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John Bull Knows Best

Niall Gillespie

Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist, by Zareer Masani, Bodley Head, 288 pp, £20, ISBN:

Thomas Babington Macaulay was born in the year that the Irish Ascendancy saw its parliament abolished (1800). His father and mother were solidly middle class, and politically they adhered faithfully to a mild Toryism. Both parents practised an austere Evangelical Anglicanism and were important figures within the London abolitionist movement. By the time their son Thomas reached four years of age, it was obvious to his parents, and to their friends (including the dour educationalist Hannah More), that the little boy was intellectually exceptionally brilliant. His early education was somewhat haphazard but it fell into a rigorous academic routine when he was sent up to Cambridge (Trinity). Macaulay graduated, if not with the high degree that was expected of him, then with a reputation for being something of a near genius. Importantly, it was at Trinity that he became a radical Benthamite Whig. He became an exponent of laissez-faire capitalism and a firm supporter of a large state-funded military that would violently prise open foreign markets. By his early thirties, Macaulay had settled into a moderate Whiggism, one that he would not abandon until the final years of his life. He championed the middle class as the group most competent to govern (he favoured the £10 franchise). Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, he argued against the penal laws applying to Jews and Roman Catholics. He accepted that the House of Commons needed reforming and that the suffrage needed widening (notably, he was an admirer of the French Revolution up to the period of the September massacres (1792)). After gaining his degree, he became a barrister (a profession he loathed), and subsequently secured a rotten borough seat in parliament courtesy of Whig patronage (1830). An average orator, he was nonetheless respected at Westminster for his careful expositions of whatever proposed legislation stood before the House. Parliament did not make him wealthy, and for reasons of personal finance, he agreed to accept membership of the Supreme Council of India. An admirer of Warren Hastings, Macaulay landed in Kolkata in June 1834.

Macaulay’s current fame rests on the three and a half years he spent in Kolkata. In 1834 India had a population of roughly one hundred and fifty million inhabitants. The British controlled their Indian territories with the aid of thirty-seven thousand soldiers and three thousand functionaries, businessmen, lawyers, etc. The first great squabble awaiting Macaulay on landing was over the question of whether or not the Indian population should be taught through their own vernacular or through the medium of English. By the time Macaulay had reached India, a decision had more or less been made in favour of the Anglophone position. What Macaulay had the fortune to do, was to write out this position in a cogent manner (his infamous 1835 “Minute on Indian Education”). Luckily for him, this was printed for public consumption and was noticed back in London. Macaulay’s stay in India was rather uneventful. He viewed the Indians with the disdain of an obsessive Philhellenist, believing that the native population ought to be ruled with a firm “despotism”. However (and perhaps this very marginally mitigates his ignorance), he was a cultural racist rather than a racist of the epidermal variety. He was convinced that the elite of the Indian population would have the intellectual capacity to learn Whiggish values, and that they, in turn, would themselves act as transmitters of these values to the non-elite of their local populations. The English language and English canonical culture was something that could be universally learned. Unlike the slave owners of Alabama, he did not hold that the non-white was subhuman by nature. Returning to England a wealthy man, he took up a seat in parliament, arguing for the secret ballot (a position he dropped later in life) and for the widening of the franchise to the well-to-do middle classes. The 1848 revolutions scared him into a conservative Whiggism, and he died the celebrated author of the multi-volume romantic History of England which exercised a not insignificant influence over the Western world from 1848 onwards. Macaulay was not a profound historian (indeed, if anything, he was a frustrated Romantic novelist), and his histories, and the methods he employed, have, for quite some time, been thoroughly discredited.

Today, in Mumbai and elsewhere, the term “Macaulay’s children” is a pejorative one – it denotes an individual who has internalised those exploitative values typifying British imperialism, a person who has an inferiority complex regarding the indigenous culture of the people from whom they have emerged. It is similar to the term “West Briton” or Malcolm X’s “house negro”. In Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist, Zareer Masani seeks to reclaim this insult by arguing that we must look to what he perceives as Macaulay’s positive influence on the Indian subcontinent. Before getting to the substance of the new biography, something needs to be said of Masani himself. A prominent Indian intellectual, Zareer Masani is the grandson of the revisionist Indian historian Sir Rustom Masani. His father, Minoo, was a former communist (in the 1930s) and a close confident of Nehru. Minoo would subsequently become an influential founding member of the India Swatantra Party – a party founded upon the principles of free-market unregulated capitalism (near in ideology to that of Desmond O’Malley’s Progressive Democrats). Swatantra achieved some electoral success in the 1960s before sinking into a political irrelevancy. Zareer attended school at The Cathedral (the Mumbai elites mimicking Eton) and graduated with a degree from Oxford University. He subsequently worked for the BBC, where in his noticeably cultivated Received Pronunciation he discussed European and Indian affairs. Masani has been a steadfast disciple of Western imperial intervention – and is an admirer of Thatcher, Cameron, Blair and Obama.

And so to the biography. The first thing to note is that this book contains nothing new. It is largely based, indeed nearly wholly so, upon secondary sources and edited primary material that has been in print for decades. Secondly, despite Masani’s claim that no major or minor biography has been written on Macaulay since the late nineteenth century, there are indeed several comprehensive lives (John Clive’s Thomas Babington Macaulay (1973), Robert E Sullivan’s very competent Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power (2009) and Catherine Hall’s apologetic revisionist tome Macaulay and Son (2012)). Masani’s very thin “select bibliography” would embarrass a workshy undergraduate. The only original aspects of the work are his preface and epilogue, both of which are underwhelming.

The main thrust of Masani’s argument is twofold. He argues that in promoting the English language in India, Macaulay allowed it to enter into the modern globalised economy of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries. India, Masani argues, has decided advantages economically because of its English-speaking population. Objections to this argument are not hard to find. Since the 1980s, India has noticeably underperformed in the world economy. It is not among the success stories of Asia – its huge internal market (not to mention its export-orientated sector) has been comparatively weak. It is still a distinctly third-world economy. Its neighbour China, comparable in population and in natural resource and labour advantages, is far ahead by most OECD/IMF/World Bank calculations and China did not increase its GDP on the back of a population proficient in English. The question that Masani ought to have posed is why India has failed to grow significantly (in global terms) in the last three decades. Has its colonial inheritance (long-term structural problems, the imposition of property relations and legal codes not suited to the country’s culture, etc.) anything to do with this? Masani, going against the patently clear quantitative evidence, argues that (what he terms India’s roaring economy) is Macaulay’s legacy. The English tongue, he claims, has propelled the state forward. India has a population of 1.2 billion, of which roughly one per cent speak English as their first language. Another 10-12 per cent of the population have a working knowledge of English, though this ranges from the exceptional to the inadequate – for the purposes of international commerce. Indeed, Masani has stated that the substandard teaching of English in India has meant that much of this spoken English is not understood outside of India. The majority of India’s commerce is not transacted in English – indeed, the workforce is noticeably not English-speaking. While India has attracted US multinationals, it has done so at a price – it has had to embrace the neoliberal WTO principles and regulations, a process that has been hugely detrimental to Indian farmers, wage labourers and students and to India’s own internal market. Masani claims that Macaulay had foreseen that English would be the language of global trade – perhaps, but he would have been surprised that that English would be spoken with an American accent.

Masani’s other main argument is that Macaulay was, to all intents and purposes, the originator of international liberal humanitarian interventionism. Historically, this is a very questionable supposition and the biographer does little to support the contention in any serious way. Macaulay was above all a pragmatist, a practitioner of realpolitik. When it suited him, he played the humanitarian card (as in his disastrous support of Britain’s Afghanistan campaign); where there existed no humanitarian fig leaf, he talked of raw power (thus he was an ardent supporter of the Opium War). One of his contemporaries claimed that Macaulay summed up his own politics with the aphorism “might is right”. True or not, this is a fair summation of his ideology. Macaulay’s instincts were liberal, but, as with most liberals, this instinct was but the reverse of a rather reactionary worldview. Macaulay exalted in the butchering of Indians after the 1857 Rebellion (indeed, his private writings on this subject are intensely vengeful – he expresses his wish to satiate himself in Indian blood). He advocated the horrific practice of cannonading (the blowing of captured Indian rebels from a large gun). His reactions to Ireland (what he called “the diseased part of the Empire”) were similar – he advocated Catholic Emancipation on the one hand, while energetically lamenting that his great hero, Cromwell, had failed to exterminate totally the aboriginal Irish (needless to say, he was an enthusiastic supporter of Malthusian social engineering). Macaulay’s liberalism, as with most liberalist thought, was only ever skin deep – its internal contradictions burst explosively when pushed to their natural limits. It is no accident that, when faced with 1848 Europe, he quickly jettisoned his liberal beliefs on the secret ballot.

There are very few things to recommend this book. Masani is correct in not speculating on the exact nature of Macaulay’s relationship with his sisters. He is likewise correct in his estimation that Macaulay’s “Minute” was not decisive in the battle over whether English should be promoted by the colonial government. He also does not, like some, perform verbal and historical acrobatics to attempt to prove that Macaulay was not a racist. He does not completely botch Macaulay’s legacy as a lawgiver and practitioner/organiser of law and government (although he does repeat the old fairytale about the incorruptibility of the Indian civil service).

Macaulay is an interesting figure and deserves a better study. Masani does not address in any significant detail Macaulay’s own theories regarding the English language (which were firmly anti-Johnsonian). Of the information not provided by Masani, this reader would liked to have known the following – what were the initial Indian reactions to the English language policy? How did Hindus and Muslims view Macaulay’s project? Did speakers and readers of Sanskrit, Persian and Arabic consider Macaulay’s project to be a credible threat to their culture? Did the fact that the Muslims very early on opposed the English language policy create the fractures that led to the founding of Pakistan? Similarly, how was his penal code received by Indians? Did the Dalits of the 1860s and 1870s remember Macaulay fondly – when did he enter their collective popular memory? How is English perceived in the various nations and peoples of the Indian state?

This book comes with the dust-cover imprimatur of two people – Sir Mark Tully (former BBC India Correspondent and co-writer with Masani of the book Raj to Rajiv [1998]) and Baron (Peter) Hennessy of Nympsfield (an arch supporter of a hereditary and spiritual House of Lords). This humble reviewer, however, thinks the biography best avoided. Indeed, to paraphrase Macaulay, there is more to be learnt in a paragraph of Vandana Shiva or Arundhati Roy on Macaulay than in Masani’s many works.

In 2103, Niall Gillespie completed a PhD on Irish Radical Literature c. 1778-1832 at Trinity College Dublin. With Christina Morin, he is editing a collection on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish Gothic for Palgrave (to be published 2014).

See Zareer Masani’s response to this review:



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