Over the past few years I have taught a foundation degree module titled ‘The Reluctant Handover’: it is 20th Century history that charts the international changes and fortunes within the British Empire (which collapsed) and the United States (which grew). This has been a co-taught module, where I have focused on the American half; although this year, I have embraced 100% of the module which has brought me more in contact with the British Empire.

Previously, my sessions charted the development of a super-power, and despite the hubris of the United States in the post-war period the story has been mostly one of growth and action. Interestingly, the British half of the module is one of decline, of degeneration, and of defeat. Britain starts the century in a strong place (despite the problems with the Boer War), with each decade bringing about a loss of prestige and its position at the head of the table in international affairs. This shift in my attention has provoked new questions and areas of debate, particularly regarding the inevitability of the end of the British Empire.

thanos inevitable
Is anything inevitable?

Whether or not anything in history is inevitable is a long standing debate held in classrooms over the centuries (it was a feature on a post on this blog: the inevitability of the First World War breaking out). However, if we apply this specifically to the British Empire, what does it actually mean?

My own thinking has crystallised around two key points:

  1. The inevitable rise of competitors
  2. The inevitable rise of the colonies

1. The inevitable rise of competitors

The hey-day of the British Empire is regularly cited as existing in the period from 1815-1914, from the end of Napoleonic France to the outbreak of the First World War. During this century it could be stated that Britannia ruled the waves, with the French being defeated and neutered and with Britain’s world wide empire unopposed.

During this period Britain was wise to avoid entanglements with other powers. Aside from the Crimean War of the 1850s (when Britain allied with others against the Russians), all of the Empire’s wars were against smaller, more easily conquered opponents (such as the incredibly short Anglo-Zanzibar War of 1896). This led to expansion in Africa and Asia, as well as the quelling of rebellions within their territories (such as the Indian Rebellion of 1857-58). We could deduce that the Empire was fortunate in its choosing of opponents, but clearly this selection was not based on luck but rather based on the opportunities that could be exploited by subduing foes that did not have the same technology or resources for a more equal fight.

This view is comically illustrated in an exchange of dialogue from 1980s historical-sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth:

Haig: I haven’t seen you since… (knocks down the second line of model
soldiers on the same side)

Edmund: ’92, sir — Mboto Gorge.

Haig: By jingo, yes. We sure gave those pygmies a good squashing.

Edmund: We certainly did, sir. And do you remember…?

Haig: My god, yes. You saved my damn life that day, Blacky. If it weren’t for
you, that pygmy woman with the sharpened mango could have seriously…

Edmund: Well, exactly, sir. And do you remember then that you said that if
I was ever in real trouble and I really needed a favour that I was
to call you and you’d do everything you could to help me?

blackadder image
Blackadder Goes Forth

However, this privileged position of superiority was not destined to last: it was inevitable that other competitors would rise to challenge Britain’s position. Other empires throughout history has risen and fallen, and although there can be difference in term so the duration of the rise the outcome is always the same. So, whilst Britain enjoyed dominance during the Victorian period the rise of competitors was always likely to happen: after their devastating civil war the United States grew, whilst in Europe the unification of Germany in 1871 brought a new power player on the scene. This rise is not simply isolated to the western world: in Asia, Japan became more aggressive at the turn of the century (as highlighted in the defeat of Russia in 1905).

The growth of these threats from all areas of the globe provoked problems with the leaders of the British Empire: what were they to do? The German threat destabilised the long held British policy of a balance of power, moving them to do the previously unthinkable deals of allying with France and Russia to help contain this central empire. Such an entanglement of alliances ultimately led to the outbreak of the First World War, which – as it turns out – was the first nail in the coffin of the British Empire.

web of alliances
Web of alliances: Europe in WW1

Historians have argued whether or not Britain could have acted differently in the twenty year period prior to 1914. Perhaps they could have avoided the web of alliances, and perhaps the naval arms race with Germany. But a sit and wait policy could have very well seen them watch a re-ordering of the European map without any say: this itself, it could be argued, would have been a sure sign that its dominance had already ended.

One could argue that even the rise of competitors did not necessarily mean the end of the Empire. Competition itself is often cited as a reason for greater action, with the protagonist meeting the challenge laid down in order to overcome it; this is the main feature of countless movies and stories. Furthermore, in real-life, competition on the sports field or in business can bring about needed action to galvanise and stimulate an athlete or failing business; leading to inspiration and innovation. Therefore, it is conceivable that the rise of challengers could have brought about the needed reforms to reinvigorate the empire, thereby sustaining it for a longer period.

2. The inevitable rise of the colonies

Although we could theorise that the Empire could have reformed and galvanised to become a new, expanded force, this second point suggests that the Empire would have collapsed due to the problems within it. Logically speaking, the fact that the British Empire became so big and influential is itself an oddity, rather than the norm. As Thomas Paine noted in his plain-speaking influence-bearing pamphlet Common Sense (1776), it wasn’t common sense or logical for a small country (Britain) to rule over a vast land (America) over the distance of a great ocean. Britain’s hold over India was not destined to last, simply because of a disparity in their respective sizes. At some point the unequal relationship would break, leading to the end of the Empire.

tom paine

Historian J.R. Seeley once commented that Britain obtained an empire with an absent mind; meaning that there was no plan for Britain’s rise to world power status. Instead, this rise happened haphazardly, with Britain taking advantage of opportunities to explore and expand. This can be traced back to the Empire’s origins in the late 16th Century during the Elizabethan period: there was no clear plan, but rather a seeming frantic scramble to obtain riches. Jamestown wasn’t intended as the logical start of a new, well-planned empire, but rather a grab at obtaining some riches. The expansion on the North American continent happened through conquest of territory whenever the opportunity presented itself. Furthermore, this can be seen with the expansion of Indian territory: it was initially utilised as a trading base and the flag followed in order to defend economic interests. Political control was generally an after-thought.

Perhaps if we were to rewind history and press play from 1603 – the year of the death of Elizabeth I – the Empire would never have formed. Even if the nations of Great Britain were united politically, perhaps they would never have become a world force. The history of the Empire is littered with interesting “what ifs”: what if Britain retained interest in French territory (rather than that of the New World); what if Britain lost in the Seven Years’ War; what if Napoleon won at Waterloo? A wrong-turn on the road could have resulted in Britain being reduced in status; back to a more realistic position that its geographic size should suggest.

Furthermore, the inevitability of decline is also connected to the lands and peoples conquered. As Paine noted with America, the New World would not be subjected to the rule of a tiny island indefinitely: breaking-point would occur. The nations themselves would rise up to demand their own voice and autonomy, which happened across the Empire in the 20th Century. First, the dominions (principally white colonies) were given additional powers in the inter-war period, and after the war India became independent, as did other nations in Africa and Asia.

macmillan quote

Prime Minister Macmillan used the phrase“wind of change”to highlight this transformation of status: the Empire underwent rapid decolonisation post-1945 with no hope of holding onto this lands. The speed was fast and surprising (due to the economic problems post-1945) but the logic of the process itself was not: little Britain could never have expected to have held onto vast India indefinitely. Coupled with the progress of industrialisation and democratisation the colonies would reach a point of demanding their own rights and self-determination.

Perhaps a more coherent structure of Empire could have held onto the colonies for a longer period, and perhaps Britain could have sustained itself as a world power into the 21st Century. But whether decline happened post-1945 or post-2000 is not the issue: decline itself was unavoidable and inevitable. At the beginning of this post I mentioned how the rise of the United States contrasts with the decline of the British Empire. But the story of its fall was necessary for the rise of others, particularly in terms of nationalist movements in the colonies.