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All The King's Horses ...


M.R.A. Baig

THE LAST EMPEROR
By Peter Townsend
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1975, 287, 5.75

VOLUME I NUMBER 4 October - December 1976

Sub-titled Decline and Fall of the British Empire, this book, by an ex-officer of the Royal Air Force who was an equerry of King George VI, is by any standards a remarkable book—full of information, political insights, and written in a most readable style. The author who from the vantage point of Buckingham Palace watched the dismantling of four pillars of the Empire—Ireland, India, Burma and Palestine, weaves the events at any one period of time in those four centuries so skillfully into one story that the reader feels that he too is a witness to the struggle for independence of these countries, foreign to the British in tradition and culture, and which resented allegiance to the British King-Em­peror and domination by Britain. The author who intersperses his narrative with delightful and shrewd bits of irony and cynical humour, also clearly brings out the contrast between the romantic rigidity of Churchill and the conservative government and the liberalism and realism of Attlee and the labour government which, accepting that Britain had em­erged from the war too enfeebled to hold by force millions of unwilling subjects, could not hand over power fast enough. In fact, if there was any delay in this process, which Churchill scornfully termed as ‘operation scuttle’, it was unavoidable because the British had too great a sense of responsibility to follow Gandhi’s advice to Mountbatten ‘to take the risk: of leaving India to chaos and anarchy’ and were only delayed by their determination to leave behind as much stability as was possible in the cir­cumstances. Like sons wrangling over their dead father's inheritance, there were in each of the countries rival claimants struggling for power, as much against each other as against the British. The story commences with the first Empress who assumed this prestigious title which Disraeli conceived in 1876, a centenary which Indian historians, perhaps understandably, seem to have over­looked. Strangely enough, this new title raised little opposition among the silent and illiterate millions of India but great opposition among the politically conscious and articulate British. What the controversy brought out clearly was that Disra­eli, who though a conservative knew what it was to be an underdog, had his sympathies with the colou­red non-British colonies whereas Gladstone, the liberal, thought only in terms of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Since the new title ignored these ...


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