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This paper grew out of work I first set out for a conference at Berkeley, CA in 2015 on democratic innovation and the British Empire, and later developed for a conference in 2017 in Oxford to celebrate the work of John Darwin. It tries to bring together two literatures: one on democratization and the other on the history of the British Empire.

The starting point is the finding of theorists of democratization that colonial rule is significantly associated with democratic survival. This claim is sometimes made by sleight of hand: democratic survival is credited to the British presence, and democratic collapse to the British departure. But the claim here is based not on selective cases, but on ‘large-n’ studies of democratization. Indeed, the longer a colony spent under British rule, the likelier it is to have sustained democracy since independence. And it is British colonial rule specifically: there is a weaker effect for colonial rule in general. But the strongest effect is for British colonies.

There are many different ways to explain these findings, but one of the most prominent concerns political institutions. Under British rule, democratic innovations were introduced: most obviously elections, but also ‘training ground’ legislatures, and pre-independence constitutions.

The trouble with this argument is that it clashes with what archivally-informed historians generally argue about the motivations of the British in making such innovations. Representative institutions were not intended to discover the popular will so that it could be expressed and made effective in creating and sustaining state authority. They were constructed to manage the popular will so that it could not challenge British rule.

Indeed, representative institutions actually functioned very differently across the empire. In Britain, they functioned as a way of controlling the arbitrary power of the state. In the settlement colonies, they were prompted by the need to need to create a government which would pay for itself. Responsible government meant a government charged with responsibilities, answerable to a legislature representing taxpayers, which was also itself thereby made responsible for creating and sustaining an executive. In India and the colonial dependencies, in the absence of white loyalties, responsible government, when it was given, was not intended as a prelude to self-government, but to strengthen the colonial state, and stabilize its rule against disloyalty from below.

The franchise was designed not to better capture popular demands, but to shape those demands through the way it elicited them. Voters were summoned to the polls as members of state-defined communities. No one could speak for any interest other than that to which the colonial power had assigned him or her. And no one except the colonial rulers could speak for the whole.

When franchises were widened and diversified, as in India between the wars, this was designed to prevent the formation of majorities that might press for full independence.

Legislative discussion was not intended to foster consensual deliberation, let alone aggregation of demands into a general will. It was rather meant to divide up colonial society and force it to represent itself as divided, particularistic and antagonistic, in need of a colonial sovereign to preserve its peace and unity.

The concession of ‘responsible government’ was meant to solve the problem not of irresponsible British autocrats but those created by irresponsible nationalist politicians. To take responsibility in straitened circumstances was certain to split the nationalist movement on precisely those questions on which the colonial state had already divided its electorate.

The paper explores the use that the British empire (and its opponents) made of ‘democracy’, and proposes its own explanation of the correlation between democracy and the post-colony, in terms of traditions of protest.