Andrew Murray’s latest book is a call to “arm those millions” opposed to imperialism “with polemics and information”.

According to the journalist, campaigner and chair of the Stop the War Coalition, the widely publicised perspectives of pro-war and imperialist apologists from David Aaronovitch to the historian Niall Ferguson have ‘have helped frame and justify decisions which have led to perhaps a million deaths over the last eight years’.

It is the return of open advocacy of imperialist policy alongside the attempt to rehabilitate the British Empire which Murray takes on to excellent effect in this short but well directed book.

There is an ‘amnesia’ within the intellectual community, Murray writes, about the crimes of British imperialism which he explains ‘has long been almost state policy’.

He cites the extent of censorship in British-ruled India, including, as an example, that of Macaulay’s mild criticisms of 18th century scandals. The increasing celebration of the Empire is being ‘used to promote contemporary neo-conservative policy’.

The book’s alternate perspective on the history of the British Empire and colonialism reveals the appalling measures by which the British Empire suppressed populations so as to sustain itself. Emphasizing the hypocrisy of the apologists, the book shows the continuity between the ideologies of imperialism and colonialism, and that of Nazism.

There is some very useful detail on the economic benefits of colonialism to the imperial nation, and the indefensibility of the argument that colonies economically benefited from colonialism. There are also some very useful points on the controversy over the numbers slaughtered by the British during the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

Murray goes into further depth in exploring the long history of western intervention in the Middle East, which provides ample explanation for the question, asked after September 11th 2001, why those in ‘the Muslim world’ have come to ‘hate us’.

The Franco-British carve up of the Ottoman Empire, the first invasion of Iraq in the 1920s, Suez, the ‘counter-insurgency’ in Aden, and much else, is well remembered elsewhere in the world. Here in contrast, Blair was able to pull off a blatant act of political amnesia in his characterization of ‘political Islam’ which left out these interventions (pp.59-60).

In writing about apologetics in context of the Iraq war, Murray explains that Blair made use of an existing interventionist ideology in Britain, through which he was able to gain the support of a pro-war ‘left’. Blair also acted as an essential shield for the neo-conservative arguments for the new interventionism.

The argument that the West had some sort of moral duty to invade ‘other countries in ostensible pursuit of the imposition of democracy, human rights and social justice’ was much more convincing coming from a political figure supposedly on the liberal-left.

Murray shows how Blair’s liberal imperialism has deep roots in British politics, starting with Gladstone, taking in Fabians like George Bernard Shaw, and marking the position of the Labour Party from the beginning. Even the most celebrated Labour government, that of Atlee in 1945, was fully a part of this liberal imperialist tradition.

In that sense, Tony Blair does not represent something new. Murray explains that his ‘special contribution’ was to create a new range of justifications for imperialist intervention in the post-Cold War world, where neither the 19th century arguments of Christian civilising duty, nor anti-communism, work any longer.

The final chapter, on ‘Dick Cheney’s liberals’ rounds off the analysis in considering that group of journalists and intellectuals who supported the Iraq war in particular. Their arguments and their political importance are outlined, as is the clear failure and bankruptcy of the positions they adopted.

Their positions would ‘deny the left any coherent basis for forming an analysis of world politics, any prescription for a better world or, in the end of any position other than hitching itself to the tailfins of the US presidency and hoping that the latter will act for the best more often than not.’ (p. 107).

The author’s ability to communicate ideas and shocking detail makes this book easily digestible. Murray’s work is an excellent introduction to the analysis held by the anti-war left. Much of the argument and detail on the history of imperialism and colonialism can be found elsewhere in more depth, but the strength of the book is the way it brings all this together in a tightly-argued exposition that provides a great resource for anti-war activists.

The Imperial Controversy: Challenging the Empire Apologists is published by Manifesto Press, 2010.