Book Summary: “Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World” by Niall Ferguson

Title: Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World
Author: Niall Ferguson
Scope: 3.5 stars
Readability: 4.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Ferguson argues that the British empire played a key role in creating the modern world.

If you would like to learn more about how Britain helped to create the modern world, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

Far from being a apologist for the British empire, Ferguson spends a great deal of time documenting how ruthless the British were in defending their empire. He does build a compelling case that the gunboats of the British empire were necessary to create the modern world.

Ferguson also writes an excellent overview of the history of the British empire.

Key Take-aways

  • The British empire played a key role in creating the modern world, particularly outside Europe.
  • Many of the economic and political institutions necessary for a poor nation to experience long-term economic growth were imposed by the British during the imperial period.
  • The most important contributions include:
    • The idea of liberty
    • The limited or ‘night watchman’ state
    • Representative assemblies
    • The English language
    • English forms of land tenure
    • Scottish and English banking
    • The Common Law
    • Protestantism
    • Team sports

Important Quotes from Book

The British Empire was the biggest Empire ever, bar none.

Why should Americans care about the history of the British Empire? There are two reasons. The first is that the United States was a product of that empire… Second, and perhaps more important, the British Empire is the most commonly cited precedent for the global power currently wielded by the United States. America is the heir to the Empire in both senses: offspring in the colonial era, successor today. Perhaps the most burning contemporary question of American politics is: Should the United States seek to shed or to shoulder the imperial load it has inherited?

There is no need here to recapitulate in any detail the arguments against imperialism. They can be summarized, I think, under two headings: those that stress the negative consequences for the colonized; and those that stress the negative consequences for the colonizers. In the former category belong both the nationalists and the Marxists…. In the latter camp belong the liberals, from Adam Smith onwards, who have maintained for almost as many years that the British Empire was, even from Britain’s point of view, ‘a waste of money’.

The common factor in all such arguments was and remains, however, the assumption that the benefits of international exchange could have been and can be reaped without the costs of empire. To put it more concisely: can you have globalization without gunboats?

There is growing recognition of the importance of legal, financial and administrative institutions such as the rule of law, credible monetary regimes, transparent fiscal systems and incorrupt bureaucracies in encouraging cross-border capital flows. But how did the West European versions of such institutions spread as far and wide as they did?

In a few rare cases – the most obvious being that of Japan – there was a process of conscious, voluntary imitation. But more often than not, European institutions were imposed by main force, often literally at gunpoint.

By contrast, for much (though certainly, as we shall see, not all) of its history, the British Empire acted as an agency for imposing free markets, the rule of law, investor protection and relatively incorrupt government on roughly a quarter of the world. The Empire also did a good deal to encourage those things in countries which were outside its formal imperial domain but under its economic influence through the ‘imperialism of free trade’. Prima facie, therefore, there seems a plausible case that the Empire enhanced global welfare – in other words, was a Good Thing.

Yet the fact remains that no organization in history has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labour than the British Empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And no organization has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governance around the world.

Yet there is reason to doubt that the world would have been the same or even similar in the absence of the Empire. Even if we allow for the possibility that trade, capital flows and migration could have been ‘naturally occurring’ in the past three hundred years, there remain the flows of culture and institutions. And here the fingerprints of empire seem more readily discernible and less easy to wipe away. When the British governed a country – even when they only influenced its government by flexing their military and financial muscles – there were certain distinctive features of their own society that they tended to disseminate.

A list of the more important of these would run as follows:

1. The English language

2. English forms of land tenure

3. Scottish and English banking

4. The Common Law

5. Protestantism

6. Team sports

7. The limited or ‘night watchman’ state

8. Representative assemblies

9. The idea of liberty

The last of these is perhaps the most important because it remains the most distinctive feature of the Empire – the thing that sets it apart from its continental European rivals.

The British Empire was the nearest thing there has ever been to a world government. Yet its mode of operation was a triumph of minimalism.

But this balance sheet of the British imperial achievement does not omit the credit side either. It seeks to show that the legacy of the Empire is not just ‘racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance’ – which in any case existed long before colonialism – but:

• the triumph of capitalism as the optimal system of economic organization;

• the Anglicization of North America and Australasia;

• the internationalization of the English language;

• the enduring influence of the Protestant version of Christianity; and, above all,

• the survival of parliamentary institutions, which far worse empires were poised to extinguish in the 1940s.

Without the spread of British rule around the world, it is hard to believe that the structures of liberal capitalism would have been so successfully established in so many different economies around the world. Those empires that adopted alternative models – the Russian and the Chinese – imposed incalculable misery on their subject peoples. Without the influence of British imperial rule, it is hard to believe that the institutions of parliamentary democracy would have been adopted by the majority of states in the world, as they are today. India, the world’s largest democracy, owes more than it is fashionable to acknowledge to British rule. Its elite schools, its universities, its civil service, its army, its press and its parliamentary system all still have discernibly British models. Finally, there is the English language itself, perhaps the most important single export of the last 300 years.

Of course no one would claim that the record of the British Empire was unblemished. On the contrary, I have tried to show how often it failed to live up to its own ideal of individual liberty, particularly in the early era of enslavement, transportation and the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of indigenous peoples. Yet the nineteenth-century Empire undeniably pioneered free trade, free capital movements and, with the abolition of slavery, free labour. It invested immense sums in developing a global network of modern communications. It spread and enforced the rule of law over vast areas. Though it fought many small wars, the Empire maintained a global peace unmatched before or since. In the twentieth century too it more than justified its own existence, for the alternatives to British rule represented by the German and Japanese empires were clearly far worse. And without its Empire, it is inconceivable that Britain could have withstood them.

There would certainly not have been so much free trade between the 1840s and the 1930s had it not been for the British Empire.

Nor would there have been so much international mobility of labour – and hence so much global convergence of incomes before 1914 – without the British Empire.

Consider too the role of the British Empire in facilitating capital export to the less developed world.

But which British institutions promoted development? First, we should not underestimate the benefits conferred by British law and administration. A recent survey of forty-nine countries concluded that ‘common-law countries have the strongest, and French-civil-law countries the weakest, legal protections of investors’, including both shareholders and creditors.

First, British administration was remarkably cheap and efficient. Secondly, it was remarkably non-venal. Its sins were generally sins of omission, not commission.

What lessons can the United States today draw from the British experience of empire? The obvious one is that the most successful economy in the world – as Britain was for most of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – can do a very great deal to impose its preferred values on less technologically advanced societies.

If you would like to learn more about how Britain helped to create the modern world, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s