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Publication date: 24th January 2013 by Richard Brown

'British History' Reviews - Winter 2013

'British History' Book Reviews Winter 2013 featuring reviews of: 1. Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain, 2. Searching for the State in British Legal Thought, 3. The Imperial Security State: British Colonial Knowledge and Empire-Building in Asia


1. Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain -Catherine Hall (Yale University Press, 2012) 389pp., £35 hard, ISBN 978-0300-16023-9

Macaulay and Son is an important dual biography of Zachary and his son Thomas Babington Macaulay, abolitionist and liberal imperialist respectively who defined the parameters of nation and empire in the early nineteenth century.  Catherine Hall explores the emotional, intellectual and political roots of Zachary Macaulay, the leading abolitionist and his son Thomas' visions of race, nation, and empire. Both men believed in the importance of assimilation as the key to progress though they came to that conclusion from different directions.  For Zachary, the central feature of assimilation was the model of white Christian manhood and his belief that freed slaves must be so civilised.  For Thomas, gender, racial and religious hierarchies were less certain and secure.

Central to understanding Thomas' intellectual evolution was his History of England, a phenomenal Victorian best-seller.  It defined a nation's sense of self, its triumphant rise to a powerfully homogenous nation built on a global empire and its claim to be the modern nation, marking the route to civilisation for all others.  Yet for Thomas, the empire was a messy, ill-defined entity and was, for Thomas, largely irrelevant to the national story he constructed.  Being English was the right thing for peoples to be, but how that could occur and an empire of increasing diversity was less clear. 

This wonderfully original study of empire uses biography as an effective medium to explain the evolution of ideas and draws illuminating comparisons between father and son.  How history should be written and the difficulty, and yet the necessity, for national myths make this a highly pertinent study.


2. Searching for the State in British Legal Thought - Janet McLean - (Cambridge University Press), 2012  334pp., £65 hard, ISBN 978-1-107-02248-5

In the aftermath of the economic crash, there has been a widespread debate across the western world about what the role of the state should be and what the state should and should not do or perhaps more accurately what it can and cannot do.  Some argue that the state should spend its way out of depression by stimulating demand and economic growth.  Others take the view that the role of the state and the public sector needs to be rolled back to something akin to Robert Nozick's notion of the ‘night-watchman state' and that the role and responsibility of individual action needs to be given greater significance, (David Cameron's notion of the ‘Big Society perhaps).   This represents a shift from the public to the private sector as the engine of growth and from the state to the individual citizens in their localities.. 

Yet, as this innovative and closely argued book maintains the orthodox view is that Britain does not have a developed concept of the state, that there is not sufficiently distinct body of public law or developed concept of state responsibility in British law.  With its distrust of abstraction, British people prefer dealing with real people vested with real powers.  It is this notion that Janet McLean challenges identifying ideas of the state in legal writing and tracing their influence on legal doctrines and legislative and administrative structures.  Legal thought, she argues, is a variety of political thought.  Covering the period between the Great Reform Act of 1832 and 2010, the book considers the impact of legal thinking of intellectual movements such as Utilitarianism, Idealism, Pluralism, Fabian Socialism and public choice theory.  It examines the development of a centralised bureaucracy, the expansion of state functions especially its regulatory role, the rise of administrative law and the developing and changing relationship between the state and civil society.  They key writers such as Austin, Maitland, Dicey, Laski, Robson, Hart and Hayek are examined in the context of both legal doctrine and their role within the broader intellectual movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  The value of the book lies in its novel examination of the ways in which the state responded to the challenges creates by population growth, economic change and urbanisation and the relationship between the regulation of those developments and the rights of the citizen.  I thoroughly recommend it.


3. The Imperial Security State: British Colonial Knowledge and Empire-Building in Asia - James Hevia (Critical Perspectives on Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2012) 304pp., £65 hard, ISBN 978-0521896085

There is an old Farsi expression that ‘Anywhere in the world, where a leaf moves, underneath you will find an Englishman.'  This is evident in the title of the recent study of the Great Game by William Beaver, Under Every Leaf: How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa,  and reflects the growing interest among historians for how the information system developed within the British Empire during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  The Imperial Security State explores the relationship between the production of strategic geographical, political and ethnographical knowledge and the maintenance of the British Empire in Asia. It examines different types of military intelligence, how men were trained to produce them and their relationship to other types of imperial knowledge and the close links between military knowledge and the maintenance of empire.  This is an important but under-explored dimension of British.

James Hevia has focused on route books and military reports produced by the British Indian Army military intelligence between 1880 and 1940. He shows that these formed a renewable and authoritative archive that was used to train intelligence officers, to inform civilian policy makers and to provide vital information to commanders as they approached the battlefield. The knowledge that was gathered not only framed imperial strategies towards colonised areas to the east but also produced the very object of intervention: Asia itself. Finally, the book addresses the long-term impact of the security regime, revealing how elements of British colonial knowledge have continued to influence contemporary tactics of counterinsurgency in twenty-first-century Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is an interesting and particularly pertinent study since modern intervention in Iraq and especially Afghanistan has been less than effective as a means of democratic nation building despite the outlay of billions to finance military intervention and the substantial loss of life.