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Riyadh: Friday 16th December, 2011

1.0  The British Empire

In my last posts I posed the question as to why the liberal democratic model of the west had not been universally adopted across the globe. In order to explore this question, this, and future posts, will begin to look at how the British came to reach global preeminence, how long they held this position in global terms and what were the defining characteristics of the British Model.

1.1  Preeminence.

The period of British global preeminence coincided and was largely defined by her Empire. Through maintenance of her Empire the United Kingdom was able to project her power across the globe. Yet the British model was not merely one of exploitative plunder as, for example, the Spanish model had largely been. From the start, the British Empire was driven by multiple, often competing interests. Like the Spanish Empire, the opportunity of wealth drove private exploration and colonisation, and, like the Spaniards, the British Empire, was similarly characterised by the export of Christianity. Yet unlike the Spanish model, this was not purely a state sanctioned exercise. Nonconformist forms of worship spread with the same rapidity as the standard episcopal model.

The British, during this period projected free trade and a model of liberal parliamentary and judicial authority to the world. Neither the Empire, nor, in reality Britain, herself, were democratic as we understand it. Yet, this was a time of British confidence and assertiveness and British preeminence was characterized by soft power projection of British models of Christianity, as well as the military or fiscal dominance, science and engineering for which Britain in this period, is famous.

The British were certainly not the first Imperial Power. Nor was the British Empire the first to have spanned effectively the known world. However, the British were the first nation to reach a truly global preeminence over all other nations on Earth.

At its height, the United Kingdom, exercised direct rule over territories inside both the Arctic and Antarctic circles, in all the continents of earth and over virtually the entire Australasian continent and Indian sub-continent. Even in Africa, where European nations ruled over almost the entire continent, Britain was exceptionally powerful enjoying a remit which stretched unbroken from the Cape of Good Hope, to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.

The Pound was the international reserve currency and London the worlds trading centre and financial heart.

Yet Britain was also, crucially, not reliant on London for its wealth. The Industrial Revolution was driven from the start, by industrial production based in the rising cities of northern England, South Wales, Scotland and Ulster.

As with competing nations, this rapid expansion was facilitated by rapid growth in infrastructure including the canal network and railways, and by coal.

But it was also based upon trade, and Britain did not merely trade with its colonies. Heavily influenced by the original champion of Free Trade, the Netherlands, Britain exported the goods and infrastructure, consumables, finance and religion which (as historian Niall Ferguson has demonstrated), financed speculative growth(particularly of infrastructure) in counties in South America, China, Africa and the United States.

Britain contributed more than any other power to diverse fields such as the spread of the protestant faith, exploration of uncharted places, scientific (particularly medical) research, education, industrial output, engineering advances and the abolition of piracy the study of antiquarian texts, languages and artifacts, botany,  the spread of Democracy, and (arguably) the abolition of Slavery.

Britain was able, with some (albeit qualified) justification, to see itself as a largely benign, liberalizing Empire. A force for good in the world, and crucially, was able to draw upon reserves of confidence in its institutions and beliefs which encouraged young men and women to travel to Patagonia, Central Africa, Upland Malaya or China to build railways, spread their faith, establish rubber plantations or trade in opium.

The age of the European Empire would rise and fall with relative speed over a very short time frame, and it’s implications and legacy may well long outlast it’s actual life span and much modern scholarship focuses on the damaging consequences of Empire upon the collective psychologies of former colonial nations. Yet in an age when most of the world’s power resided among a small handful of Nations situated in the European Continent, the British Empire held more power than any other nation on earth and no power, before or since, has threatened to exercise, direct legislative and military power over so wide and diverse a land mass and population.

Moreover, the British Empire achieved its remarkable success despite two inherent weaknesses. Firstly, Britain, was essentially a small country with a wholly inadequate population and insufficient natural resources to effectively dominate the extent of territory over which it ruled. Secondly, Britain’s proximity to it’s major rivals ensured that it was never fully able to disengage from Continental Affairs. One of the key differences between the British Model of preeminence and that of The Unites States was the latter’s essential invulnerability to its rivals which allowed it to develop a small state ideal.

While Britain viewed war with a European adversary as an absolute last resort and generations of politicians sought to conduct British policy from within a protective shield of the Empire, Britain non-the-less, conducted wars repeatedly during it’s imperial history. In addition to colonial wars, the French, the Spanish, the Germans, the Russians the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Dutch, were all fought in theatres around the globe during the age of empire, often consecutively and often for long periods of time.

It should also be noted that at no time, did Britain enjoy the extent of dominance enjoyed by the United States since the demise of the Soviet Union. There were always rivals to British preeminence and at no point could the United Kingdom hope to conduct domestic policy without reference to the potential threat posed by rival nations. The most dramatic example of this was the Peoples Budget of 1906, where the government of the most powerful nation on earth sought to prioritize both its domestic agenda (in this case an expansion of State welfare provision) and the requirement to furnish the Royal Navy with the latest worship, the dreadnought.

In the last decade of the 20th Century, the US was able to rely on multiple battle Fleets sailing in every Ocean of the Globe and act unilaterally in almost any theatre it wanted. Britain policed the seas and enjoyed a greater dominance of Merchant shipping than has ever been achieved before or since, yet could not have dreamed of maintaining the most powerful fleet in every ocean of the world. Throughout the Great War, Britain enjoyed a substantial advantage over her naval rivals and complete preeminence over rival mercantile fleets. Yet, Britain was never able to securely release her front line Navy from the protective responsibilities of the Grand Fleet based in Scapa Flow. Germany could not match the Royal Navy but it posed enough of a threat to keep it tied down. All the worlds fleets combined could not hope to do this to America today.

Britain was therefore obliged to forge and maintain an empire whilst retaining an active and occasionally direct role on the European Continent, she achieved this by championing Free Trade, a policy which led to active political and mercantile trade partnerships throughout the world, irrespective of her Empire. Britain was for a long time, heavily involved in the development of South America and when Japan emerged from international isolation, it is the example of Britain which she followed.

None of which does anything to excuse either the Imperial model per-se, or Britain’s Imperial record to modern eyes. It is not the contention of this blog, that Britain’s Empire or foreign policy be looked at uncritically. There is no shortage of historical testimony to the inequities and wrong doings of the British Empire, from the massacre of Amritsar to the Opium Wars.

And arguably, the attempts by morally minded politicians to grapple with the multiple layers of inequality and exploitation  inherent in the haphazard model of Empire which evolved under British Rule hastened a wider lack of self-confidence among imperialists and so hastened the decline and withdrawal.  Indeed, it can be contended that the failure of 19th Century politicians to chart a path to a federal system for governing and fiscally regulating the Empire led directly to the Irish Civil War and indirectly to the failure of the Parliamentary & judicial model left by the British in many of their former colony’s.

In my next post, I will look at the period of British global preeminence, as this was necessarily shorter than the overall duration of the British Empire.



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