- Colonial Power and the Rule of Law's Tangled History:McBride's Mr. Mothercountry
Few political ideals are as loaded with a history of promise and betrayal as the rule of law. In principle, the rule of law is meant to limit elite power and uphold accountability for power's abuses. It is presented as a solution to violence, criminality, corruption and exploitation, and it suggests the creation of an impartial political order that advances justice and fairness for all its members. In practice, however, the rule of law has been put into the service of powerful actors who determine its meaning and extract benefits. Among other uses, it has served as justification and alibi for imperialism past and present, demarcating the boundaries of "civilization" while demeaning the status of subjugated peoples whose dis-ordering resistances the rule of law suppresses. Keally McBride's Mr. Mothercountry: The Man Who Made the Rule of Law preoccupies itself with the tangle of such organized hypocrisy.
The book is a sustained reflection on how we might comprehend the rule of law in light of its abuses and checkered past. Though McBride is clearly interested in contemporary debates, her principal approach in Mr. Mothercountry is historical. She concentrates on one troubled context and period of the rule of law's history: British colonialism in the mid 19th century. With this, Mr. Mothercountry joins a spate of other recent books on this colonial period, including works by Jeanne Morefield, Karuna Mantena, Jennifer Pitts, and Sankar Muthu. What sets McBride's book apart is its narrow focus on the rule of law and the personalities responsible for implementing it. Her primary attention is directed neither at grand theory nor at the experiences of colonized or postcolonial subjects but at the ideas and practices of colonial administrators operating principally from London. She, in effect, examines the interior of the colonial apparatus so as to lay bare the judgments, biases, philosophies and struggles that guided the rule of law's international circulation. Looking at how the British colonial bureaucracy applied the rule of law to its colonies, McBride suggests, can shed light on the rule of law's meaning and entailments then and today.
Though she decries the arbitrariness and power imbalances that underlie applications of the rule of law, McBride nonetheless stops short of calling for the wholesale rejection of the ideal. Central to her argument is her claim that the rule of law is best seen not as a static condition, arrival point, or set of institutions but rather as a mode of practice. As such, the rule of law was not merely an ideological bolster for colonial rule. It also functioned as a pragmatic [End Page 318] response to the challenges of governing diverse colonies. And it is in such practical responses—often slow and grinding—that McBride finds insights not only about the rule of law's failings but also about underlying aspirations and the sort of worldly dilemmas that make the rule of law important yet difficult.
The book is organized into five substantive chapters spanning the period from roughly 1813 to 1870. This is a period in which colonial authorities grappled with legal pluralism and the heterogeneity of local colonial contexts. The period is also characterized by the growing codification and standardization of colonial law; mercantile campaigns to extend Britain's jurisdiction beyond its sovereign territory; and the British government's struggles with rebellion and excessive policing in its colonies. Such topics provide the substance of Mr. Mothercountry's chapters. Rather than being driven by a strong central thesis, the chapters use the different contexts and practical dilemmas to unfold layers of complexity in the rule of law's meaning and applications.
One of the book's major contributions is its examination of a largely unsung group of people with outsized impacts on the rule of law in Britain's colonies. Most readers will not be shocked to learn that a few powerful actors wielded great influence over Britain's colonial bureaucracy. More surprising, however...