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The British Empire's legacy

War in the Falklands brought renewed attention to the issue of colonialism, and to British colonialism in particular. Because the British Empire was the most widespread in world history, reactions to its presence are most extensive. Aside from political domination, resentments stem importantly from a past filled with smug British ethnocentrism and political duplicity.

Such a record notwithstanding it is well to recognize that the British colonial presence brought more than just merchants, missionaries, and mischief. Its legacy also included a corps of well-trained civil servants, an equitable legal code, and a model of representative government adaptable to a diversity of cultures. Noteworthy is the persistence of individual liberties and openly elected leaders in former British territories. States such as India, Canada, Barbados, Botswana, and the Solomon Islands have little in common other than a history of British colonialism and democratic government.

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Fifty-three members of the United Nations have a record of previous direct or indirect British rule. This total excludes Egypt and Israel, states that might be added. Represented are five of the world's most populous countries (India, United States, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nigeria), as well as many of the smallest (Tuvalu, St. Lucia, Dominica, and Malta, for example).

Fourteen territories remain part of the empire under various forms of political association. Notable among these units are Bermuda, Gibraltar, and Hong Kong, along with the unfortunate Falkland Islands.

The impact of British law and system of government is reflected in the levels of freedom that endure in many independent states. According to the comparative survey of freedom compiled in January 1982 by Freedom House, 32 countries from the former British Empire were ranked as free in terms of civil and political liberties. Seven were labeled as nonfree, with an additional 14 judged to be partly free. Personal conditions were sufficiently good in 11 of the remaining dependencies that they also were ranked as free. Only in the Sultanate of Brunei were nonfree conditions noted.

The fact that units still part of the British Empire remain so by popular choice and not through coercion has been demonstrated repeatedly. Yet it is a different aspect of British imperial history that seems of special pertinence in the context of recent events in the Falklands. Of the roughly 50 countries that have achieved independence from Britain, only the US did so through force of arms. Whether from domestic rebellion or outside invasion, Britain consistently has subdued militarily all armed attempts to detach fragments of its empire. Since 1782 the only successful procedure for separation from British rule has been by means of negotiation and mutual agreement.

That the military junta in Buenos Aires either was unaware of this record of history or chose to ignore it seems evident. Regardless, from the British standpoint the actions taken by Prime Minister Thatcher were predictable. On the basis of tradition, the only option in London seems to have been in the strategy and timing of the military response to the Argentine invasion. Surely if any government can be expected to take seriously the matters of historical precedent and world perception of its resolve it would be the British.

Despite flaws, the contributions of the British Empire to the betterment of the human condition have been positive. Hence challenges to its presence merit close scrutiny. In the face of conflicting claims to sovereignty over the Falklands, Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere should consider carefully this question. Under which government are the inhabitants most likely to live free from repression?

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