An amusing UKIP MEP qualification question

Most of this spoof rather fails but this one I do like:

9. In general terms, which description of the effects of the British Empire comes closest to your view?

a) “Widespread suffering and injustice caused by the inequal distribution of wealth, messy political settlements and lasting cultural prejudice”
b) “People complain about us going around the world and stealing things, but those places were in a right mess before we got there. Besides, the Belgians were worse”
c) “This is only half-time”

I find myself wavering between b and c……

14 comments on “An amusing UKIP MEP qualification question

  1. It’s a very mixed bag, really. Hong Kong and Singapore, undoubted successes. India, bit of a mixed bag but generally good. Not too sure about Australia.

    It’s also not just about “compared to Belgium (and France and Spain)”, it’s also about “compared to the people who were there before”. The “what have the Romans ever done for us” was spot on. Most people don’t care if they’re ruled by someone from another country if they give them a fuller belly.

  2. (a) of course applies to the USA post-1776, India post-independence, Burma under the Colonels, South Africa after it was expelled from the Commonwealth, Zimbabwe under Mugabe. Oh dear, none of those is part of the British Empire
    It is related that an American woman started speaking to Winston Churchill about “the poor Indians” to which Churchill replied “Which Indians do you mean ma’am? The Red Indians who are wretched and nearly extinct or the brown Indians who are enjoying unparalleled peace and prosperity under the benevolent effects of British rule?”
    [That quote may not be precisely accurate – I’m trying to quote from memory]. The native Americans (presciently) sided with the British in the American War of Independence because the British were protecting them from illegal seizure of their lands by colonists.

  3. The fact is that British rule in India was punctuated by major famines, worse than anything that had gone before, and much worse than anything that has happened since. Churchill’s quip about Indians was made in the summer of 1942, not long before he thwarted efforts to relieve the Bengal Famine of 1943.

    Tim A is right to describe Britain’s record as a mixed bag, but in light of his “fuller belly” criterion he’s wrong to say it was generally good in India.

  4. PaulB, that Wikipedia entry doesn’t at all say that famines under British rule were worse than went before. It says that they were documented better, and goes on to largely ignore pre-British famines – I assume because of this lack of evidence.

    Amartya Sen links the lack of serious effort t relieve famines to the absence of democracy in British India. Other sources mention that the lack of decetn transport links like railways were a problem. That doesn’t suggest to me that things were any better before the British arrived, and in fact many of the sources cited remark on how poorly Indian rulers managed to cope with famine.

    Now it may be that the Wikipedia entry is itself incomplete (perish the thought!), but the over-riding message I get from it is that there was famine after the British arrived, and we know how bad it was; there was also a lot of famine beforehand but we don’t know how bad it was; and the factors that made famines worse existed before British rule started but were gradually eliminated under it.

    The main stick I could beat British rule with, from that, is that it would have been better if “gradually” had been “rapidly”.

  5. Pellinor, yes it does say that famines were worse under British rule:

    Famine…reached its numerically deadliest peak in the late 18th and 19th centuries…[earlier famines] did not approach the incidence of famines…under British rule.

    I hesitate to treat Wikipedia as an authority, but that seems to be the widely-held consensus. If you’ve got a source which disagrees, please refer me to it.

  6. @ PaulB
    I don’t claim that British rule in India was spotless but the record of Nehru, Bhutto etc that I have witnessed (well, second-hand) in my lifetime with wars, racial discrimination, caste-based and religious persecution, increases in hunger despite the world in general improving food production per head until the American-led green revolution, rampant corruption … leaves me with the impression that indians (apart from the ruling elite) were significantly better-off under British rule. Clever lefties will claim GDP growth in 20 years to 1947 was lower than the next 20 years but if you look at Indian GDP growth per head vs UK GDP growth per head for 50 years pre- and post-independence, what will you find?
    The hard fact is that the 1943 famine was due to the Japanese occupation of Burma which was the ricebowl of the Indian Empire. The Telegraph article referenced is long on smear and short on credibility with its conflation of Australian wheat and Indian rice, the claim that jute can be grown in rice paddies, the implication that exports of surplus grain from a country with a population of 7 million would have fed 50-odd million – Bengal’s population was swollen with refugees from Burma (which Miss Mukerjee classifies as “neighbouring villages”), the claim that Oz was sending cereals to the Mediterranean when all southern Europe, except Franco’s Spain, was in Axis hands, the US sending ships to Calcutta through the Japanese fleet and an archipelago occupied by the Japanese (Japan held IndoChina, Malaya and Indonesia – maybe she thinks Roosevelt offered to send ships via Cape Horn and the Antarctic Ocean south of Australia?) – it’s just ridiculous, as is the claim that she personally has unearthed Churchill’s personal papers.
    ,

  7. That first quote is from the executive summary, and doesn’t seem to be supported by the detail in the rest of the article. The second one is unsupported by the rest of the article.

    For one thing, how is the comparison being made, given that it says there’s very little information about earlier one? And how did populations compare – with more people you’d expect more deaths even if the famine is “milder” (if one can say that of famine).

    I don’t think there are any clear answers to that. The “scholarly opinions” section doesn’t seem to give many strong opinions either, apart from some ideological ones. I still think the evidence boils down to: we know what happened under the British and it was bad; we don’t know what happened earlier; given that British rule is by definition bad we’ll assume that earlier famines were milder.

    That is, it’s an increase in reported severity, which to me is not necessarily strong evidence of increased severity – not when we know the reporting is much more complete.

  8. Obviously multi-guess questionnaires are fundamentally pointless, but the false trichotomy in every question is something to behold…

  9. It takes a combination of factors to create a potential major famine – a poor, populous country, and a severe failure of food production or distribution caused by man or nature. For the potential famine to turn into an actual famine with millions of deaths, one more thing is needed: the people with the power to prevent it have to not care enough.

    It speaks badly for British rule in India that it created some of the worst famines in history. It’s noteworthy that post-colonial Indian governments, for all their faults and with a rapidly rising population, have not presided over anything comparable.

    Lord Wavell, the Viceroy of India at the time of the 1943 Bengal Famine, sent Churchill a telegram asking for aid for the starving. He writes

    Winston sent me a peevish telegram to ask why Gandhi hadn’t died yet! He has never answered my telegram about food.

  10. One factor you missed there: implicit in “the people with the power to prevent it” is that those people have the power to prevent it.

    I think from the evidence it’s fairly clear that the British could have done more than was done, so there’s some failure there.

    But for the question about whether they made the position worse than it would have been had they never turned up, all we can definitely say is that there were some bad famines under British rule, and it looks as if they were worse than they could have been had the British done all they could have done. But we don’t know how bad things were before British rule and we certainly don’t know how bad they would have been without it.

    My opinion is that the factors that made British famines worse all existed before British rule, and were gradually eliminated, so based on the evidence I’ve seen things were probably worse before British rule. That’s only an ill-informed opinion, but it doesn’t run counter to any evidence I’ve seen. It does run counter to some other opinions, of course 🙂

  11. You write as if India before British rule was some sort of dark continent about which almost nothing was known. In reality India was civilized long before Britain. We do have a good idea of earlier famines: it’s not a pretty picture – the Mughal empire could also be unresponsive to local needs – but there’s no doubt that the British (including the East India Company) did worse.

  12. Sorry, I don’t mean it to come across like that. I know India has been pretty sophisticated for a long time – all I mean is that, at present, we don’t seem to have anything like such complete records available to us as we do about British rule. The records may be there, in the archives of the hundreds of states, but so far as I can tell they don’t seem to be informing the literature as much as the British ones. So either fewer exist or they’ve been less fully published, but either way they still mean the period is less well known.

    So I’d be interested to know why there’s “no doubt” that British famines were worse. All I’ve ever seen have been assertions of it; any supporting figures have talked about number of deaths rather than proportion, but given that the population increased substantially you’d expect bigger numbers.

  13. @ PaulB
    In mediaeval Britain we had famines every 10-20 years for a century or so. In British India, which is basically post the Napoleonic Wars, they were a lot less frequent. Even if you believe Johnny Depp’s view of the East India Company, that does not invalidate Churchill’s quip (which you have got right: thank you – my memory wasn’t good enough).
    FYI every imperial bureaucracy in recorded history, apart from Joseph, has been unresponsive to local need – that is a function of bureaucracy.
    There have been some really bad famines in India post-independence – try searching under “Bangladesh” or under “Christian Aid” or “DEC”

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