British democracy, and other myths
There is no doubt that Britain was a nursery, in the nineteenth century especially, for progressive ideas and for democratic movements. The struggle for secularism and the Chartist campaign for working class suffrage are notable and noble parts of the country's history.
By the twentieth century scholar-administrators of Britain's empire were using the phrase ‘indirect rule’ to describe the way they channelled power through certain traditional authority figures – chiefs, mullahs, petty kings - in their subject societies. Leaders of tribal, ethnic, and religious groups were given dictatorial powers over their local areas in return for loyalty to the British Crown. The result was the deepening of divisions within colonies, and, often, the frustration of attempts at social and economic innovation.
The British mode of colonial administration was justified with the sort of culturally relativist rhetoric – that indigenous peoples had their own ways of life which couldn’t be reconciled with those of the West, that they weren’t suited to democracy, and so on - that conservatives like Niall Ferguson and Oliver Hartwich now like to denounce.
Niall Ferguson would have been better off apologising for French imperialism. The French at least talked about bringing the light of progress to their colonies, and making their African and Asian subjects into dark-skinned Frenchmen and women. They governed in a much more direct way than the British, though no more humanely.
Just as we should credit the development of British democracy to the country's subaltern population, and not to its aristocracy and bourgeoisie, so we should connect the development of democratic institutions in British colonies to the local peoples there, and not to Eton-trained, pith-helmeted viceroys.
It was anti-colonial movements, not colonial administrators, that brought members of different ethnicities, tribes, and religions together. India’s anti-colonial movement eventually splintered along religious lines, but for decades it was a unifying force in the country, linking the various groups - Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Parsees - that the British had tried to isolate.
Indians created their own national representative body, the Indian National Council, in 1885. A mere thirty-four years later, in 1919, the British allowed the creation of a national parliament for India, with the proviso that this body would have no role in the running of either central or local government. A mere sixteen years later, in 1935, India's parliament was given limited powers over local government. This great leap democratic leap forward occurred only because Churchill, who was angrily opposed to any form of Indian self-rule, was outmanoeuvred by others in the Conservative Party and by the Tories’ coalition partners. Independence followed a mere twelve years later, after massive protests, a strike wave, and guerrilla war.
In India as elsewhere, democracy developed in spite rather than because of the British ruling class that Oliver Hartwich wants to defend.