Not so long ago it seemed enough of a methodological challenge to position a single empire and its metropole within the same analytic frame. But the idea of writing on just one empire is fast becoming outmoded. The preoccupation now is with the ways in which imperialisms intersected: with connected and comparative histories of empire, with trans-imperialism and co-imperialism and sub-imperialism. So Arguing about Empire, a book about the rhetorical and political interdependence of British and French imperialism between the invasion of Egypt and the nemesis of Suez, is decidedly on-trend. It is based on excellent scholarship and makes important points. It is not entirely clear, however, what its principal objectives are. The book deals with the arguments made by British and French writers and politicians about a series of imperial crises, all involving both countries, all generating a significant volume of public discussion. Each of the book’s seven chapters deals with a specific crisis, namely, the 1882 invasion of Egypt; the Fashoda incident of 1898; the Moroccan crises of 1905 and 1911; the Chanak crisis of 1922; World War II (two chapters); and Suez. The focus, then, is on arguments about North Africa and the Middle East, which is justified on the basis that these were the regions in which British and French imperial interests came most closely into contact. The authors contend that looking comparatively at how British and French actors wrote and spoke about imperial crises helps us to grasp the specificities of the two nations’ imperial rhetorics, and the ways in which those rhetorics came to intertwine and to condition one another. The book further suggests that such an analysis can illuminate the gaps between the reality of ‘co-imperialism’ and the oppositional public language with which it was cloaked, and that examining imperial rhetoric can offer us insights into the real, unstated motivations behind empire. Arguing about Empire, then, is by no means the pure discursive history that its title might seem to imply. It seeks not only to reconstruct arguments about empire, but also to connect them with imperial realities and practical political decision-making. This is a sizeable agenda for a book dealing with two exceptionally complex imperial cultures, across three quarters of a century, which is less than 300 pages long. In important respects, it succeeds. Thomas and Toye do an excellent job of explaining what was at stake in each of their case study crises, how they unfolded, and how they related to one another. Domestic political contexts are dealt with in ample detail, allowing the authors to demonstrate how party and partisanship coloured arguments about empire. Long-term shifts in the imperial languages preferred by different political groupings, especially British Conservatives, are sensitively highlighted. The overall thesis about the inextricable political entanglement of the British and French empires is consistently borne out by the case studies, which rest on an impressive command of copious press, parliamentary, and archival sources. The book is a little less compelling, however, on its nominated subjects of ‘arguing’ and ‘rhetoric’. It should be noted, first, that the authors are not interested in ‘rhetoric’ in the sense of persuasive strategies and compositional gambits, and indeed they are fonder of paraphrase than quotation. In the introduction, they define the term simply as meaning ‘public speech… often disseminated in written form after it had been delivered’ (p. 7). We are led to believe that this will be the focus of the case studies. Some chapters and chapter sections do indeed offer in-depth dissections of publicly expressed ideas and arguments. But long stretches of the book take the form of high political and diplomatic narrative—dealing with the details of imperial policy formation, the vicissitudes of ministries and ministers, and the circulation of private letters and memoranda—with some remarks about ‘rhetoric’ attached. This would make sense if the authors were trying to develop a thesis about the place of ‘public speech’ in policymaking. But the book does not seek to articulate a defined, structured vision of the relative significance of ‘rhetoric’ as against other factors which affect political decisions—its argument here does not evolve far beyond the unexceptionable claim that ‘the unravelling of these crises was influenced by rhetoric, and… those crises in turn created shifts in rhetoric’ (p. 4). Indeed, the book often treats private and public documents as equivalent containers of ‘rhetoric’, and does not always discuss their knotty relations. We do not, that is to say, find here much systematic analysis of how imperial rhetoric functioned and how it circulated; neither are French and British imperial attitudes compared in a sustained fashion. It may be that the authors’ intention is to offer us a kaleidoscopic set of glimpses into all the different contexts in which ‘rhetoric’ could affect the opening and closing of political possibilities. Either way, the joins are not seamless, and it is often unclear whether we are meant to be reading for the rhetoric itself, or for the place of ‘rhetoric’ as a category in political processes. Neither corner of the interpretative tent, in other words, is hammered down firmly enough. It should be noted too that the authors make few concessions to readers primarily interested in the history of imperial ideas. The book leaps into its case studies before having said much about the tropes, vocabularies, intellectual traditions, and patterns of thought which shaped the eruptions of ‘public speech’ surrounding its imperial crises. These issues do feature, but only incidentally, so the reader is left trying to piece together fragments. It is not until the end of the final chapter, for instance, that the authors say anything about contrasting French and British uses of the word ‘empire’. It is a shame to find these observations so scattered, as the authors make all sorts of tantalizing points. A chapter dealing systematically with the elements of imperial rhetoric would have made the book considerably easier to digest. An analytic conclusion, rather than the epilogue provided here, would also have been useful. These remarks are not intended to dissuade anyone from reading Arguing about Empire. It sets out an agenda of enormous scope and obvious significance, and should be read by all those interested in ‘high’ imperialism and its political cultures. It is a book full of ambition, energy, and insight, which assembles a wealth of fascinating material and harnesses it to creative and eminently plausible arguments. It is invigorating to read a work with such a grand strategic vision, even if it is not always clear which of its several fronts it is fighting on. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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