Saturday, March 3, 2018

could the British Empire have survived?

Historical might-have-beens are always fun. Of course they seem futile to many people, especially those who subscribe to either the Marxist or Whig views of history. Since I most emphatically do not subscribe to either of these views I can indulge myself in historical hypotheticals.

When you look at the mess we’re in now it seems obvious that at some point we must have reached a fork in the road and we must have taken the wrong fork. Speculating about hypotheticals can be a way to try to identify those forks in the road.

Britain at the start of the 20th century definitely faced a fork in the road. The British had two choices. They could maintain and defend their empire, or they could play the game of European great power politics. But they could not afford to do both. If they chose the empire that meant avoiding, as far as possible, any entanglement in Europe. It meant continuing the policy of Splendid Isolation that had served Britain so well in the past. If the British chose to play at being a European great power then sooner or later the empire would have to be sacrificed.

Faced with this choice between Europe and the Empire Britain chose Europe. With catastrophic consequences, but not just the immediately obvious ones of being dragged into the futile farce of the First World War. There were long-term consequences for the Empire, and especially for relations between Britain and the Dominions.

Australians for example up until 1914 considered themselves to be pretty much British. In theory Australia was semi-independent (it was not a fully independent country since it did not control its own foreign policy). Australians thought of themselves as being part of the British Empire and in general were fiercely loyal to the Empire.

That attitude took a bit of a knock during the First World War. The sheer scale of the bloodletting was a shock and then there was Gallipoli. Gallipoli was seen by many Australians (including my grandfather who was there) as the first great British betrayal.

Then came the Second World War and for Australians Singapore was a British betrayal on an even more spectacular scale than Gallipoli. That was the point at which Australians in general ceased to believe in the British Empire.

These betrayals were not really so much actual betrayals as simply consequences of the choice Britain made in signing the Entente Cordiale in 1904. Britain had chosen Europe and the Empire’s fate was sealed. Britain was utterly unable to defend the Empire due to her involvement in Europe.

If the Empire was ever going to have a future in the latter part of the 20th century it was going to have to be more an equal partnership, especially as far as the Dominions were concerned. The two world wars had made it painfully obvious that Britain had neither the capability nor the will to defend the Empire, so after that the Dominions had zero interest in the Empire.

Which was a problem for Britain because in the post-WW2 world Britain’s only hope of remaining an independent power lay in transforming the Empire into a geopolitical bloc that could rival the Soviet and American empires. The United States was of course, for that very reason, absolutely determined to destroy the British Empire. But there might still have been a chance for the Empire if the Dominions had still believed in it. But their trust and their confidence in the Empire had vanished. Which left only one alternative for Britain, being an American vassal. The choice made in 1904 was perhaps the most spectacularly wrong foreign policy decision in British history.


  1. Gallipoli and Hamilton changed everything. Australians were cautious after that, then WW2 out the nail in it.

    1. Gallipoli and Hamilton changed everything. Australians were cautious after that, then WW2 out the nail in it.

      Churchill changed everything. He single-handedly destroyed Australia's faith in the British Empire. I imagine that New Zealanders were similarly unimpressed by Churchill's strategic genius. And then he came up with Dieppe which made sure the Canadians would lose faith in the Empire as well.

      Thanks to Churchill there was no prospect of the British Commonwealth ever amounting to anything but empty show since the Dominions were never again going to trust Britain.

  2. >the policy of Splendid Isolation that had served Britain so well in the past.

    Um... What? :) Why the Great Game, then? Why the Crimean War? Why... well, quite a lot of things, actually. The Brits were pursuing their interest in Europe all the time, and one can't blame them: they didn't want all the continent to turn into One Big Germany or One Big Russia or be divided by the two.

    1. Why the Great Game, then?

      From the British point of view the Great Game was all about India. Securing the northern frontiers of India. It was all about the Empire.

      Why the Crimean War?

      From the British point of view the Crimean War was all about India. They needed to prop up the Ottoman Empire to make India secure. If the Ottoman Empire collapsed the Russians would threaten India.

      The British were convinced that everybody wanted to take India away from them, especially the Russians.