Posted by: tommybrennan | February 21, 2011

The Fall of the British Empire

This is something I put together for my Economic History of the West class I took last semester with Empire State College.  I was always fascinated by the British Empire, but was unclear about why the empire collapsed.   Here is a brief overview of the reasons, with some of my own commentary.   It is not meant to be exhaustive.  Enjoy.

Britain had been the dominant world power beginning in about 1815 until the First World War.  It had leveraged its considerable genius in finance and technological expertise into a powerful and unique globally dominant position.  Britain was the unchallenged superpower for nearly one hundred years.   Britain entered into an unprecedented period of prosperity and dominance that resulted in the establishment of the famous British Empire.  So vast were the colonies and acquisitions by the British, and its wealth so great, that the entire 19th century, and the early 20th century is a period  that is marked by British supremacy.    The events leading up to the First World War and the War itself changed all of that, and changed it dramatically.

The British began to feel pressure from the weight of maintaining their global empire.  It was very difficult to manage India, Singapore, South Africa and Egypt from London.   Britain was still the world’s lone superpower, but starting at around 1870, she also began to experience much more competition from the other industrialized nations such as the United States, Germany, France and Russia.  British imperialist Leo Amery observed: “The successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial base, those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and science will be able to defeat all others” (Kennedy P. 196).  The United States was well on the way to challenging Britain, and ultimately gaining the dominant world position.

The First World War (1914-18) was an absolutely devastating event in human terms for all of the European belligerents involved.  The Great War, as it was called by the survivors, had weakened the British Empire significantly, and was the catalyst for the beginning of the dissolution of the British Empire.  “The British lost a generation – half a million men under the age of thirty.  One quarter of the Oxford and Cambridge students under the age of twenty-five who served in the British army in 1914 were killed”.  (Hobsbawn P. 26).  The First World War was also devastating economically to Britain.  “It was an absurd and self-defeating aim which ruined both victors and vanquished.  It drove the defeated into revolution and the victors into bankruptcy and physical exhaustion.  Britain was never the same again after 1918 because the country had ruined its economy by waging a war substantially beyond its resources.”  (Hobsbawn P. 30).  It emerged from the First World War significantly weaker than it had entered the war.   Europe as a whole was not healthy economically, and the retributive peace treaties at the end of the war ensured that Germany would face financial ruin, thus making it ripe for the eventual rise of Adolf Hitler.

British manufacturing output began to wane in the 1920’s, and this downturn further stressed an already tenuous economy.  Then came 1929, when the United States stock market crashed, thus plunging the United States into the Great Depression.  Since the United States was the dominant economic power in the world, a global economic downturn resulted.  “Britain’s ailing economy was shaken to its roots by the world-wide slump after 1929.  Textile production, which still provided 40 percent of British exports, was cut by two-thirds; coal, which provided another 10 percent of exports dropped by one-fifth; shipbuilding was so badly hit that 1933 production fell to 7 percent of its prewar figure; steel production fell by 45 percent in the three years of 1929-32 and pig-iron production by 53 percent.  With international trade drying up and being replaced by currency blocs, Britain’s share of global commerce continued in a downward trend, from 14.15 percent (1913) to 10.75 percent (1929) to 9.8 percent (1937) ”. (Kennedy P. 316)

This poor economic outlook, coupled with the horrible memories of the Great War produced a Britain that had little appetite for more war preparation.  Britain and France both decreased military spending at this very tumultuous time, and Germany took advantage of this opportunity to build itself into a military powerhouse.  “Britain was cutting its defense expenditures during the early 1930s just when the dictator states were beginning to increase theirs.  Not until 1936, following several years of the studying the country’s “defense deficiencies” and the twin shock of Hitler’s open rearmament followed by the Abyssinian crisis, did British spending upon the armed services take its first substantial upward rise”. (Ibid  P. 316).  This disparity between military spending between Germany and the rest of Europe, including Britain, produced a situation that allowed Germany to become the dominant military power in Europe.  “As for economics, countries like Britain which knew they had waged a First World War beyond their financial capacities, recoiled form the costs of rearmament.  In short, there was a wide gap between recognizing the Axis powers as a major danger and doing something about it.  The stage was being set for World War Two.  (Hobsbawn P. 151).  Neville Chamberlain, Britain’s prime minister in the late 1930’s famously appeased Hitler.  It should be noted that this was done with solid majority support in parliament.

Winston Churchill replaced Chamberlain as Prime Minister in 1940, and a struggle for survival dominated all of Britain’s strength until the end of World War Two in 1945.  Space will not permit a thorough narrative of World War Two, but it can be safely stated that this war was even more bloody and damaging to Britain than World War One.    The ideology that drove Hitler and caused World War Two was a key difference between it and World War One.  “For the second World War was, for those on the winning side, not merely a struggle for military victory, but – even in Britain and the USA – for a better society.” (Ibid P. 161)

The global empire of Britain was dissolving after the war.  It was becoming increasingly impossible to manage the extensive colonies of India, Singapore, South Africa, India, Burma, Egypt and Sudan.  Britain was further weakened by WWII, and its ability to rule the empire was severely handicapped.  The attitude of the colonies was also a concern, as strong support for independence began to be voiced by leaders such as Gandhi in India.  “The colonial world has been so completely transformed into a collective of nominally sovereign states since 1945 that it must seem, in retrospect, that this was not only inevitable but what the colonial peoples had always wanted”.  (Ibid P. 207)  “Never had a larger area of the globe been under the formal or informal control of Britain than between the two world wars, but never before had the rulers of Britain felt less confident about maintaining their old imperial supremacy.  This is one major reason why, when the position became unsustainable after the Second World War, the British, by and large, did not resist decolonization.  (Ibid P, 211).  Thus, the great British Empire was brought to a close, and the age of British dominance ended.

Kennedy, Paul  The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Vintage Books 1987.  196  Print

Hobsbawm, Eric. The age of extremes. Pantheon, 1994. 26. Print.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The age of extremes. Pantheon, 1994. 30. Print.

Kennedy, Paul  The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. Vintage Books 1987.  316  Print

Hobsbawm, Eric. The age of extremes. Pantheon, 1994. 151. Print.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The age of extremes. Pantheon, 1994. 161. Print.

Hobsbawm, Eric. The age of extremes. Pantheon, 1994. 211. Print.

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