The British Empire, 1558-1995

The British Empire, 1558-1995

The British Empire, 1558-1995

The British Empire, 1558-1995

Synopsis

Lloyd describes the full sweep of expansion and decolonization in the history of the British empire from the voyages of discovery in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the achievement of independence in the second half of the 20th century.

Excerpt

Loyalty and thrift were the principles that shaped the British Empire, and, now that they survive as private virtues rather than as forces to shape public policy, the British Empire has passed from the scene. Until quite recently loyalty to an often distant monarch, rather than a geographical or linguistic devotion to a nation, was the force that held states together. Great empires could expand over vast distances and encounter no long-lasting resistance at anything more than a tribal level. Patriotic resistance would now make such expansion far more difficult than in the past, and can dissolve away all but the most ruthless of empires.

Until 1500 the empires created in this way were confined to single masses of land, and could only be continent-wide. About 500 years ago empires began to spread across oceans and became world-wide. Although the British Empire came closer than any other empire to establishing itself in every region of the globe, there were clearly occasions at which it might have expanded more vigorously. The restraint on expansion was the pressure of thrift: the great empire was ruled from a country whose citizens had as much freedom as anyone in the world, and one use they made of their freedom was to keep taxation low. As a result the imperial rulers could at times have stood amazed at their moderation in taking so little.

The British Empire was the creation of a system of political values that we now have a little difficulty in understanding, but in many ways and for many peoples it served as a bridge between old and new. The period of greatest expansion was also the period in which the ideas of nationalism and of elected representative government were becoming accepted in Europe and began to spread throughout the world. Between them, nationalist commitment in the colonies and acceptance of the legitimacy of national feeling by the imperial powers brought the transoceanic empires to an end peacefully and quickly.

Ever since Sir John Seeley published The Expansion of England a hundred years ago, only the most scholarly and specialized studies of tiny portions of the imperial subject have avoided putting forward proposals of one policy or another. All sorts of different points of view have been advocated in the guise of history as well as in the simpler form of direct recommendation: the empire should expand, the empire should become united in a more formal and better organized way, the empire should be . . .

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