Readers reply: what if the British empire had never existed? Would the world be a better or worse place?

What if the British empire had never existed? Would the world be a better or a worse place? Robert Hunter, Dundee

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Readers reply

Better place. End of discussion. Bobmacdon

If it wasn’t the British empire, it would have been somebody else’s empire. We’d maybe see more people speaking French, Spanish or German. But just like the British, those empires would have collapsed, so the world would be different but similar at the same time. Maybe the issue is more the paths that global religion would have taken – Catholicism may have been more widespread. Stillgrizzly

The Spanish empire would have continued for far longer, causing devastation for far longer in Central and South America, possibly controlling the US and Canada’s midwest up to the Mississippi. The Dutch would have likely colonised more of southern Africa, but with no conflict between the Boers and British it’s possible that apartheid would never have come into play. The French in alliance with their Bourbon cousins in Spain would probably have come to dominate Europe and the rest of the world, there would have been no US war of independence and no French Revolution, but the Indian subcontinent would have been dominated by French trade and factories.

The point is the British empire did not exist in isolation, it came about as a result of constant jockeying for position with other European empires and states. The poor would still have been treated with contempt and indifference whether European or “native”, the language they had to obey orders in may have changed is all. cairnofmediocrity

Ireland would have had very different history. Almost any alternative would have been better. In modern times, the EU and US are major players in Ireland. Both are better. FrancesMary

We wouldn’t have our national superiority complex. Without all the money pouring in from abroad we’d be poorer, but probably have a fairer society. We’d probably be like the Scandinavian countries that never had an empire. Alex42

No British empire, no international cricket. the_unwoke

It’s likely that other empires in Europe would have prevailed, probably France and Spain. The answer to this does depend on when the inflexion point is.

Does it happen in the 1400-1500s, so Portugal has an extended “golden age” and becomes even more pre-eminent in Africa and India?

If it’s in the 18th century, presumably France becomes the global power. Does Spain continue as a client ally of Napoleon, or do their empires continue, but separate?

My feeling is that there would be some kind of Habsburg hegemony, with significant parts of the world speaking German rather than English. Technologically, the spread of post, rail etc would have been broadly similar, but the rapid development of industry in Britain, funded by empire, would have been slower. Perhaps stuff such as steam and rail would have developed slower? SpaghettiCorbynarra

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It might have been more sensible to ask whether the world would have been better off without the European, rather than British, mercantile empires (which slightly postdate the Spanish/Portuguese plunder of the new world). It’s really impossible to say whether the French or Dutch empires were better or worse than the British and even more difficult to hypothesise as to how the global south would have developed if left to its own devices. One thing that I think we can say was entirely the consequence of European empires was the slave trade, its greatest evil, without which 11 million Africans would never have been torn from their homes and worked to death in the American colonies, whether Spanish, Portuguese, British, French or Dutch. montesdeoca

Colonial empires were wrong. Looking for the good in them is a self-serving exercise. In Ecuador you get a very different view on the Incan empire because they are aware of what was lost for the empire to grow. It is wearying answering the question about good. Answering it for Mussolini, Stalin or Hitler is just as wearying as answering it for the British empire and wouldn’t even need to be asked by someone with sensitivity to suffering of subjugated peoples. Aeniad

Quiet a few of the replies are just defensively saying that at least the British behaved better than XYZ. There may be some truth in this, although the British did behave abdominally in many instances which are largely ignored or brushed under the rug in Britain. A better question might be whether the world would be a better or a worse place if empires or other forms of colonisation never existed? My answer to this would be an undoubted yes. 1rkThePurists

India without colonial interference may have evolved into various regional kingdoms in the 18th and 19th centuries. It would have retained wealth and culture, and continued its growth in economic and scientific fields, bringing higher living standards for the populace. There would probably have been more conflict as some kingdoms grew but the Indian subcontinent would not have been a unified raj from Afghanistan to Bangladesh. Instead, it would have evolved to a loose union of sorts, like the nations of Europe into the EU. Clearly, this scenario would have been whole lot better for populace than colonial rule! Ram N

The British in India introduced democracy at all levels (India had its first elections under British rule and was pretty much self-governing except at the national level when the British left in 1947), ended peacetime famine providing famine relief through “famine codes” still in use until the 1970s, built more than half the railways and canals still used today at a much cheaper cost than for countries around the world, made sati and female infanticide illegal and drastically improved women’s rights, built India’s first modern educational institutions, introduced the rule of law and a proper legal system for the first time in south Asian history, industrialised the economy, ushered in the Sikh golden age, established the Indian army and the civil service, discovered the Ajanta caves and 4,000-year ancient civilisations such as Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, restored the Taj Mahal, started a tradition of preservation of Indian heritage, and even introduced tea and cricket. Far from dividing India through alleged divide and rule, they united hundreds of empires of India under one state.

It’s also worth discussing what the alternatives would be – “India” would have fallen to being ruled by one or more European powers, or a “native” empire that would still have been alien to most of the country without many of the benefits of British rule. The Mughals and Marathas have been offered as alternatives, but as many communities in India found out, their rule would have been far from benevolent. There is no doubt that the British empire committed many evils, but on balance the world is a much better place for its existence. Bikram Rana

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Overall the world would have been better off, particularly in Africa, where the empire systematically milked the colonies, initially at the point of a gun. The so-called civilisation it brought was negated by an authoritarian and dictatorial rule promulgated by a succession of empire builders. The sheer size of the empire was a threat to other nations who may not have gone to war without it. The first world war was a particular example, with Germany building a large navy to compete with the British. The British went to war with Germany to protect its own interests, causing the death of many thousands of young men who were drawn from the colonies. Above all, the British developed an arrogance drawn from the might of the empire. Now we see the fall with Brexit and other absurdly handled treaties! William

I live in Argentina, which owes a part of its independence from Spain to Britain. Britain became a strong partner in Argentina, investing in railways and farming, which led it to compete with the US as a future home for the poor of Europe and Middle East at the end of the 19th century, until the end of the second world war. The arrival of European nationalists, and the appearance of Juan Domingo Perón, and his admiration for fascist ideals, put an end to that dream, leading to our 21st-century corrupt, populist, basket case. Maybe, it would have been better than it is today, if that influence had prevailed. Andrew Potter

Really a question for all of those butchered, enslaved, and raped. Why ask this question of those who have already profited from the empire’s crimes? Caroline Grootes

As a Welshman i do indeed wonder about this question. What if Harry Hotspur, Owain Glyndŵr or Llywelyn Fawr had won those battles? What if Yr Hen Gogledd still existed, the Scotti invasion failed and Scotland was another Welsh region? What strikes me is that the British empire is much more an English empire than British, and England understands its roots so poorly it thinks that it is Britain. We need to rediscover truth, roots and honesty and with it the English need to embrace their German roots, just as most of us are the Cymbrogi, compatriots of Britain! Snow Wulf

On one hand, the subjugation, murder, and cultural genocide of millions of people would never have happened. On the other hand, some of the world’s most powerful democracies would never have existed. Workers would never have gained the vote or employment rights in the UK. The industrial/French/various European revolutions might never have happened. And we probably would have been invaded by France or Spain during the 17th-18th centuries.

It’s easy to look back on empire as evil. But it happened. It led to good things; it also led to some bad. It’s impossible to tell what might have happened otherwise, because there is no clear-cut definition of empire and what it achieved/inflicted. Hugh, Edinburgh

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