Macaulay: Britain's Liberal Imperialist

Zareer Masani explores the life of Tony Blair's spiritual ancestor
July 18, 2013

Macaulay: Britain’s Liberal Imperialist by Zareer Masani (Bodley Head, £20)

In knowing what was best for other peoples in other lands, Thomas Babington Macaulay stands as the original ancestor of Tony Blair and similar recent believers in the policy of liberal interventionism. As Masani describes it, his famous Minute on Indian Education to the Governor-General’s Council in 1835 “became a template of liberal imperialism across the world,” outlining an “imperial mission more ambitious and global than any since ancient Rome.”

What Macaulay urged on India was the English language, at a time when its British administration still contained a strong Orientalist lobby that believed that, wherever possible, local traditions and habits should be left alone. Such attitudes offended Macaulay’s ideas of human progress, when, in his words, a single shelf of a good European library was “worth the whole literature of India and Arabia.” He argued that English offered unparalleled access to modern knowledge and was likely to become the language of commerce throughout the East. A new class of Anglophone Indians would transmit European values (and instructions) to the broader population and slowly create a modern, scientific society.

Masani’s book is an elegant mixture of polemic and biography, which, while it doesn’t soft pedal Macaulay’s racial hauteur, gives his reforms credit for opening India to the world and often changing it for the better. Of course, as a member of India’s English-speaking elite, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Perhaps. But as he points out, some of the poorest people in India are also big fans of the language. “Oh Devi Ma, please let us learn English!” goes a Dalit song. “Even the dogs understand English now.”