This is a short essay based on Jeremy Paxman's Empire. I wrote it for a senior history class. Hope any Anglophiles enjoy!
The existence of Jeremy Paxman’s bestseller, Empire, is a testament to the fact that the enigmatic British Empire occupies a unique location in the popular consciousness. This preoccupation may, in part, be explained by the fact that the British Empire was a momentary construction when placed in contrast with the historical record. The Empire reached its territorial height only after the end of the Great War and the concessions of Paris 1919; the empire rapidly declined thereafter and was virtually gone after the 1960’s. This begs the questions: why was this Empire so fleeting and what brought it down? A plausible argument is that the Empire sowed the seeds of its own destruction by abiding by its own contradictions and failing to reconcile the increasing privileges of the British citizenry and the moralizing mission of empire to the necessities of imperialist governance and territorial acquisition.
This gradual shift from commercial imperialism derived from a Lockean framework to paternalistic facilitator of independence was evident in the American War of Independence, the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the Religious renaissance of the mid 19th century, and the Gradual Emancipation of the ‘White Dominions’ and Ireland.
The Thirteen American Colonies were the most successful early effort by the British to establish a colony, formed not upon a landowning aristocracy, but rather a large-scale settlement composed of a broad cross section of society. The settlement at Jamestown, founded in 1607, originally served as a dumping ground for undesirable citizens, but over time became the progenitor of a society that was composed of a multitude of landholders. Worse yet, these same settlers became the dominant civilization in North America just as the Enlightenment began to spread across the English-speaking world. Not only did Locke and Hobbes influence the settlers, but also, by the close of the 18th century, the increasingly diverse and liberal ideas of Thomas Paine and the continental philosophes took root in the minds of the colonists. It was only a small step from these ideas to a widespread critique of the inequitable spread of privileges established by the 1688 Revolution.
Unconsciously, the American Revolution lay the scaffolding for further critique of British imperialism because it was prefaced on the notion that the American colonists, paranoid or not, were only demanding the recognition of their rights as free-born Englishmen. The fact that British imperialism would change its moral foundation would only further undermine the notion of a valid imperialism in overseas territories.
It may have been in response to the antipathy for the American colonist or it may have been an expression of British beneficence, but certainly the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, further placed into question the validity of the imperial project. This is because the citizens of the empire began to embrace a new form of ‘exceptionalism’, seeing themselves as agents of freedom and moral actors, instead of simply the engines of exploitation in extraneous lands.
The importance of resurgent British evangelism cannot be overstated. This evangelical fervour brought waves of missionaries to the territories of the Empire; it thus placed stable relationships of mutual trust and appreciation into question as the prior secular commercial order was subsumed into the greater religious bureaucratic state engineered in part by the missionaries and in part by technology, which was made necessary by the 1857 Indian Mutiny. The belief in pre-eminence had not characterised initial relationships between the British charter companies and their partners, but the new missions did construct such an association. This not only strained the cooperative relationship, but also made it increasingly difficult to justify any form of violence or diminution of the peoples who occupied foreign lands.
However, this complex and often contradictory order, was maintainable so long as the British had the capacity to exercise military force for the maintenance of their overseas possessions; the Amritsar Massacre, the War in Sudan, the extirpation of aboriginal peoples, and the seizure of the South African gold fields, are all examples of the late seizure and reprisal of territory for geo-strategic purposes in opposition to the professed moral order: an order prefaced by paternal guidance in the form of a civilizing mission.
After World War I this British hegemony was placed into doubt; even amongst its own Empire the patriarch looked unstable. Lloyd George appeased the Dominion’s by permitting greater consultation with the dominions of South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and Newfoundland as a compensatory measure for the devastating losses incurred by dominion forces during the war. However, for Paxman, the critical blow to British power came with the capitulation of the British in Ireland; if Britain would give independence to the very heart of the Empire, the first colony, then what capacity did it have to forcibly maintain its considerably more distant and less culturally analogous territories?
Tacit acceptance of the British Empire’s weakness came with Winston Churchill’s signing of the Atlantic Charter. The fact that the British were complicit in the abrogation of their Empire meant that any questions of independence did not become a matter of if, but rather when. British inability to resist independence movements throughout the empire was evidential in the various colonial wars, particularly the bloody campaign against the Mau Mau rebels in Kenya resulting in independence for the African nation shortly after.
The moral sanction exercised by the British people no longer had any currency, even amongst their own population. Nevertheless, it was the rising, anti-imperialist superpowers of the Soviet Union and United States who would coerce the British into surrender in 1956. This surrender, however, was already an existential occupation of British minds. The British Empire had been replaced by a greater Power, capable of exercising the trust Britain had held for itself, precisely because they had no ‘global empire’ of their own; reconciliation only came for the British Empire with its dutiful and solemn evacuation of its realm.