It’s a pretty good book – better on the progress of the Scottish enlightenment, the philosophy, science, legal and educational thought, etc. – than it is on the surrounding history. Anyway. . .
It includes an extremely interesting idea which, if not an original one, is at least new to me. A little dollop to add to our understanding of the British Empire.
The premise of the book is that Scots played a disproportionate role in Great Britain in the late 18th and entire 19th centuries. Herman makes a convincing case for this. Just one example: through the educator and philosopher Dugald Stewart, and the influential Edinburgh Review, the economic theories of Adam Smith and the moral theories of David Hume percolated down into the Whigs and the Liberals who predominated in British politics for about 100 years, from Prime Minister Lord Russell, through Gladstone right up to Lloyd George.
But that is not the interesting idea. You simply have to take for granted the premise of Scottish predominance in British thinking to appreciate the interesting idea, which has to do with the origins of the concept of benign imperialism: the white man’s burden, the belief that the introduction of British civilization with its moral values, its economic benefits, its politics of (relative) inclusion, its educational opportunities, was of such high moral worth that it far outweighed whatever moral failings might be involved in the overthrow by violence and coercion of another nation’s sovereignty.
The interesting idea harks back to the early 18th century and the Acts of Union (1707) which basically forced the Scottish, against most Scots’ wishes, to become part of Britain.
Anti-unionist Scots predicted that union with England would bring political disempowerment, economic dependency and virtual slavery to Scotland. The effect was just the opposite. From a backward, illiterate, amorphous and ungovernable conglomerate of tribes, Scotland became, through union with England, an enlightened, civilized, economic, political and educational powerhouse.
And here is Arthur Herman’s interesting idea (although I am not sure whether it is his, originally, or whether other historians have voiced it as well): The Scottish experience of subjection to England having turned out to be such a good thing (to put it in terms of “1066 and All That”) informed the philosophers, politicians, moralists, reformers and writers who formulated the concept of benign British imperialism. It happened in Scotland, so why not wherever else Britain decided to conquer and “raise up” an unruly native population?
The fact that English domination did not help the Irish one iota is a good argument against the idea of benevolent imperialism, but it does not diminish the possibility that, considering the influence of the Scottish enlightenment on British thought, the Scottish renaissance (naissance, actually) under British rule painted a rosy picture of the effect on subject peoples of British imperialism and allowed liberal and progressive Britains to excuse behavior which they otherwise might have found pretty awful. It’s nothing more than the rationale of the Victorian caner of children’s backsides: “I’m doing this for your own good.