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The Blood Never Dried: A People's History of the British Empire Paperback – 24 Sep 2006
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George Bush's 'War on Terror' has inspired a forest of books about the new American Empire. But what about Britain's role in the world? "A People's History of the British Empire" challenges the claim that the British Empire was a kinder, gentler empire and suggests that the description of 'Rogue State' is more fitting. How many people today know about Britain's deep involvement in the opium drug trade in China, or that Tony Blair's hero Gladstone devoted his maiden parliamentary speech to defending his family's slave plantation in Jamaica? John Newsinger has written a wonderful popular history of key episodes in British imperial history. He pays particular attention to the battles of the colonised to free themselves of its baleful rule, including Rebellion in Jamaica; The Irish Famine; The Opium Wars; The Great Indian Rebellion; The Conquest of Egypt; Palestine in Revolt; 'Quit India' and the struggle for Independence; Suez; Malaya; Kenya and Rhodesia; and, Britain and American Imperialism.
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In each case too the author makes clear how the peoples of the colonized and imperialized countries rebelled against and resisted imperialism. He emphasizes quite rightly two very important things: first, that the narrative of Britain (or other Western countries for that matter) 'granting' independence out of the goodness of their enlightened hearts is so much mythology and dressing-up of what were in each and every case the powerful agency of local people throwing off the imperial yoke, much to the dismay and against the military efforts of the British state. Secondly, he points out how from the very start the Labour Party was as happily a participant in the imperialist venture as its Liberal and Tory opponents, and how from the very start Labour Party leaders preferred safeguarding by force the interests of British capital abroad over the global interests of oppressed people. Even such holy cows as Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, never mind Tony Blair, were as enthusiastic participants in repressing and exploiting people abroad as ever was a Churchill or a Lloyd George. Finally, Newsinger gives some due attention to the conflict within British ruling class opinion over the right post-imperial strategy: the conflict between those with mainly European interests, and those with mainly global interests. The former support a strategy of European integration and counterbalancing American power with European power (effectively in alliance with France), the latter support Britain's vassalage to the United States, dressed up as a "special relationship". As the author points out, only one government since WWII has attempted the former route (Edward Heath); the Atlanticists are generally firmly in the saddle.
The book is very lucidly written and makes for good, if not pleasant, reading. If one must criticize, there are but two elements that might have been emphasized more: first, the history of resistance against the British Empire within Britain itself, which is now virtually absent; and secondly, some more economic analysis of the benefits of Empire and its role in enabling current and past British power and prosperity. After all, Newsinger does point out in the chapter on Malaya that this seemingly minor struggle involved the British monopoly on exploiting Malaysian rubber, which was at the time worth more than all British domestic industrial production combined. More of such, and its implications for Britain, would have been nice. As it stands though, this is an excellent companion to British imperial history for any critical reader, and one of several useful counterparts to the recently revived Empire apologia.