I’m reading a book on the British Empire (Unfinished Empire by John Darwin). I haven’t got far into it yet, but certain things are already blindingly clear.

There are several ways to think about empire. The benign way is that it’s a civilizing enterprise, spreading enlightenment hither and yon. This is the frame through with empire was introduced to me in school. I know that subsequent history-writing has darkened this viewpoint down to near-pathological malevolence, but I think it’s safe to say, now that the dust has settled, that empire is mostly just about money.

The British Empire was a fantastically large and sometimes efficient wealth extraction, creation and transfer machine, but pretty unmistakably that is what it was about. The early settler story in the Americas looks very different when told through this viewfinder, rather than the freedom-seeking one we normally use. None of this is new information.

But I think a fair case could be made for two things. First, the incomprehensibles of history make a lot more sense if you tell the story as one of wealth-seeking. Second, if we understood that better, maybe we’d have a more intelligible political debate here in the present.