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Ruling continuities: colonial rule, social forces and path dependence in British India and Africa

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The concept of empire has undergone a revival in recent years in the context of debates over American power and hegemony in world politics. Authors such as Niall Ferguson and Deepak Lal have used the British empire as an exemplar to demonstrate that empires can be benign, engendering social and economic development and enabling democracy. In this article, I argue that British imperialism, far from being benign, actually undermined colonial democratisation and development through its focus on maintaining physical order and control and sustaining economic extraction. This is demonstrated by both the budgetary priorities and the political and institutional machinations of British colonial regimes. However, different colonies experienced distinct post-independence trajectories, depending upon the character of indigenous social cleavages, elite strategies, the formation of political parties and movements, and the ability of leaderships to manipulate limited opportunity structures. India’s distinctive pathway to democracy would not have been possible had partition not fixed a potentially serious demography problem, rendering the government institutions inherited from the British suitable to India’s social structure. Also aiding India’s transition was its educated political leadership, who were able to consolidate the embryonic democratisation patterns stemming from the colonial period. Pakistan’s transition to democracy was impeded by partition, which resulted in Pakistan’s losing both its central state apparatus and its integrative national party. Transitions to democracy in Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania were blocked by an entrenched history of autocracy, inappropriate government structures and a lack of well-trained political elites. Had British officials done more, earlier on, to modernise government structures and develop the political capacities of populations in these countries, they too may have successfully democratised. The lessons of this article have current applicability to the new states being formed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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