Economic Theory

Imperial Measurement: a rejoinder to Prof Alan Lester

My new book Imperial Measurement: A Cost-Benefit Analysis of Western Colonialism is a rebuttal of the Williams Thesis, or at least of its popularised, “Guardianised” form: the idea that “so much of the prosperity enjoyed today in the UK […] comes off the back of historical atrocities”, as one of the Colston statue-topplers puts it.

As expected, not everyone agrees. Prof Alan Lester, a professor of historical geography at the University of Sussex, has written a critical reply entitled “Colonialism helped Britain’s economic success” in the Times.

He starts:

“The IEA report seems to be driven by Kemi Badenoch’s claim that colonial exploitation had little to do with Britain’s economic growth during and after the Industrial Revolution.”

I am flattered that Prof Lester thinks I’m this productive! Kemi Badenoch gave her talk on 18 April, and we published Imperial Measurement less than two weeks later, on 1 May.

Sadly, though, in terms of my average writing speed, I am more like Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin. I first expressed the idea for this book, in embryonic form, in September 2020, at the height of BLM-mania, when I said that I could imagine an IEA publication on the economics of colonialism. On the day of the Badenoch speech, though, the book was already in print.

But let’s address the substance.

Prof Lester claims that the view “that slavery and other forms of colonial exploitation were a significant component of Britain’s economic success” was “in accord with the scholarly consensus”. If this was a Wikipedia article, it would come with the tag “[citation needed]”. Try search terms such as “colonies”, “empire”, “cost” and “benefit” on JSTOR, and you will easily find numerous studies that strongly reject the idea “that slavery and other forms of colonial exploitation were a significant component of Britain’s economic success”. You will also find that none of those studies are written in the tone of a radical outsider who challenges an established “scholarly consensus”. Rather, they are presented as further additions to an already well-established body of literature.

You will, of course, also find studies from Economic Historians who are more sympathetic to the Williams Thesis, or some variant of it. Imperial Measurement obviously discusses some of those studies, too. But none of them claim to represent “the scholarly consensus”.

Quite the opposite. One of my references is the recent book Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution by Maxine Berg and Pat Hudson, two Economic Historians who are firmly on Prof Lester’s side of the argument. They believe that the Williams Thesis is broadly correct – but they also make it clear throughout the book that theirs is not the mainstream view in their field. That, indeed, is the whole point of their book. It is framed as a heterodox challenge of a more established view, not as a confirmation of an already existing “scholarly consensus”.

Further, Prof Lester complains that each of the academic studies I cite to make my point only “examines one part, or one period, of economic activity relating to the colonies”, rather than the total. This is true. But this is precisely why I cite a bundle of studies, covering different aspects of imperialism. None of them is all-encompassing on its own, but as a package, they still cover a lot of ground. If there was any one single study which already does everything I’m trying to do in Imperial Measurement, I would not have written Imperial Measurement in the first place. I would simply have posted a link to that study.

Prof Lester disputes my claim that the cost of colonialism outweighed the benefits for Britain. His reasoning:

“[T]he archives of colonial governance show that the balance between costs of conquest, subordination and rule were constantly, carefully, weighed up against the benefits to Britons at home and overseas.”

In other words: Prof Lester thinks that we should let colonialist governments mark their own homework. Colonialism must have been good economics, because at the time, the governments responsible for it said it was. And we should simply take their word for it. Sorry, but with that approach, you are never going to identify a single failed government project. It would be like judging the Iraq War on the basis of government records which show Tony Blair and George Bush saying it was a terrific idea.

Another one of Prof Lester’s complaints is that “The report does not cover the post 1830s period” – I would refer him to Chapter 4, which is literally called “The British Empire after 1850”.

With all that out of the way, let’s get to my main beef with Prof Lester.

As I make clear in the book, the Williams Thesis, like many ideas, comes in stronger and weaker versions. Nowadays, it has really become a “Williams spectrum” rather than one single thesis.

The authors of the aforementioned book Slavery, Capitalism and the Industrial Revolution represent a weaker version of the Williams Thesis, because they qualify their argument by saying:

“We do not argue that slavery caused the industrial revolution. Neither do we suggest that slavery was necessary for the development of industrial capitalism in Britain. […] What we do say is that the role of slavery in the process of industrialization […] has been generally underestimated by historians”.

On the other hand, Prof Kehinde Andrews, who says that “The west’s wealth is based on slavery“, is one of those representing a stronger version.

Imperial Measurement is clearly mostly aimed at the stronger versions. I don’t really buy the weak versions either, but they don’t keep me awake at night. If only the weakest versions of the Williams Thesis existed, I would not have bothered to write Imperial Measurement.

Now, if I understand Prof Lester’s position correctly, he also subscribes to a low-fat version of the Williams Thesis. If I understand his position correctly, he believes that the contribution of imperialism and slavery to Britain’s wealth is more than small, but less than gigantic.

If that were my position, here’s what I would do:

Like Prof Lester, I would heavily critique publications like Imperial Measurement, which claim that the contribution of colonialism and slavery to Britain’s wealth was around zero. But unlike Prof Lester, I would also distance myself from the more extreme versions of the Williams Thesis, i.e. from those who push the thesis beyond anything that could be justified by historical data. If I believed in a “Williams Thesis Lite”, I would not want people to underestimate the impact of colonialism and slavery on Britain’s wealth – but, crucially, I would not want them to exaggerate it either. (And in the current cultural climate: which, do you think, is more likely?)

Prof Lester, however, simply pretends that extreme interpretations of the Williams Thesis don’t exist, and accuses me of “creat[ing] a “woke” straw man to combat”.

It is very obviously not a straw man. You can so easily find dozens, if not hundreds of articles like “The west’s wealth is based on slavery” in papers like the Guardian. I have never seen a straw man who is such a hyper-prolific writer!

Nor are the people making that claim just random fringe voices. They represent the mainstream, fashionable opinion on the subject. These voices are the very reason why the legacy of colonialism has become such a big topic again in recent years. They are the reason why Prof Lester and I are having this debate in the pages of the Times, rather than on an obscure history blog with twelve readers.

I have an inkling what may explain Prof Lester’s strange reluctance to criticise the more extreme interpretations of the Williams Thesis, or to even acknowledge its existence. Like me, Prof Lester is an active Twitter keyboard warrior, and on that platform, I have only ever seen him playing to the gallery. I have only ever seen him expressing the sort of crowd-pleasing opinions that he knows will go down well on that platform.

If it’s Twitter applause you’re after – of course you are never going to criticise woke, anti-capitalist falsehoods. Because these are invariably popular on Twitter, and you would get some pushback for criticising them. If you want to score Twitter points, you need to go after a hated target, such as “Tufton Street”.

And so, Prof Lester engages in what Scott Alexander calls “isolated demands for rigour“, i.e. only demanding rigour from one side of the argument, while letting the other side get away with anything.

Or maybe I’m wrong. In which case, I’m looking forward to his next article “Against trendy woke nonsense. The Williams Thesis is correct, but we need to stop overusing it”.


Head of Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).

4 thoughts on “Imperial Measurement: a rejoinder to Prof Alan Lester”

  1. Posted 03/05/2024 at 22:07 | Permalink

    Like this. The content is sound and that’s the important part, but I do like the switch to comedy at the end.

  2. Posted 05/05/2024 at 12:28 | Permalink

    An Indian historian said he threw a tantrum, when Michael Palin in his recent documentary on Nigeria, mentioned the British involvement in the European Slave Trade from Africa. I think slavery and colonialism are so guilt-laden, and quite rightly so, that people don’t want anyone to mention them, of course, apart from saying ‘how grateful African descendants like myself ought to be for our freedom’ For me, as an African Guyanese, the legendary Guyanese historian’s magnum opus, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” is a bible. End of story. I need no further clarification on the role of Africa in the making of Europe and the horrendous barbarity of capitalism..
    People who defend capitalism, must also consider its obnoxious baggage of racism, exploitation, violence and underdevelopment. In British Guiana, where i was born, the British and the Dutch were especially notorious in their use of sadistic violence to put down slave rebellions. In British Guiana, African women were routinely raped in the hundreds of thousands by white plantation owners; pregnant women were whipped to death, babies and young children were thrown alive into the Berbice and Demerara Rivers. The putting down of the Berbice Slave Rebellion in 1763 by the Dutch, witnessed levels of sadism and barbarism unmatched by any other slave revolts. Anti-black racism and all the nasty, despicable negative stereotypes the world holds about blacks have their roots in capitalism and slavery. That’s one of the many reasons why capitalism remains so notorious and despicable.
    Guyana has found huge quantities of oil as is currently the fastest growing economy on planet earth, hence we have had many visitors from the West, one of whom was Tony Blair. It was quite noticeable that when Irfaan Ali, the Indian-Guyanese President showed Blair a display of framed portraits of the British Governors General of British Guiana on a wall in the State House, Blair recoiled. Many of the Governors General were sadistic and brutal racists. Those who seem keen to promote a campaign of minimizing and trivializing the brutality of slavery, capitalism and colonialism will find it difficult to sustain any credible defence of their positions in light of the compelling evidence in the archives of Guyana and elsewhere in the Caribbean on the industrial scale rapes and brutalization of African women perpetrated by sadistic white plantation owners.

  3. Posted 05/05/2024 at 13:15 | Permalink

    Sarcasm isn’t clever and its use distracts from your arguments.

  4. Posted 06/05/2024 at 11:14 | Permalink

    The UK no longer has historians of Africa of the calibre of John Richard Gray, JD Fage and Roland Oliver. The epistemic laziness and limitedness of some so-called academics becomes obvious whenever they appear in the media write and books and articles. The very least one can do is to read and acquire a basic knowledge on the tri -continental interaction between Europe, Africa and the Americas over the period of five hundred years. The literature on the aforementioned is fecund. It is now possible for someone to attend a 2-hour lecture on the ” European Colonial Legacy” without the following names being mentioned: CLR James, WEB Dubois, George Padmore, Walter Rodney, Marcus Garvey and Franz Fanon. Ask your average academic about “Negritude” and about the contributions of Aime Caesar, Leopold Senghor and Leon Damas, and they will not know.
    Whether you agree with him or not, the late Professor Walter Rodney’s seminal work, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa” should be read by all those who are keen to understand why Africa, a continent that had been at the same level of development as Europe prior to the 15th century is today poorer than Europe. Rodney strips Europe of its veneer of humanity, layer by layer, to expose the sadistic barbarity it deployed against African bodies in its insatiable quest for profits.
    Serious academics of Europe and its colonial legacy must read the following: “Black Jacobins” by CLR James; The Cambridge History of Africa (8 volumes); UNESCO General History of Africa (8 volumes); Journals of African History, WEB Dubois’s “Black Reconstruction” All works of Professor Albert Adu Boahen: All works of Professor Kenneth Dike: “History of the Guyanese Working People, 1881-1905” by Walter Rodney; All works of Cheik Anta Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Joseph Ki-Zerbo, Leopold Sedar Senghor and Bethwell Allan Ogot, among others.
    Much is being discussed about Britain’s role in ending its dimension of the European Slave Trade in 1833 but Africans were not freed until 1838 and between 1833 and 1838, there was the so-called “Apprenticeship period” in British Guiana. In British Guiana, after they had left the slave plantations and set up the “Village System” Africans were banned from acquiring loans from banks and the British vandalized their crops in a bid to get them to return to the slave plantation.
    Slave rebellions were quite frequent in British Guiana, the most prominent were the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763 and the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. The violence used by the Dutch to put down the Berbice Slave Rebellion was ghoulish and sadistic. Marjolene Kars addresses this in her book, “Blood on the River” and Emile Viotti da Costa’s Crowns of glory, tears of blood” deals with the British approach to the Demerara Slave Rebellion. Slavery and the slave trade were not abolished because of a sudden burst of humanitarian concerns but because Britain was transitioning from mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism and chattel slavery and the slave trade were major obstacles. Another factor was the frequency of rebellions/revolts by enslaved Africans.

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