DURING the nineteenth century successive Ottoman sultans, most notably Abdul Hamid II, in a desperate bid to modernise and challenge Western military dominance, enacted a series of reforms to Ottomanise, or force uniformity upon, the disparate peoples of their empire. A polity that had for centuries derived its legitimacy from its tolerance of difference and the decentralised structures of governance that enabled such tolerance to flourish now sowed the seeds of its own demise.
The different ethnic, cultural and religious groups within the imperium – each already imbued with an incipient national consciousness – resisted such centralisation and enforced uniformity and, one by one, broke free from Ottoman rule. With the help of World War One, Great Britain and France – both of which mischievously fomented nationalist opposition within the imperium throughout the nineteenth century – the Ottoman empire finally expired with the formal abolition of the sultanate in 1922.
Yes, the war precipitated its end, but, in reality, the Ottoman polity’s loss of legitimacy made that end inevitable. From Serbia and Montenegro to Bulgaria and Romania, gradually, former Ottoman territories, angered by Istanbul’s centralising programme and filled with nationalistic fervour, became either semi- or wholly independent.
The collapse of the Ottoman empire was a catastrophe, not only for the Ottomans themselves, who saw the dissolution of a 700-year-old polity, but also for its peripheries, many descending into internecine strife which in some cases persists to this day.
What lessons can we learn from the Ottoman disaster and what relevance does it have for us in Britain? Unless it has the wherewithal and inclination to rule by fear, the survival of any state depends upon the consent of its people. If that consent is withdrawn, its continued existence becomes impossible. In the case of the Ottomans, consent was dependent upon the metropole’s restrained interference in the affairs of its peripheries and the different ethnic, religious and cultural communities which inhabited them. When this tolerance was reversed, so too was the consent of Istanbul’s subjects, leading to the empire’s inevitable break-up.
In the case of Britain, over the last fifty or sixty years, we too, like the Ottomans before us, have begun to question the very nature of our existence as a political entity. However our state’s legitimacy, unlike the Ottoman one, has historically been based upon uniformity. We have an established church, a common language, a strong commitment to equality before the law and, until recently, a common culture as well. But this uniformity is now being questioned and undermined as never before. Our elites are engaging in nothing less than an ambitious programme to redefine the relationship between the state and the citizen, to reformulate the social contract, just as the nineteenth century Ottoman elites reformulated theirs – with catastrophic consequences.
Through the damaging doctrine of multiculturalism, successive governments – supported by politicised, liberal-Leftist civil servants, teachers, police officers, university professors and the media – have promoted and encouraged difference at the expense of social cohesion and national solidarity. People live entirely separate lives, speak different languages within the confines of their respective communities, hold different, incompatible beliefs and even seek justice in different courts.
In the cases of FGM and Pakistani grooming gangs, for example, the British state has abrogated its duty to prosecute the law as a consequence of perceived cultural sensitivities. Indeed, the state has accepted that its jurisdiction does not extend to include the communities that house those responsible for these outrageous offences. Equality before the law, that precious British constitutional gift, has thus been repudiated. The state now believes that different communities need to police and govern themselves. We’re no longer one people, bound by culture, the rule of law and shared experience, loyal to the British state as historically constituted. Instead, we’re a fragmented collection of different peoples and cultures, linked only by a shared and rather flimsy commitment to tolerate one another. The hope is that Britain, now a mosaic of loosely affiliated peoples, will derive legitimacy and loyalty from this new settlement. I have my doubts.
Like the Ottomans before us, we’re in the process of radically changing the relationship between the individual and the state. In their case the state became more centralised and powerful, demanding greater uniformity across the empire, and in the process delegitimised itself in the eyes of its subjects. In ours, it is becoming less centralised and more tolerant of profound difference. Could it have equally catastrophic consequences? Time will tell.