City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Jeremy Paxman: What Ruling the World did to the British, EIBF 2012, Review

By Allan Alstead - Posted on 26 August 2012

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Edinburgh International Book Festival
Jeremy Paxman, Allan Little (Chair)

Jeremy Paxman was introduced by his fellow BBC colleague, Allan Little, for this Open University Event which introduced Paxman's latest book, Empire, telling the story, as Allan Little put it, of Britain's 'smash and grab' in the early days up to Suez and the effective end of what had been the largest Empire ever known in the world.

Paxman's book apparently tells how Britain created the Empire - which has no relevance to how we live now,  but explains, perhaps, why Britain has a seat on the Security Council, why we fight foreign wars with our American allies and why we behave towards Europe in the way we do. All these stem possibly from an imperial history, but they are worth study and recognition.

Paxman felt that this was part of the explanation for the Union, but he would not comment for Scotland, nor for that matter give views about the Union south of the Border! He reminded the audience that the Scots had initially tried to set up their own empire, but this had failed, so when they saw the progress England was making, thought that 'they would have some of that' and joined with England. Of course, Scots then became some of the most remarkable pioneers and explorers who helped to establish the British Empire.

But why is the history of the British Empire never taught at school these days? We seem to prefer to laugh at ourselves and our colonial history.

Paxman showed three pictures of Margaret Thatcher in a tank, Tony Blair beaming with a group of servicemen and Sir Henry Morgan. The relevance of Henry Morgan, who was basically a pirate and who robbed the Spanish and Portuguese ships loaded with gold from South America, is that he identified that robbing the Spanish and Portuguese was easier than having to mine all the gold  which was the really hard work. Eventually Morgan, who had become extremely rich, became respectable, was knighted and then made Governor of the Caribbean.

But looking at a map of the British Empire as it was at its peak, no one would actually plan an empire like that - it all simply evolved from exploration and almost happened by accident.   Britain took Egypt but acquired the Sudan as a sort of 'add on' with Australia and New Zealand coming through the exploration of Captain Cook.

India was 'The Jewel in the Crown' for Queen Victoria and Paxman showed a picture of the Queen with Prince Albert and 'some sort of foreigner' kneeling in front of her receiving a Bible.  This seems to symbolise how the British saw themselves - as bringing Christian principles to the countries under their domination.

Paxman talked about Robert Clive who, if he had been living today, would probably have had an ASBO.  Aged seventeen he went to India and became a soldier and became extremely wealthy - later receiving a knighthood as was the form in Britain at the time.

But these people created the Empire and made the country enormously wealthy. Britain established ways of ruling, introducing  British rules and British Civil Service methods.   A whole way of life was created with men developing countries and with young women coming out as part of what was called, "The Fishing Fleet".  Those who failed to find a husband went home as 'returned empties'!

Paxman showed a picture of Lord Curzon who was appointed Viceroy of India in 1859, dressed in his splendid robes.   He looked very imposing and worked on the premise that if you looked impressive then people would listen to you and do what you told them.

Allan Little asked Paxman what he thought of the opening ceremony for the London Olympics and why no reference had been made to our colonial past? In reply Paxman said initially, when London was awarded the Games, he had thought that it was a total waste of money, but he changed his mind and thought it had been a great success having seen the Opening Ceremony and the events.  It was a pity, in his view, that the history of the Empire had been omitted, but what was shown was excellent.

This was the usual polished performance by Paxman, who came across as the ultimate professional.   He was relaxed and engaged well with his audience.  One additional 'extra' that all attending the event received, was a free handout from the Open University about the Empire and the associated BBC programmes - a nice touch and something other sponsors might like to note.