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The Empire Strikes Back

Bernard Porter argues that the 'End of Empire' unravelled British domestic politics as well as her international outlook.

A map of the world in 1886: areas under British control are highlighted in red. Modified by JappalangThe British Empire is now no more. Most of it went more than twenty years ago. Memories of it, together with strong feelings about it either way, are fast disappearing.

We are far enough away from it, therefore, to begin to assess it objectively. The new Oxford History of the British Empire looks like bringing together the first of these judgements. (What nonsense it is to anticipate - as some have done - that because its editor is an American it will be less fair to the Empire's memory than if it had been an entirely British project!) Most of these assessments will be concerned with the effects of the Empire on its colonial subjects and their successor states. But what of its impact on Britain, both when it was a going concern and - more relevantly - today?

On one level the impact looks minimal. Britain relinquished her empire relatively smoothly, in a way that left few obvious scars. The men who ruled and policed it returned home and soon melted into other jobs. The process had little effect on British politics, Suez excepted, and that only ruined a politician, not a government.

Britain's trade patterns shifted away from the ex-empire and towards Europe, but more as a result of her positive decision to join the EEC. Life in the metropolis went on much as before. The only domestic casualties appeared to be dreams of British power by one kind of unreformed imperialist, and of peaceful international cc-operation - the commonwealths - by another. The rest of us lived through it all hardly noticing it; entirely unhinged - it seems - by the Gotterdammerung that was going on all around.

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