The British Empire: Its Structure and Spirit

The British Empire: Its Structure and Spirit

The British Empire: Its Structure and Spirit

The British Empire: Its Structure and Spirit

Excerpt

In essaying to describe the spirit and structure of the British Empire I have traced the history of the Empire from the beginning, the whole three hundred and fifty years of it. But the proportion I have kept will show that I have not attempted to write a systematic politicoeconomic, and still less a constitutional, history. Four-fifths of the book deals with the period since 1833, fully two-fifths with that since 1914, and this not because the story of the earlier days lacks interest and importance, but because the spirit and structure that we know have been shaped most directly for us by the events of these more recent years. Nor have I treated the Empire in the manner of the anatomist who cuts up the body and finds the spirit fled. Bearing in mind that the first meaning of 'structure' is 'the way in which a thing holds together', I have tried to see always the complex and living whole in which each part acts upon the rest.

Many tribes and nations have made their contributions to the spirit of the Empire, but it is the peoples of Great Britain: the English, Welsh and Scots, reinforced presently by those Irish who held most firmly to the traditions of their English, Welsh and Scottish forbears, who have played the chief part throughout in the making and maintenance of the British Empire. These peoples have been always the common factor; it is their spirit which has informed the Empire, a spirit sprung from a love of personal freedom, a leaning towards tolerance that has been inculcated by the abiding necessity of coming to terms with one another in their own islands, a respect for tradition and prescriptive right, and, arising from that respect, a readiness, more marked perhaps among the conservative English than the others, to make do with whatever lies nearest to hand rather than to have recourse to theory and invention. And since it is peoples of these same stocks who have played the chief part in the making and maintenance of the United States, I have ended the story on 7 December 1941. For on that day the Republic, sprung from the thirteen colonies that broke away from the First British Empire in 1783, joined hands with the Second British Empire to defend all that the English-speaking peoples have in common everywhere.

The vigorous and adaptable British spirit has created a decentralised empire of unexampled size, dispersion and variety. This empire represents that spirit's share in the direction and control of the outpouring of men, goods and ideas from Western Europe, which began tentatively in the fifteenth century and gathered strength in the sixteenth as centralised governments in alliance with mercantile capital . . .

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