britain's rule `brought manifold blessings to the sub-continent', and was infinitely preferable to the `notoriously corrupt and oppressive' Russian, Dutch and French empires, who would otherwise have filled the power vacuum left by the collapse of the moghuls. British rule led to, eventually modern commerce, railways, a free press, democratic politics, the abolition of suttee and infanticide, and an excellent Englishspeaking education system designed by Thomas Macaulay. …

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