When I am in Hong Kong, I normally stay at Causeway Bay. Evenings and weekends, I frequently take a stroll in Victoria Park where invariably I pass in front of the majestically imposing statue of Queen Victoria. This allows me to reflect upon the remarkable rise of the British Empire of which Hong Kong was more than just a symbolic hub. In many ways, the history of Hong Kong, colonised following the First Opium War, reflected the determination and brutality of British imperialism.
During my latest stay in, March/April, teaching a course on Asia and globalisation at Hong Kong U, I read a quite extraordinary book: Nemesis: The First Iron Warship and Her World, by Adrian Marshall (I do not know the author personally.) It is fascinating and highly recommended. It covers in meticulous detail the construction, command, crew and trajectory of this warship.
Architectural dynamics are explained, the commanders and crew are brought alive, while the narrative of its exploits, even when one knew it beforehand, is jaw-dropping stuff. While the British rulers, including of course Victoria, may have thought they were bringing civilisation to Asia – or, at least free trade, which to the elites of the Victorian times was synonymous with civilisation – the men on the empire-building ground acted with brutal savagery. One reads many of the passages with a sentiment approaching disbelief: of course, one suspected it, but there in Marshall’s book it is laid out in stark detail.
One of the most memorable lines of the book is when the author (p. 241) writes that a “characteristic typical of many Victorian men [was] a genuine and open love of war”. It is what got the national adrenalin going.
(I got a brief after-taste of that syndrome living in the UK in 1982 when the Falklands (Malvinas) War broke out amidst an explosion of xenophobic popular jingoism – epitomised by the Sun tabloid announcing the sinking of the Argentine battleship Belgrano, in which over three-hundred crew and a few civilians were killed, with the gorily triumphant headline “GOTCHA”!)
In the ten or so decades following the Opium War, a lot and a lot of water has flown under the British imperial bridge. The attempt to revive imperialism with the invasion of the Suez Canal in 1956, in alliance with the French and Israelis, resulted in a humiliating setback.
Hong Kong was “returned” to China twenty years ago. At present what is left of the Empire are Bermuda, Gibraltar and the Falklands. The retention of these territories is allegedly because its inhabitants were offered a choice through referendum. There was no referendum in Hong Kong. There may yet be another epilogue shortly: if Brexit does occur, Gibraltar may be absorbed by Spain.
While Great Britain’s post-World War 2 exit from most of its colonies in Asia and Africa went reasonably smoothly – certainly when compared to France’s messy bellicose de-colonisation – the famous statement by American statesman Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State from 1949 to 1953, that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role”, has remained resonant throughout the decades, and emphatically so in June 2017.
Acheson’s assessment applies especially to Britain’s attitudes and policies towards the European Union. I also happened to be living in the UK in 1975 – in fact I lived there for fifteen years, it is a country I am in many respects very fond of – when the referendum was held under Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson whether to join the (then) European Community (EC); the result was an emphatic 67% “Yes”. The debate, however, had been in many ways rancorous. A significant proportion of the population, including some who voted “yes”, felt uncomfortable being “European”. In the ensuing decades, Britain has tended to be a Euro-nay-sayer, eg by refusing to join the Schengen (borderless) Area, and, at best, a sideline player.
It has to be added that the European Union in recent times has suffered from mediocre leadership, bureaucratic aloofness and a most uninspiring (especially to youth) image. Be that as it may, however, the main point about Brexit today is not whether it was or was not justified, but that it has been so messy and murky. Boris Johnson, who in his deceitful Brexit campaign, compared the EU (which deservedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012) to Hitler, was appointed Foreign Secretary. Absolutely deplorable.
Indeed Theresa May’s government can best be described as that of a mother hen leading a flock of headless chickens. To think that this is a country that ruled an erstwhile empire over which the sun never set. Leaving morality aside, the efficacy of British rule was admirable, indeed quite amazing.
The most appropriate word to describe the British situation following the 2016 referendum is “pathetic”. The latest twist arises from Theresa May’s “snap” election. She is no longer just a mother hen leading a flock of headless chickens, but a hybrid mother hen/lame duck. (And soon she may not be leading the flock, hence a dead duck.) Needless to say, the Eurocrats and European political leaders have great difficulty wiping the smirks off their faces. In giving a talk at the venerable London Chatham House Institute recently, I prefaced my remarks by saying that though I had always had a combination of affection and respect for Great Britain, the affection is still there, but the respect is gone – or at least suspended.
Where Britain goes from here, will Brexit occur, or a Repent followed by Return and Remain, what role, if any, it will assume, the future horizon could hardly be more obscure.
One must note that contemporary Britain brought a great deal to the planet, including in the worlds of the arts, academe, research, science, think tanks, humanitarian and charitable organisations, NGOs, entertainment, finance, business and industry, notably start-ups, the media and as a model in many ways of progressiveness and tolerance.
To cite one out of myriad possible examples. According to the Times Higher Education 2017 World University Rankings of the ten “most international universities”, while the first and second place are Swiss (respectively the Swiss federal institutes of technology respectively in Zürich and Lausanne), the third is in Hong Kong (Hong Kong University), the fourth in Singapore (National University of Singapore), the seventh in Australia (Australian National University), the remaining five are all British – in descending order, Imperial College, Oxford, Cambridge, University College London and the London School of Economics and Political Science.
To cite another: in the global fight against poverty, the role of UK-founded Oxfam has been fundamental.
Though British imperialism may have been imbued with racist ideology and practice, abuse of human rights, and while xenophobia keeps lurking in some of the more insalubrious corners of Great Britain – notably the tabloid press – many former colonials have assumed some of the highest positions of the British elite. To cite only the most glaring contemporary example: the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is of Pakistani origin.
Whether these assets can be preserved in the kind of unknown political universe Britain seems headed for – that might be termed a “banana monarchy” – remains to be seen. One must hope, not just for the sake of Britain, but also that of Europe and indeed the world, that somehow it will get out of this political and psychological rut into which it has fallen. Britain, whether “Great” or not, has a lot to offer. The continued decline of Britain will induce a decline of global civilisation.
Jean-Pierre Lehmann is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore, and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.
This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on 14 June 2017