Saying Goodbye to a Vast Empire; Britain's Sudden and Surprising Abandonment of Sovereignty

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), January 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Saying Goodbye to a Vast Empire; Britain's Sudden and Surprising Abandonment of Sovereignty


Byline: Martin Sieff, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The 1950s and 60s were a strange era in modern Britain. The nation had never before been so prosperous and happy and it was also at peace. "You've never had it so good," Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the British people and they wholeheartedly agreed with him. Yet at the same time, Britain was going through one of the most vast and rapid losses of power that any nation has recorded in history. The British empire, which as late as 1947 still ruled one quarter of the human race and one quarter of the land surface of the planet that they lived upon had literally disappeared only 20 years later.

Nor was this was this astonishing retreat from empire the result of grudging defeat or humiliation in wars. Britain had just triumphantly and gloriously won the greatest conflict in her long history - the epic struggle for survival against Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945. And unlike its neighbor and 20th-century ally France, Britain did not lose 100,000 of its best young lives in futile struggles against inexorable fate to hold on to a colonial empire whose people were determined to throw off its rule come what may.The small but superbly professional British Army won every tactical guerrilla insurgency it had to fight from Cyprus to Malaya and from Aden to Kenya. Yet humiliation came anyway in a military operation where British forces hardly fired a shot and suffered no losses - Prime Minister Anthony Eden's traumatic back down in the 1956 Suez Crisis with Egypt.

History is filled with complexities and contradictions. But even in Anglophile Washington the ironies and subtle meanings of Britain's strange retreat from empire and even more unexpected late-20th century resurgence under Margaret Thatcher are understood only in outline, not in essence. David Cannadine's splendid "In Churchill's Shadow" should do much to correct that.

Combining masterly political history with an unexpected touch for cultural nuances, written with impeccable scholarship yet couched in a deceptively accessible, effortlessly flowing style, the book is a joy to read. Not since the late Roy Jenkins' mellifluous and occasionally even tongue-in-cheek sympathetic biography of Winston Churchill two years ago has any work of British history suggested itself as such warmly sympathetic company for long trips or the beach, or, in this grim new world, endless lines of airport security checks.

The wonder of British history in the 20th century was not how rapidly the nation lost the awesome power it enjoyed at the era's beginning, but how rapidly and well it adjusted to that change in fortune. And from the perspective of the start of the 21st century, the wonder of those 10 decades is not that the nation was bled by the human and material costs of fighting two world wars and weathering a great depression to boot. But, rather, that Britain still ended the century as the fourth largest economy in the world and one of the top four or five nations in effective global power projection.

Given the endless jeremiads about inevitable decline and fall that, as Mr. Cannadine documents, went all the way back to the Victorian era, this resilience and renewal is truly astonishing.

Much of the credit goes to the two titanic figures that tower over the British century - Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. And one of Mr. Cannadine's most original and thought-provoking chapters is the comparisons he draws between them and an earlier figure, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain, father of the better known Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Like Churchill and Mrs. Thatcher, old Joe went through the political equivalent of a spiritual reawakening in mid-life to become an impassioned charismatic prophet warning of decline and promising renewal.

If anything, Mr. Cannadine's one weak point is the degree to which he underestimates the achievements of Churchill and Mrs. …

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