For the enlightenment and advancement of its members



With the kind permission of Intelligence Squared
(And with special thanks to Ted Maxwell)

A magnificent and skilfully conducted filmed debate:


Date: Monday February 21, 2011

Venue: Hollywood Palace cafe, 179 Bridge Road, Richmond

6.30 PM: Nick the Master Chef is on the job! Enjoy big, healthy, yummy meals at heavily reduced prices (just for us!)

7.30 PM: Commencement of Film + Chaired discussion.

Who: Only registered PRODOS Film Study Group members and guests of members allowed. You can apply to join on the night. To join you need to agree with our purpose and pay the $5 annual fee.

Policy: Leaving straight after a film and therefore skipping the discussion goes against one of the conditions upon which our permission to screen these films is based.

9.45 PM: End of meeting.

Cost: No charge. But if you’d like to make a personal donation to Prodos that’s greatly appreciated. (But please NEVER miss out just because you’re short of cash. We want you with us!)

Arguing FOR the motion

  • Lawrence James
  • Professor Niall Ferguson
  • Andrew Roberts

Arguing AGAINST the motion

  • Dr David Washbrook
  • Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
  • Professor Richard Drayton.

Audience vote before the debate: 286 For, 118 Against, 153 Don’t Know

Audience vote after the debate: (to be announced)


Lawrence James says that the Empire was an engine of change for good and that its virtues far outweighed its vices. He explains how the Empire liberated huge numbers of people, installed beneficial infrastructure, implanted standards of public conduct and introduced concepts of individual freedom.

Niall Ferguson asks how something so complex as the empire can be judged in such simple terms. Ferguson believes that it was a force for good in two respects – an economic and political good. He states that capitalism is a force for good, and uses the Indian colonial experience, where education improved and mortality decreased, as an example.

Andrew Roberts begins by attacking the individual arguments of the opposition. In his view, the British had a genuine and true genius for imperialism. Referring to the Sudanese Civil Service, he asks which other empire educated people to take over power afterwards? Roberts ends with the claim that cooperation, not collaboration, defined the British Empire, and that it was an act of supreme altruism.


David Washbrook states that the problem concerns the idea that the Empire was an adequate vehicle for undeniably important British ideas. He points out that 100 years after the industrial revolution, countries that were not part of the Empire led the way economically.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown concedes that the British Empire was a force for good in some ways. However, in her view, the very principle of empire is morally bankrupt. She employs the words of Napoleon who said that ‘in the eyes of empire builders, men are not men but instruments.’

Richard Drayton begins with the idea that Nazi imperialist aims were the heirs of British imperialism. He refutes the claims of the ‘Tory paladins’ on the other side and asks the audience to reject their tribal call. He notes that African slavery was nowhere near the same thing as the Atlantic slave trade, and asserts that liberal imperialism, nor free labour, ever existed.

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