The recent referendum that took place in the Falkland Islands offered a rare echo of Britain's imperial past again making headlines. Occurring almost simultaneous to the ten-year anniversary of the allied invasion of Iraq, it led me to consider the relationship between the decline of British imperialism over the mid-Twentieth Century and the development of Britain's international role subsequently. Although, nowadays, the history of the British Empire appears to be less an object for contemporary debate than a subject for historians to study, I believe that it still has useful tales to tell about how the world we live in came to be. Like the scattered bones of extinct dinosaurs, the remaining artefacts of Europe's colonial empires convey something of the eminence of their original forms, while helping us to understand how the current international environment evolved into its current state. In this brief overview, I seek to portray how Britain made the transition from being one of the most extensive international empires in history to a small Atlantic archipelago that continues to play a key part in international affairs. In short, my theme follows how over the course of the Twentieth Century this small island-nation lost its international imperium, yet found resourceful ways to retain its political dignitas.
Until the outbreak of the Great War, the 'long Nineteenth Century' of 1815-1914 had witnessed the rise of the British Empire largely unchallenged by international rivals. The four-year conflict that resulted saw Britain and its allies emerge victorious, but having faced a series of unprecedented losses and set-backs. Many of these have become by-words for military slaughter - such as the battles of the Somme or Passchendaele -, but others have been forgotten largely - such as the surrender of 10,000 British troops following a lengthy siege at Kut in Mesopotamia in 1916. While imperial participation in the Great War appeared to weld at least the 'white' territories of the empire closer together at the time, their involvement created effective crucibles of national identity set apart from their relationship to Britain. For instance, the participation of ANZAC forces from Australia and New Zealand in the Dardanelles Campaign over 1915-16 or the major Canadian losses that occurred at Vimy Ridge in 1917 helped to forge a set of national identities unrelated to their role as imperial dominions. As a result, many these territories sought a greater measure of independence in the post-war period, which altered subtly the relationship between mother-country and its colonies. Thus, the extensive colonial edifice constructed by the Victorian and Edwardian empire-builders suffered undoubtedly the first great challenge to its international hegemony with the Great War.
Interestingly, the British Empire did not reach its greatest territorial extent until the post-war 1920s, by which time it administered the lives of almost 450 million people. This final burst of expansion for the empire was occasioned by the ceding of a number of former German and Ottoman territories to Britain as mandates by the newly-founded League of Nations. Ironically, while it appeared that the British Empire had not only survived the Great War, but was beginning to thrive again, it seems to have been from this point onwards that it began its terminal decline. While superficial events such as the British Empire Exhibition held at Wembley over 1924-5 attracted 27 million people and focussed national attention on the country's possession and administration of a vast overseas empire, Britain's actual political power seemed to be depleting. Still more threatening to the survival of the British Empire than any minor steps towards greater autonomy among its 'white' dominions was the insurgency that occurred in a number of colonial territories over the post-war period - especially in Ireland and Egypt. Crucially, the result of these revolts against London's authority led to effective independence for both territories in 1922, which encouraged burgeoning nationalist movements in other parts of the empire to consider how they might achieve similar ends. Representative of the subtle evolution of the imperial project over the 1920s, the official nomenclature was also altered from the autocratic-sounding 'British Empire' to the far more equitable 'British Commonwealth of Nations' in 1926. So, although victory in 1918 seemed to arrest any apparent imperial decline, a number of key trends and events that developed over the post-war period seemed to suggest otherwise.
On top of these harbingers of potential crisis abroad in the empire, the vast expenditure of the Great War led Britain itself to face increased economic difficulties throughout the 1920s. These trends destabilised many of the financial and trade bases of the British imperial edifice, compelling the foundation of bodies such as the Empire Marketing Board in 1926. Yet, whatever gains had been made by successive British governments throughout the 1920s were undone conclusively by the Wall Street Crash in 1929, which created a global financial crisis and led Britain to rescind its gold standard in 1931. The hand-back of the southern Chinese port of Weihaiwei in 1930, a growing insurgency crisis in Cyprus and the granting of independence to the mandate territory of Iraq in 1932 were further unwelcome heralds of additional losses to come. However, most worryingly of all, the rise throughout the 1930s of fascist states in Germany, Italy and Spain, as well as the continued development of the Soviet Union, threatened British hegemony both at home and in the empire. As Europe lurched towards war over the close of the decade, it seemed to many that the British Empire might not survive such a fresh international crisis and the potential conflict that might follow.
Having weathered numerous storms before, the British Empire faced indisputably its greatest crisis with the coming of the Second World War. Though it is explored chiefly in the context of the British state standing alone against the forces of an occupied Europe, in fact, the Second World War was a truly empire-wide emergency. As the only combatant nation that fought Germany, Italy and Japan from the first day of the war to the last, Britain and its empire were forced to engage in a difficult three-fronted campaign - battling Germany in Europe, Italy in the Middle East and North Africa, and Japan in the Far East. Over the duration of the conflict, India and Egypt were both invaded, while Burma, Malaya, British Somaliland, Singapore and Hong Kong were all lost. Even the empire's 'white' territories were not spared, as Australia suffered almost a hundred Japanese bombing raids over 1942-3, while one of the oldest possessions of the Crown, the Channel Islands, were occupied by German forces for almost the entire duration of the conflict. Undoubtedly, however, it was the fall of Singapore in 1942 that represented the most significant symbolic imperial loss of the war, as it had been alleged to have been the empire's impenetrable eastern fortress as Gibraltar was in the west. Again, the British Empire had survived global conflict, but it was clear to all that this time it had been undermined near-fatally by events.
Although Britain regained all of its lost territories, the conflict bore witness to the formal displacement of the British Empire by the coming superpowers of the United States in the west and the Soviet Union in the east - the participation of both having proved vital to allied victory. Also, part of the cost of keeping the empire united during the war turned out to be the loss of great swathes of it afterwards. Most significantly, the Indian independence movement was sidelined by nationalists for the duration of the conflict in order to support the British war-effort. However, immediately after the war ended, Indian nationalists clamoured for the independence that they felt to be their due reward and received it hastily in 1947 with the creation of India and Pakistan. Clearly, the British imperial project's fatal contraction began with the loss of India, which was easily Britain's largest colonial territory by both geographical extent and actual population. As a result, Britain and its empire entered the 1950s both chastened and weakened, with an uncertain future before it - as demonstrated by its relatively unsung role in the Korean War (1950-3).
With the accession of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952, many hoped for a second Elizabethan age that would be marked by a renewed set of achievements for Britain - as embodied by the successful conquest of Mount Everest that occurred just prior to her Coronation in 1953 -, though the focus seemed to shift in this period from the empire to Britain itself. However, in contrast to the British Empire Exhibition in the 1920s, the 1951 Festival of Britain had placed renewed focus on domestic pride and accomplishment. One event above all others suggested that Britain was losing its international dominance though: the Suez Crisis of 1956. Although Egypt had gained its independence from Britain in 1922, the Suez Canal that ran through it remained British, which led to an attempt by the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to seize the waterway and to nationalise it. Although the British prime minister, Anthony Eden, attempted to confront Nasser and invaded Egypt with a strike force, a lack of support from the United States frustrated British aims. Overall, the incident demonstrated to the international community that the British Empire appeared to have reached the brink of complete decline, validating the assumption that British power no longer appeared to possess much effectiveness in the face of the current superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. Thus, instead of a new Elizabethan age of achievement, Britain's 1950s seemed to be marked by a turn inwards at home and a sense of withdrawal rather than renewal abroad.
Indeed, apart from Suez, throughout this post-war period, numerous other crises troubled the British Empire, prompting many to perceive that the time had come for Britain to lay down 'the white man's burden'. A complex insurgency campaign in Palestine throughout the 1930s and 40s led eventually to the cession of the region in 1948 and the creation of Israel. Over the 1950s, the empire was subjected to a number of even more difficult insurgencies, though, including the Malaya Crisis (1948-60), the Mau Mau Rebellion in Kenya (1952-60) and the EOKA campaign against British forces in Cyprus (1955-60). Unlike the lengthy yet unsuccessful war fought by French forces to retain Algeria (1954-62), however, Britain seemed reluctant to squander manpower and resources on colonial conflicts that it could not win; preferring instead to take the higher moral ground and grant independence to territories by empowering existing nationalist movements. Collectively, the Statute of Westminster (1931), the British Nationality Act (1948) and the Royal Titles Act (1953) had removed all of the formal constitutional bonds holding the empire together, which opened the way for the cession of territories from the empire. As a result, from 1945 to 1965, the empire shrank from controlling about a fifth of the population of the world to only around five million, as 26 separate territories gained their independence. From Harold Macmillan's 'wind of change' speech of 1960, the tone of British colonialism altered to make decolonisation the lynchpin of London's relationship to empire. Arguably, among the most important of contemporary political transitions was the string of sub-Saharan states, such as Nigeria and Kenya, which gained their independence following the pioneering birth of Ghana in 1957. Overall, the success of decolonisation can be adjudged by the peaceful political transitions that took place and the numerous successful states that resulted from the process. So, although the British Empire could have ended in official resistance to the independence movements growing up throughout its territories, much bloodshed was avoided largely through the activation of a policy of decolonisation that allowed a peaceful transition to take place.
Famously, in 1962, the former American Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, remarked that Britain seemed to have lost an empire, but not yet found a role. Certainly, there was a truth in this, but it is interesting to note how swiftly Britain made the transition itself from outmoded colonial power to forward-looking modern state over the 1960s. The 'east of Suez' defence strategy that dominated British foreign policy throughout the 1960s attempted to maintain prestige in the face of an international situation no longer in Britain's favour, yet, at the same time, Britain was beginning to seek its national identity elsewhere. The death of Winston Churchill in 1965 seemed to emphasise the terminus that the British Empire had reached, while symbolising the elegiac mood attendant upon colonial affairs throughout the 1960s. However, related to the development of a far more liberal and permissive society, British popular culture came to be a touchstone for other contemporary societies through the fashion and music of 'Swinging London'. In this context, the liberal policy of decolonisation appeared to be in line with this evolution in British culture, making Britain appear to be a paragon of an old state managing to rehabilitate itself to the needs of a changing world. Alongside the granting of independence to further territories throughout this period, an official endgame of sorts was bringing the British Empire to a close. For instance, the Colonial Office was subsumed into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1967, while, in 1968, the final British Army garrisons throughout the Middle East and Far East were ordered to be withdrawn. All of these moves seemed to confirm to both the British people and the world the fact that the British Empire was at last going out of business.
Yet, although Britain's empire came to an official end in the 1960s and its governments became more concerned thereafter with restoring the nation's domestic socio-economic standing in the world, it was hard to lay some of the spectres of empire to rest. For instance, although Ireland had seceded from the United Kingdom in 1922 and became a full republic in 1949, the partition that had divided the country since then left Britain with an unresolved difficulty with Northern Ireland. The 'Troubles' that occurred in Northern Ireland throughout the 1970s and 80s held down a large swathe of British military forces and created an ongoing political crisis that saw paramilitary and terrorist outrages perpetrated on both sides of the Irish Sea. In 1982, another echo of the imperial past arose with the brief but bloody Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, which resurrected much of the mythology of the colonial age. Though it may have been merely what the writer, Jorge Luis Borges, termed 'two bald men fighting over a comb', the conflict was given a Churchillian flourish by the leadership of Margaret Thatcher and seemed to leave Britain subsequently more protective of its colonial heritage than it had been throughout the era of decolonisation. So, with ongoing disputes like the situation in Northern Ireland continuing in spite of civil and military solutions being applied, as well as brief and unexpected flash-points like the Falklands conflict, it was clear that the British Empire may have been gone, but it had left behind it an active legacy.
Still, the retreat from empire continued to play out over the 1990s with the withdrawal of remaining British troops from Belize, Berlin and Gibraltar in 1994 and the hand-over of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Like the subtraction of British India in 1947, the removal of Hong Kong from the dwindling list of British imperial territories brought a major loss of population, reducing the residents of Britain's overseas dependencies still further from just over 6 million to well under a quarter of a million. Until the British Nationality Act (1981), Britain's remaining overseas territories had been termed still as 'colonies', but, subsequently, they became 'British Dependent Territories'. Taking another logical step on the path to political correctness, they gained their current moniker of 'British Overseas Territories' in 2002. Today, these comprise Gibraltar, Ascension Island, Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, Saint Helena, Tristan de Cunha, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos Islands, Anguilla, Montserrat, the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Pitcairn Island, the British Indian Ocean Territory and the British Antarctic Territory - all of which still amounts to the largest group of overseas dependencies in the world. These fourteen remaining territories possess c.239,000 inhabitants spread across an array of rocks and islands - in fact, around 200 islands and a few thousand other, uninhabitable rocks - that represent effectively the flotsam and jetsam of the sunken British Empire.
Nor do these dispersed territories represent the sole bequest of the departed British Empire, as London continues to exert great international influence through the British Commonwealth of Nations. Ironically, while the Commonwealth has been said to represent merely a politically correct shadow of the British Empire, between its 54 members, it encompasses c.2 billion people - c.30% of the world's population -, which represents, amazingly, an even great proportion of people than the empire ruled at its height. Significantly, Queen Elizabeth II also remains the head of state of sixteen countries, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Jamaica, Barbados, the Bahamas, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Belize, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Kitts and Nevis. So, with a group of overseas territories that still represents a significant, if dispersed, part of the British population and control of an informal international organisation that spans almost a third of the global populace, it would be wrong to underestimate the legacy of the British imperial project. Instead, far from being an obsolete political system, the influence of the British Empire is still very much with us today - though in a more subtle manner.
Importantly, the cachet that being a former colonial power has given Britain in the post-imperial world has allowed London to regain and to maintain an influential position in global affairs. During the Cold War, Britain appeared to struggle to identify a role for itself, caught between the competing superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union. However, by allying itself closely with both the United States and other friendly European powers throughout the 1950s and 60s, Britain sought to carve out a position for itself as a 'junior partner' to the former and a nation no longer isolated from its European neighbours. The Anglo-American 'special relationship' that arose out of the Second World War secured a crucial nuclear deterrent for Britain and a key position among the nations who joined the military alliance of NATO from 1949. Significantly, Britain sheltered under the American Polaris missile defences over the 1960s and 70s and, indeed, continues to do so since the 1980s via its replacement, the Trident system. Attempts by London to join the E.E.C. from the late-1950s proved its interest in European affairs and, when its application was successful in 1973, a new age of British foreign policy began. As a permanent member of the United Nations' Security Council and a key constituent of what became latterly the European Union, Britain has to come to possess influential and unrivalled access to the corridors of global power - as evidenced by its participation in the annual G8 summits.
The real-world manifestation of this new-found role can be seen in Britain's position in United Nations peace-keeping operations throughout the 1990s and 2000s, where British forces were deployed in war-zones as diverse as the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Sudan. At the same time, Britain has regained an active combat role for itself as a junior partner in a number of American-led wars, such as its complex 'War on Terror' missions in Afghanistan (2001- ) and Iraq (2003- ). While these operations have been justified usually upon humanitarian grounds, they have been perceived often negatively by the wider international community as aggressive and unnecessary incursions into sovereign territories. However, the Anglo-French air-mission that took place to create a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 during the fall of the Gaddafi regime represents a good example of Britain operating independently outside of the sphere of American foreign policy. More recently, the ongoing civil strife in Syria has left open-ended the question of unilateral British assistance for the rebels fighting the Assad regime, which has remained merely tacit so far. So, it is clear that Britain has carved out a definite role for itself as both an arbiter of international peace and an active participant in global conflicts against anti-democratic regimes.
Lasting from the reign of Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, the British Empire began its decline in the early part of the Twentieth Century, though it took many decades for this process to occur completely. Having survived the Great War and the Second World War intact, at least territorially, the collective stresses and strains of the twentieth-century proved too much to maintain its survival. With the loss of British India in 1947, the keystone of the empire had been removed. Thereafter, the domino-like transition of numerous British territories into independent states throughout the 1950s and 60s was swift. However, the success of British state-making in Africa and Asia throughout this period seems to indicate the achievement of its decolonisation policies, which seemed to blow with the 'wind of change', rather than against it. Yet, with decolonisation came the assumption of a new double-edged source of British identity as both a political 'elder statesman' in international affairs and a fount of youth-culture via the popularity of the country's contemporary fashion and music. While Britain has found it hard to escape the shadow of its empire- whether on the soil of the United Kingdom itself in Northern Ireland or three-thousand miles away in the Falklands -, it has seemed able to transfer its status as an old imperial power into a politically-correct form of informal union with its now-independent colonial territories through the British Commonwealth. Nonetheless, while territories like the Falkland Islands show no sign of leaving the embrace of mother-country, it seems to be actions such as participation in the allied invasion of Iraq or the air-support given in the Libyan Civil War that seem to indicate the forward-direction of British foreign policy. No longer the imperial 'policeman of the world', Britain stands today as a sort of global umpire, creating, enforcing and maintaining peace in the face of challenges to the progress of democracy. Thus, although the official pax Britannica may have come to an end with decolonisation, a fresh and politically correct form seems to continue to exert a unique influence on international affairs in today's world.