Comparative history is not an exact science. It can be a fraught business. I’m sure there are a number of ways in which today’s video could be portrayed as condescending or even a bit racist. “What do you mean Ethiopia is 100 years behind Europe!!!”. But comparative history is too useful a tool, to not use. Unfortunately, it’s often used poorly. With this video, and a follow up I’m still drafting, I hope to debunk some of the dumber comparisons that are made. I also want to show that while Ethiopia’s civil war is horrible, it’s not really much of a detour from normal development.
The later 20th century was not a big focus of my book, Avoiding the British Empire. I date the end of the British world system to 1914, and the beginning of World War I. The time after than is mostly one of decline. But it had peaks, and the period after 2016 will be seen as a new valley. One of the things that I did study intensely in writing the book was the distinction between “informal” and “formal” empire. The informal empire of financial power was as important, or perhaps more important than all the red bits on the map that were formally controlled by the British Empire.
If you look at it that way, then it’s clear that the European Union represented a new informal empire for Britain. Which makes throwing it away with Brexit quite nuts. I take a more in depth look at this in today’s video.
I may have gone a bit overboard with today’s video. It packs what I’ve learned from the three books on Tunisia I have read over the past month into one video, and it may be a bit overstuffed. Even given that, I can already see the angry comments talking about everything I’ve missed. Tunisia has an incredibly complex and lengthy history that led to the successful country it is today. I hope I’ve done it a bit of justice with this video!
Believe it or not, today’s video deals with a surprisingly persistent piece of conventional wisdom. I honestly couldn’t tell you where I picked it up, maybe Niall Ferguson, but it’s something I unthinkingly believed for decades. The idea is that countries that were colonized by the British were better off than those colonized by the French, because of superior British institutions, or better management or whatever. I hardly thought about this old assumption in my two years researching the British Empire. Serious books of history don’t try to make this claim. But once the vids started coming out, it started cropping up in the comments.
This is one of the most fun things about studying history. If you build up a base of knowledge, you can occasionally get these sudden “Ah-Hah!” moments when you realize that something you’ve always believed is unmitigated balderdash. Today’s video wrote itself with very little prompting. If you have a cursory knowledge of the history of the countries in each of the Empires before and after colonization, it becomes clear how silly this old story is. And with this video, I get to make it clear to everybody else too… I love my job.
Man, #Brexit just keeps getting worse. I’m very pleased with how this video on the Northern Ireland problem performed. A month later it’s got over 14K views, which is more than enough to consider it a success. What’s more, I got a ton of positive feedback from all over on how well it dealt with the issue… in addition to the usual nastygrams. It appears that there are a lot of Brexit supporters in the UK who have not given this issue any thought at all. As the chaos has spun up over the past month, Northern Ireland has gotten even less attention. UK Prime Minister Boris’s inability to get the Parliament to do anything has raised hopes that we will get past the October 31st deadline with another extension, this mess will drag on for another year or so, Brexit could never happen, and maybe nobody will ever have to think about Ireland’s troubles ever again. I’m not so optimistic. In fact, I’ve got a kind of disastrous scenario for this month that’s been bugging me.
Most assume that the UK government will be bullied into asking the EU for another extension. I agree that that will probably happen. It’s what happens after that’s more suspect. Everybody assumes that if Boris asks, the EU will grant another three to six months of time for fiddling about. The EU doesn’t want a no-deal either. But what if the calculation is wrong? My understanding is that all 27 EU countries need to vote unanimously to grant another extension. What if just one of those countries decides “fuck it!”? A no-deal Brexit would be bad for Europe, but the past three years of indecision and investment stagnation have been pretty bad too. It’s quite possible that Britain will ask for another extension this month, and the EU will say no. I’m not someone that thinks No-Deal will be as instantly catastrophic as advertised. At this point, it would have to kill more people than the bubonic plague to be spun as anything other than “not as bad as they said it would be”. But I do believe the long term result will be terrible for the UK eventually, and in Northern Ireland almost immediately.