- The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain ed. by Simon Gunn and James Vernon
This volume of essays, the first in the Berkeley Series in British Studies, reopens debate about the nature of liberalism and modernity in understanding the historical development of Britain and its empire from the early nineteenth century onward. As the editors rightly point out, these two terms have been used so “promiscuously” in the field of British studies, and with such multiple, complex, and evolving associations, that they must themselves now be seen as discourses rather than descriptors in any such debates. The challenge, therefore, of drawing together into a cohesive whole a set of essays on such divergent topics, and around a concept as problematic and ambiguous as “liberal modernity,” is accordingly great.
To this end, the introduction begins by addressing the skepticism now common among historians regarding the supposedly universal and irresistible applicability of the qualities so long associated with Britain’s unique brand of modernity. It follows with a brief summary of the principal ways in which liberalism itself has been understood and expressed in the past two centuries. These include the rise of the social contract between individual and state based on political liberty and limited government, the diminishment of aristocratic privilege and religious exclusion, the recognition of economic freedom through open markets and a consequent abandonment of land and mercantilist trade as the primary means of generating wealth, the steady expansion of political representation and liberal ideology embodied in the party of Gladstone (Liberalism with a capital L), and finally the Foucauldian emphasis on the evolving forms of knowledge, surveillance, and bureaucracy that characterized the machinery of the liberal state alongside the industrial and technological advances of society itself. With this in mind, the peculiarities of British liberal modernity seem less an exemplary and linear path forward than a complex and uneven process fraught with inherent contradictions. This is especially evident when one further considers the imperial dimensions in which coercion, subjugation, and exclusion belied the ideologies of universal [End Page 434] freedom and human advancement that were at the heart of both liberalism and modernity.
The first essay, by Catherine Hall, focuses on T. B. Macauley, the great Whig parliamentarian, historian, and champion of the civilizing force of British (read: English) liberalism. Indeed, the subject of this essay serves well as a first chapter to anchor the topics and themes in later ones. Macauley’s defense of “reform in time” to avert revolution enabled the Whigs to extend the franchise to men of industry and commerce while buttressing the aristocratic power at the center of British politics and society. As both a politician and intellectual, Macauley held to a vision of progress that allowed for meaningful contributions from “people pre-eminently vigorous in body and mind” (p. 23). This required extending political citizenship not merely to the middle classes but to working-class men accompanied by the regulation of factory and mine conditions as a form of “social conciliation” (p. 22). The gradual inclusion of greater portions of the population—in appropriately more limited ways as one moved further down the class hierarchy—remained a defining feature of Whig, and later Liberal, politics. Yet Macauley the historian offers a more exclusionary form of liberalism, one whose universalist principles rested on a Western intellectual tradition that was not the natural inheritance of many of the peoples gathered into Britain’s expanding imperial fold. Of the Irish, he wrote that they must become English just as the Scots had earlier been assimilated. Meanwhile in India, he famously called for nurturing an Anglicized Indian middle class culturally attuned to their colonizers but who would someday be able to guide their lesser brethren. Until that distant time, India was best served by benevolent despotism.
Hall’s assertion that “Macauley’s notions of the universal family were fractured by the racial hierarchies he constructed” (p. 27) offers an intellectual critique of a type of imperial liberalism whose practical applications are reflected well in...