Magazine article The Spectator

Overbearing and Undermining

Magazine article The Spectator

Overbearing and Undermining

Article excerpt

Overbearing and undermining LORD CROMER by Roger Owen OUP, £25, pp. 436, ISBN 0199253382

A hundred and twenty years ago, the global hyper-power invaded a strategic Middle Eastern country. It talked of self-government but imposed its own rule. Other powers were excluded. Despite repeated promises to leave, its troops did not finally do so until 74 years later.

Egypt under British occupation at the end of the 19th century has many parallels with Iraq under American occupation at the beginning of the 21st. The Bremer of the British occupation, the subject of this biography, was Evelyn Baring (from 1892 Lord Cromer). Younger son of a banking dynasty, he had spent his youth helping to administer Corfu, Malta and India, where he was known as the 'vice-Viceroy'. From 1883 to 1907, although no more than British ConsulGeneral in Cairo, backed by 5,000-10,000 British troops, about 400 British officials, and his own indomitable personality, Cromer was the real ruler of Egypt.

Roger Owen is A. J. Meyer Professor of Middle East History at Harvard and a specialist in the economic history of the region. He is aware of the parallels between the two periods of globalisation, before 1945 and since 1990. When they were top dogs, British generals also insisted on 'the importance of garrisoning the moon in order to protect us from Mars'. Roger Owen emphasises the economic causes and consequences of British domination in Egypt. Egypt was invaded partly in order to ensure the servicing of a vast foreign debt consuming 60 per cent of government revenue. Foreign bondholders, backed by the Rothschilds and Lord Salisbury, determined not only to seize Egyptian estates as security for their loans, but also to diminish the size of Egypt's armed forces, so that there would be more money with which to repay Egypt's creditors. Beginning in 1883 as an 'Egyptian Whig', convinced of Egypt's right to self-government and the desirability of British withdrawal, once he tasted power Cromer changed his mind. In Egypt's 'own best interests', he declared, British troops should stay.

This biography should explain, even to the most ardent patriot, why British policy has acquired a reputation for hypocrisy. By 1890 Baring was saying that Britain 'had no right to abandon the duty which has been cast upon us'. That year construction began, on the banks of the Nile, of the famous white British 'residency', long one of the power centres of the Middle East. Baring repeatedly sacrificed Egyptian to British interests. Rather than encouraging local industries, he preferred to keep Egypt primarily agricultural. …

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