If You Live in Freedom, Thank the British Empire

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Sep 11, 2017

Was the British Empire a good or bad thing for the world? To put it another way, is freedom a good or bad thing for the world? Historian and author H.W. Crocker III explains why we may want to rethink the British Empire's bad rap.

The British Empire’s promotion of the ideas of limited government, freedom and the free market transformed the world for the good. 

  • H.W. Crocker III on the British Empire: “On issues that truly mattered— an independent judiciary, limited government, abolishing slavery and [the Indian practice of] widow-burning — [the empire] enforced British standards of fair play, ordered liberty, and decency.”View Source
  • The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were born out of the British Empire, and continued the British tradition of freedom.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

The British Empire’s promotion of individual freedom gave birth to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

  • The United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand were born out of the British Empire, and continued the British tradition of freedom.View Source
  • The British always thought of themselves as liberators. English officers like T.E. Lawrence lead Arab tribesmen in a fight for freedom against the Turks.View Source
  • English adventurer Sir Stamford Raffles created the free market city-state of Singapore.View Source
  • H.W. Crocker III on the British Empire: “On issues that truly mattered— an independent judiciary, limited government, abolishing slavery and [the Indian practice of] widow-burning — [the empire] enforced British standards of fair play, ordered liberty, and decency.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

No power did more to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the modern world than the British Empire. 

  • No power did more to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the modern world than did the British Empire.View Source
  • The Royal Navy had as a key duty the eradication of the slave-trade.View Source
  • When Sir Charles Napier was confronted by the practice of Satee, widow-burning, in India, he told the Brahmin priests involved that he understood it was their custom. But the British had a custom too: They hanged men who burned women alive and their goods were confiscated.View Source
  • With a balance of strong moral standards and easy rule, the British established a “Pax Britannica,” a peace lasting roughly from 1815 to 1914.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

The British Empire was successful for so long in large part because they valued individual freedom and limited government.

  • The British Empire operated a policy of benign neglect, mostly leaving their colonies to be autonomous.View Source
  • According to scholar H.W. Crocker III, “The British colonies of North America were the lightest taxed, most liberally governed (in the classical small government sense), freest, most prosperous, and most equitable portions of the eighteenth century world.”View Source
  • The British ruled through local elites, intervening sparingly. In 1920, Britain ran the Sudan with 140 civil servants, and India’s 300 million people were governed by only 100,000 British troops and civil servants. H.W. Crocker III estimates that the vast British Empire “operated on a budget about 40 percent less, in constant dollars, than the state of California’s budget for 2012.”View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

After the Hitler-Stalin pact, the British Empire stood alone for a time against the combined tyrannies of the world. 

  • With continental Europe subjugated, Hitler turned his sights on Britain, claiming that Germany must “eliminate the English motherland.” The plan was to destroy the RAF, then invade.View Source
  • In 1940, the British Empire stood alone against the Germans, and fought back against what Winston Churchill called “the menace of tyranny” at the Battle of Britain.View Source
  • The British defended their homeland with their air defense system.View Source
  • Natives and colonists from all over the empire contributed. Indian troops, for example, fought against the Germans, Italians and Japanese, winning several Victoria Crosses.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

Many modern ideas of limited government and freedom came from the British Magna Carta. Without it there’d be no U.S. Constitution.

  • The Magna Carta, a charter signed by King John in 1215, established concepts of freedom that would influence the American Constitution.View Source
  • The charter was established in response to abuses of power and subverting of common law by King John.View Source
  • The Magna Carta trail blazed principles that would later become central to the American constitution such as representative government, supreme law, and judicial review.View Source
  • The Due Process Clause in the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution are directly descendant from Article 39 of Magna Carta.View Source
  • Related reading: “The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire” – H.W. Crocker IIIView Source

Over the last 400 years, what power has done the most to spread the ideals of limited government, an independent judiciary, certain inalienable rights, and free markets?

That power would be the British Empire. It was Britain that gave these ideals to the United States. It was the British Empire, the largest empire the world has ever known, which made these ideals global aspirations.

It was the British Empire, along with America, that defended these ideals in two colossal world wars.

Freedom was an Englishman’s right—and wherever he went, he took that right with him. Whether he was an English colonist in America, governing himself through a locally-elected assembly; or an English adventurer, like Sir Stamford Raffles, creating the free-market city-state of Singapore; or an English officer, like T.E. Lawrence, leading Arab tribesmen against the Turks, the British always thought of themselves as liberators, as bringers of freedom.

The British believed the final and necessary justification of their empire was a moral one. The British kept the peace; they brought sound, honest administration; and they insisted that basic moral standards were honored.

The British did not try to nation-build in the way we think of it now. They were under no illusions about making Arabs or Afghans or Zulus into Englishmen. They were more than content to leave people alone, to let them be themselves, to govern them with the lightest possible hand.

In American history, we remember this when we think of the British Empire’s so-called "benign neglect." We can see it throughout the history of the British Empire. Think about the vast territory of the Sudan—it was governed by 140 British civil-servants. Even Gandhi praised the British Empire, paraphrasing Jefferson, saying that he believed that the best government was the government that governed least, and that he found that the British Empire guaranteed his freedom and governed him least of all.

In the defense of freedom, the empire drew moral lines. No power did more to abolish slavery and the slave trade in the modern world than did the British Empire. The British treasury spent enormous sums to liberate slaves and compensate slave-owners in the Caribbean. The Royal Navy had, as a primary duty, the eradication of the slave-trade—and, in fact, abolishing the slave trade become a major factor driving the expansion of the British Empire.

The British enforced a Pax Britannica, putting down pirates, taming headhunters, and keeping the peace between previously warring tribes and religions. While respecting—and often ruling through—local leaders, the British still insisted on certain Judeo-Christian moral standards. They were not, in that respect, multiculturalists. They had a firm sense of right and wrong. When Sir Charles Napier was confronted by the practice of suttee – widow-burning—in India, he told the Brahmin priests involved that he understood it was their custom. But the British had a custom, too:  They hanged men who burned women alive, and their goods were confiscated. So, if the Brahmins insisted on continuing their tradition of widow-burning, then he would insist on following his British tradition of hanging the murderers of widows. Widow-burning in India soon ceased.

But we don’t have to dig far into history, into the abolition of slavery and widow-burning, to find the British Empire on the side of moral right and freedom. We can think of events within our own lifetimes or those of our parents and grandparents. When we think of the two deadliest threats to freedom in the twentieth century, we generally think of Communism and Nazism. But how many remember that in 1940, after the Hitler-Stalin pact, and after the fall of France, one power, the British Empire, stood alone in mortal combat against the combined tyrannies of the world.

Even where the British have merited criticism, as in Ireland, there is more to the imperial story. During negotiations to create the Irish Republic, for instance, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who could speak Welsh, reminded the Irish nationalist and Gaelic extremist Eamon de Valera that the Celts never had a word for "republic." It was an idea given to them by the English.

This is our own history, too. If you love America, you should also love the power that gave us our sense of inalienable rights—rights traceable back to Magna Carta. It all started in America with the British Empire, a great, liberty-loving empire. It is the empire’s legacy—the English-speaking world—that remains the great global guardian of freedom today. 

I’m HW Crocker for Prager University.

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