The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

British imperialism on dependent peoples in a broader sense than was usually attempted in earlier historical writings while it also takes into account the significance of the Empire for the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh as well as the English.

Volume IV, The Twentieth Century, relates the history of Britain's Empire in the era of unprecedented violence of the two world wars and the two tumultuous decades after 1945 that marked the rising ascendancy of Asian and African nationalism. In contrast to conventional historical interpretation, the volume does not present the view that the Empire underwent a steady decline and fall on the model of Gibbon's Roman Empire. On the contrary, the British Empire experienced a renewal of the colonial mission after both world wars, ultimately transforming itself into a Commonwealth of freely associated states. In the twentieth century the Empire thus revived and adjusted to changing circumstances of nationalist challenge and economic crisis.

There are certain themes that The Twentieth Century shares with previous volumes. One of these is the response of the British government to criticism of the Empire. The Colonial Office at mid-century found itself forced on the defensive against anti-colonial sentiment in the United States and in the United Nations. International condemnation of the Empire, however, merely added a dimension of dissent to a long British tradition. In the attack against imperialism, British radicals and other critics did not, on the whole, want to liquidate the Empire but to reform it and make it more accountable. As in the nineteenth century, the debates on the Empire in Parliament and in the press demonstrated a sense of ethical responsibility that remains, in retrospect, one of the principal characteristics of the British colonial era.

'Informal empire' is a theme common to the nineteenth- and twentieth-century volumes that raises a controversial question: to what extent was there an empire of trade and commerce which carried with it degrees of indirect political control in such places as China and Latin America? The idea of informal empire involves historical judgement and argument. It is revisionist in the sense that it is an issue of interpretation which changes in nuance and focus from one generation of historians' to the next. The essential questions however remain the same. Should a country such as Iran, or for that matter other Middle Eastern states, be included in an analysis of the British imperial system because of the exploitation of oil resources and gradations of British political control? Does 'informal empire' help in understanding the complexity of the Empire as a world system? In this volume as in the nineteenth-century volume, authors accept or qualify the concept of informal empire in varying degrees, but in any event it enriches understanding of the formal empire.

-viii-

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