Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

Introduction

Why write a history of modern Britain? In the nineteenth century, Great Britain was the world’s recognized superpower, with a daunting formal empire, networks of trade and investment outside its empire, and a formidable military. The geographical extent of British power was rivaled only by the opinion that the British had of themselves: as first in industry, first in culture, first in democratic institutions. By the twentieth century many of these points of pride had proven transitory. The story of British expansion and contraction is a rich and complex tale for the Western industrialized world. Whether it is also a cautionary tale will depend on one’s politics as much as the historical record.

For American students of history in particular, British history continues to hold great interest. Britain is, after all, one of North America’s distinguished ancestors, the source of many of its juridical and political institutions, its historically dominant language, and much of its literature and culture. In the twenty-first century, Britain remains one of America’s staunchest allies, the fruits of the “special relationship” which developed during the Second World War. American students remain fascinated by modern British culture: the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the royals and Monty Python, England’s green and pleasant land, literary period dramas via BBC America, and the general “historicity” of an older society.

Modern British history reveals as much by its departures as its similarities. How was an abolitionist movement different in a country that contemplated no domestic institution of slavery? How did oversight of a vast and diverse empire interact with the formation of racial identities at home? How did demographic patterns and the environmental impact differ when industrialization took place on a small island rather than a large continent? The United States is often considered a country in which considerations of “class” have been irrelevant and white men were enfranchised from the 1820s onward. How then did workers’ experience

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