The Word "Empire" Should Be Honored

Roundup: Talking About History

Robert Jackson, writing in the London Times (Dec. 29, 2003):

It is another dreary sign of present-day historical disconnection that even William Hague should join in the modish campaign against honours referring to the " British Empire ".

The idea that empire refers only to one of the most recent episodes of our history -the overseas expansion of England/Britain after 1600 -shows a profound lack of historical insight, information and imagination.

In fact, the notion of "Empire" connects us with the most remote origins of our civilisation, and with many of its highest values.

With regard to the overseas expansion of "Empire", I think that the future will agree with the judgment of Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848, that this was a profoundly progressive development in the history of mankind.

But behind the 19th-century " British Empire " there is an older history which most people will still want to honour. There is, for example, the first mention of "Empire" in an Act of Parliament -the "Act in restraint of appeals" of 1533, which forbids appeals to (papal) courts on the ground that "this realm of England is an empire ... governed by one supreme head and king having the dignity and royal estate of the imperial crown of the same ..." Here "Empire" means, quite simply, "national sovereignty".

Behind this notion of "Empire" there is the still older idea recorded by the Venerable Bede in the early 700s, that of an Imperium Anglorum in which a single king rules over a number of different peoples. Here "Empire" simply means "unity in diversity", or "unity under the crown" -more relevant than ever, now that the United Kingdom of England , Scotland , Wales and Northern Ireland is no longer a full parliamentary union.

But Bede did not invent this idea of "Empire". Behind his thinking is the great fact of the Roman Imperium as a force for unity and culture on an ecumenical scale. And behind this, in turn, there are Alexander the Great and his union of Macedon with Persia , and the successor Hellenistic monarchies. And behind these, finally lie the great imperial monarchies of Mesopotamia and Egypt .

So "Empire" is a word with a potent echo for those with ears to hear. Let the critics who would dispense with it suggest another with only half its resonance.

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