The arguments -- and emotions -- over the ethics of imperialism

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The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies: A Study in British Power, second edition, by A. P. Thornton. New York: St. Martin's Press. 408 pp. $25. In his introductory essay to this second edition of a work first published more than a quarter century ago, A. P. Thornton, professor of history at the University of Toronto, comments on the recent resurgence of interest in the British Empire: ``. . . among academics, the reading public, and television-viewers, it now . . . enjoys a popularity it never had the luck to draw upon while it lived.'' This, perhaps, is an overstatement, b ut representative of the pithy and exuberant style to be encountered throughout this stimulating book.

``The Imperial Idea and Its Enemies'' is neither a history nor an analysis of imperialism, but rather, a sharply illuminating exposition of the arguments -- and emotions -- on both sides of the question. Thornton's own sympathy for the imperial idea, he assures us, has not altered significantly since he first wrote this study. He is coolly devastating about those who sacrificed long-term benefits to short-term advantages and warmly defensive of those who exercised intelligence, self-confidence, foresigh t, and realism in assessing the nature and function of power.

The story begins with the stand of the British foreign secretary, Viscount Palmerston, on the ``Don Pacifico'' case in 1850. Arguing for British intervention to settle a claim against the Greek government lodged by Gibraltar-born Don Pacifico, Palmerston carried the day. He contended that a ``British subject in a foreign land must be able to feel . . . he was a citizen of a Power whose fame and influence spanned the world, and whose reputation was his sufficient shield -- as Pa ul had been able to say to those who would have taken him, civis Romanus sum.''

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More than a century later, this idea seemed to end with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan's speech about the winds of change and his pragmatic, if disheartening, remark (intended as consolation) that the period of Empire was but an ``interruption in British history.''

In Thornton's view, however, imperialism was no anomaly, but a natural outgrowth of economic realities. In the mid-19th century, he points out, ``British trade thrived in places where no British flag flew.'' Indeed, as some of its adherents contended, imperialism as a form of law and order was needed to protect colonies from the machinations of greedy speculators. Even radicals and liberals could take pride in the role the British Empire and Navy played in abolishing the slave trade. Realists (not nece ssarily devoid of idealism) saw in imperialism a means of increasing British power and influence. Idealists (not necessarily unrealistic) saw a means of bringing the benefits of British civilization -- justice, liberalism, and good government -- to less fortunate parts of the globe. Imperialism not only enhanced British prestige, it also imbued its followers with a deep sense of mission.

The success of the imperial idea, Thornton contends, lay in its appeal to emotion -- an appeal that in turn was rooted in the fact that imperialism, above all, involved the exercise of power. ``Power is neither used nor witnessed without emotion. Power and emotion are thus the themes of this story,'' he asserts in his preface.

Imperialists thought it right, nay, imperative, that Britain, esteemed throughout the civilized world as a bastion of liberty, should seek to expand its influence. Critics, conscious of power's tendency to corrupt, worried that such a policy might undermine the very principles it purportedly championed.

Lord Cromer, the imperialist proconsul in Egypt, put his finger on a basic paradox: ``The Englishman as imperialist is always striving to attain two ideals which are apt to be mutually destructive . . . good government, which connotes the continuance of his supremacy, and . . . self-government, which connotes the whole or partial abdication of his . . . position.'' Imperialism spread a desire for freedom it found hard to satisfy.

And reading this, we may wonder whether we admire the self-confidence of men who took pride in bringing ``good government'' to badly governed lands and peoples, or whether we are appalled (or at least alarmed) by the presumption of superiority.

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