BOOKS: A Mint Story of Imperialism; This Sceptred Isle: Empire, by Christopher Lee, BBC Books, Pounds 20

The Birmingham Post (England), November 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

BOOKS: A Mint Story of Imperialism; This Sceptred Isle: Empire, by Christopher Lee, BBC Books, Pounds 20


Byline: Reviewed by Stephen Harrison

Rather surprisingly for a people which spent much of the 20th century stripping itself of the trappings of its Empire, the British (or should that be the English?) made much of the recent bi-centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar.

Celebrations of Nelson's famous victory were staged with gusto, welcomed and, by most accounts in a largely uncritical media, enthusiastically endorsed by most of the nation.

It seems at least possible that such fuss indicates - apart from hero worshippers' adulation of Nelson and Eurosceptics' dislike of the French - a lingering nostalgia for the days of the British Empire and its certainties.

Trafalgar, after all, was central to Britain's drive for colonial glory.

Certainly Christopher Lee (the former BBC journalist turned academic and writer, not the actor) is clear on such a nostalgic hankering.

He concludes This Sceptred Isle: Empire by observing: "When Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a taskforce to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentinians in 1982, she was doing more than holding on to a bit of imperial history . . . during that period of the spring of 1982, there re-emerged in the British people a jingoism that is a reminder that the legacy of the Empire runs deep."

His book itself is an example of that legacy.

Published to accompany, as they say, the latest instalment of BBC Radio 4's popular and award-winning Sceptred Isle series on the history of Britain, it is Lee's version of the birth, growth and, finally, end of the biggest empire the world has known.

Its extent was truly remarkable. At one time or another a quarter of the global land mass - in India and the rest of Asia, in Australasia, in Africa and elsewhere - was under British rule or influence; over 400 million people saluted George V at his coronation; over a third of the world was insured at Lloyd's; and more than half the world's merchant ships flew the Red Ensign, safe under the protection of the Royal Navy which, of course, ruled the waves.

The global spread of countries coloured red on the map, according to Lee, was the second British Empire.

The first was built up by the end of the 18th century and essentially covered settlements in Ireland, the West Indies and (until its loss in the War of American Independence to tax-hating colonists) North America, as well as bits of Asia and Africa.

Lee tells us he has attempted to tell his story as an "adventure". Does the choice of such a word indicate that the legacy of empire runs deep in him personally? …

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