Recently one of my old friends, Hoz, was talking about Empires and started a bit of a debate on the subject, another friend Ian commented that an Empire was just another form of government. Which got me thinking.
Are Empires just another form of government, or are they something very different?
Look at the Empires of recent history, Britain of course but also France, Germany, Italy, even Belgium. These are just some of the more recent ones, most of Europe has claimed its own empire if you go back a few hundred years.
Most of these countries were similar in nature, a bureaucracy divided into departments and ministries to oversee the administration of country and empire, secretaries and ministers to run said departments. Parliaments of elected representatives, a ruling political party from whom those ministers and the prime minister were drawn. A Monarchy, either a significant part of the national identity or part of the ruling system. An organised military, well equipped with modern weapons and one more thing, the need to import goods and raw materials they do not have themselves.
Britain, Germany, France and the rest all fit within the above description but other empires have been outright monarchies or tyrannies, lacking more than a token effort at democracy and replacing elected ministers with hand-picked henchmen loyal to the leadership.
But regardless of how they are governed or ruled, all the nations who formed empires were ruled by their own politicians, their own royalty, their own people.
Which comes to the point where I feel that empires are very different, not just another form of government. You see, empires are all about control, a single country and its people controlling other countries and their people, generally by force. An empire is a single country exerting control over other countries and territories, one government in one country ruling other countries, one person being made to bow down to another person's king or queen.
Generally a nation does not ask to join someone else's empire. They don't wake up one morning and say to each other, I have this great idea, lets invite another country to rule us, to replace our leaders with their own people or those loyal to them, lets allow another country to take uncountable wealth from us and in return we get a few roads and the glory of being part of their empire.
Sounds silly, doesn't it.
But those imperial powers did take over other countries, did replace their leadership with administrators or with local satraps willing to be loyal to a foreign king or queen, did send in the army to crush rebellion and to take by force another country for the empire.
Empire isn't a form of government, it is someone else's government being forced on you, empire is a state of mind that says your country is greater, stronger, better, and so is entitled to crush anyone who is weaker, to take them over, to rule them because you know best and they are just children or savages, to take from them because your right to their wealth is greater, or because you are greedy and have an army.
For those who speak of the great achievements of empire, ask yourselves a few questions about those achievements. I'm using India as an example here, both because it was the largest possession of the empire and because Britain is busy trying (and failing) to become best friends with India so they will buy our stuff in the new world of British independence and glory to come.
People often point to the British education system, the schools of old imperial countries having such a fine system of education, a legacy of those halcyon imperial days.
But ask yourself this, were those schools built because the ruling power was concerned by the state of education in the colonies and imperial possessions?
Or were they built and run because the children of imperial administrators and British staff posted to India needed schools where they could receive a proper education, the sort of schooling they would have received had their parents been back home in Great Britain. Were those schools built for the British children and then expanded to include the Indian children of those rich enough, or favoured enough to be allowed to send their offspring to a proper British school and to mix with British children.
Were other schools set up by those well meaning men and women looking to spread the word of god and Christianity to the backward populations of the imperial possessions?
Here in Britain the education system in India is often claimed as a benefit of empire, do you think the people of India are of the same opinion?
How about the Indian railways, another claimed benefit of empire.
Did those British administrators, governors and officers who ruled over the vast expanse of India look at the lack of roads, the difficulty of travelling other than by horse or by walking, the significant problems so large and poor a country suffered because it's people could not travel.
Or was it perhaps that those same men looked at the resources, raw materials and crops of India and wondered how they could be returned to Britain. How could the wealth of the Indian sub continent reach the lords and merchants of London or Bristol, the roads weren't an option, so much to move that horse drawn wagons wouldn't work. But railways, trains running on endless lines of metal rails to carry ton after ton of goods, tribute from the conquered population to their rulers and masters in a far distant island they would never see.
Do the people of India look at the railways as something their kind and caring imperial masters gave them so they could travel across their own country, or are they seen as the people of India taking back the means by which their own wealth moved across their country and flowed into the coffers of those who owned the armies that had conquered them?
What did the Romans ever do for us, other than the roads, the drains, etc etc. Go watch the Monty Python sketch for the full list. But that long list of benefits weren't done to benefit the barbarians of Britain, those long straight roads allowed the legions to march quickly to crush any resistance and for imperial trade to move easily creating more profit and taxes for Rome.
So what did the Romans ever do for us?
What did the Empire ever do for India?
Empire isn't a form of government, it is a form of tyranny and conquest, for the nation that was the empire it is all too often a disease of historic glory, remembered and envied. For the nations that were conquered it was a time of oppression where their people were little better than slaves or property and their wealth was striped from them by greedy outsiders.
Britain as a country suffers badly from the dreams of empire, the delusions of imperial glory and greatness. Walk around London or the halls of our greatest educational establishments such as Oxbridge and Eton. Look at the great buildings built with the profits of empire, look at the paintings and statues of the heroes who conquered and ruled the empire in the days when this little island commanded a fifth of the world's population and when a quarter of the globe bowed before British rule and sent their wealth to fill our coffers.
European empires are a part of history, something done by those long dead, blame or credit for past glories and horrors cannot be laid at the feet of those living today, and yet for all too many of those who walked the hallowed halls of the elite empire was a good thing, a great thing, something to be fondly remembered and something to be aspired to again.
For most of us empire was history, not something we worry about or care about, but for some the remembered glory of empire is what they grew up with, something they look to, something they were taught to aspire to as they were taught to aspire to leadership as something that is the natural order of things.
Britain once ruled the waves and the world, Britain was once a great power, the world's only super power. If you watch what is happening you can see that many of our political leaders seem to remember this detail, remember it and suffer from that old imperial disease. Britain taking its place on the world stage, standing alone, just like it used to, back in the good old days.
May, the Brexit monkeys and others, filled with those glorious memories and dreams of more glory to come. Remembering the heady days of Empire, when Britain ruled the world. As they go out into that same world, looking to walk away from the EU and make new agreements, strike up new deals with all those other countries. Sabres rattled, gunboats paraded, Britain marching into a glorious future alone, just like in those long ago days of imperial glory, of empire.
The trouble is, the rest of the world also has memories of Britain as an empire, many of the same countries Britain is reaching out to have very real memories of British imperial treatment and British imperial boots stamping on their throats. The list of countries that Britain hasn't invaded or oppressed over the years is very small, but that was long ago, people forget, sometimes they even forgive.
But as our politicians once again dream of imperial glory and a return to the days when Britannia was a mighty power in the world, a globe spanning empire, they should remember that other people also have memories of those days.
Memories of British Imperial Glory.
So as we watch Britain go out into the world, to try and establish itself as a significant power, we can see who remembers, who has forgotten, who has forgiven, and those who are distinctly unwilling to do either. Which is why you see Britain making friends with nations who act like the old days, oppression, tyranny, death and destruction, violations of human rights, crushing of all rebellion, looting others of their wealth. You know, all the bad stuff Britain got up to in the old days, the glory days.
Making new friends who don't care about how Britain used to act, because that's how they act now. Whereas the old nations, the ones who were part of the empire, they remember, they haven't forgotten, or forgiven.
As Britain goes out into the world many nations look back at the old days and remember.
Those Glory Days of Empire.