Magazine article The Spectator

Imperial Nobs and Snobs

Magazine article The Spectator

Imperial Nobs and Snobs

Article excerpt

Imperial nobs and snobs Philip Ziegler ORNAMENTALISM: HOW THE BRITISH SAW THEIR EMPIRE by David Cannadine Penguin, L16.99, pp. 263, ISBN 0713995068

In 1881 King Kalakaua of Hawaii was visiting England and attended a party given by Lady Spencer. The Prince of Wales and his nephew, the Crown Prince of Germany, were also there. The Prince of Wales insisted that the King should take precedence. The Crown Prince protested that this would be a monstrous affront to two men who were, after all, the son and the grandson of Queen Victoria. The Prince of Wales was not disposed to put up with any nonsense of that kind. `Either the brute is a king or he's a common or garden nigger,' he pointed out. `And if he's the latter, what's he doing here?'

This remark might serve as an epigraph to David Cannadine's book. His study of how the British saw themselves and their empire is based largely on the proposition that they were even bigger snobs than they were racists. They felt that they belonged to

an unequal society characterised by a seamless web of layered gradations, which were hallowed by time and precedent, which were sanctioned by tradition and religion, and which extended in a great chain of being from the monarch at the top to the humblest subject at the bottom.

When the British thought about the Empire, they merely transposed to these distant realms the social structure that they knew at home. East might be East and West West, but the twain were still more likely to meet than the upper and lower classes. Nobs were nobs and evermore would be so. To turn the indigenous ruling class into an instrument which would administer its former possessions on behalf of the imperial power was not only the cheapest and most effective but also the natural way to run an empire. We should never forget, writes Cannadine, that

the British Empire was first and foremost a class act, where individual social ordering often took precedence over collective racial ordering.

In Australasia or North America, the colonies of settlement, the British either found that no ruling class existed or failed to notice that it was there. Their solution was to export the existing social order from the homeland and impose it on the new dominions: an aristocratic apex, a professional middle class to run the place, and a working class to do the rest, the last augmented, with luck, by whatever elements of the local population had survived the cull involved in conquest.

The system eventually foundered on the reluctance of those who had made a success of things in the freer atmosphere of their new homes to accept the artificial constraints of a colonial social and political hierarchy. Froude's comfortable observation after a visit to Australia that he had found `English life all over again: nothing strange, nothing exotic, nothing new or original' held true for several generations, until in the end the `democratic-egalitarian' impulse of the United States proved more potent than the `traditional-hierarchical' alternative copied from Britain.

Where a native ruling class existed, the British incorporated it bodily into the machinery of government. At first this policy was pursued with some hesitation. Macaulay in India and Raffles in Malaya found the indigenous nobility at the best effete and corrupt, more often barbarous despots. They would have preferred to sweep away such relics of the pre-colonial past and substitute a new and enlightened form of government. …

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