HISTORY | BRITAIN

The Gift of Governance

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Reviewed by Karl E. Meyer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

1781-1997

By Piers Brendon

Knopf. 786 pp. $37.50

Somewhere in the celestial academy where such matters are decreed, it was long since decided that the Roman Empire was the model for all its Western successors. Russia's czars borrowed their title from the Caesars and designated Moscow as a Third Rome (Constantinople being the second). Germany's kaisers donned the same robes, as 19th-century Berlin evolved into a facsimile of classical Rome. The Roman shadow is even more pervasive in Washington, with its many-pillared temples and equestrian warriors, its senators on Capitol Hill reciting sonorous Latinisms (quorum, sine die, casus belli, to the point that weary auditors sometimes murmur ad nauseam).

Yet nobody has surpassed the British in their fixation with the empire to which their island was once a barbarous lesser appendage. Their monarchs are profiled on coins as if they were Caesars, and for generations the image of Britannia, armed with spear, defended the copper penny. Small wonder their fascination with Edward Gibbon's magisterial History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Among the merits of Piers Brendon's splendid work -- which the author stresses is not meant to rival its forebear -- is its persuasive demonstration that Britons have repeatedly searched for omens in the pages of Gibbon. Was it only chance, pessimists wondered, that the first volume of Decline and Fall appeared in the revolutionary year 1776, and that the fifth and final one reached readers in 1787, heralding the imminent and ignoble British surrender at Yorktown? Humiliated by ragged American rebels, some "almost barefoot," British officers behaved there like "whipped schoolboys" (as Brendon relates), while their commander, Gen. Charles Cornwallis, abjectly pleaded illness to avoid showing up. As former colonials watched in stony silence, a British military band played a dirge titled "The World Turned Upside Down."

To be sure, in succeeding decades the world turned right side up for Great Britain. By conquest and/or cash, the East India Company devoured much of India (partly under Cornwallis as governor-general). British forces reached deep into the Pacific to humble the Chinese, seize Australia and New Zealand, and subdue Malaya. In the Mediterranean, having crucially secured Gilbraltar, Britain absorbed Malta, Corfu and Cyprus. Imperial strategists wisely heeded the lessons of Yorktown and pragmatically conceded substantial self-rule to Canada and other white-settler dominions.

In an 1875 coup, the British acquired control of the French-built Suez Canal and, to protect it, invaded and occupied Egypt in 1882 -- the prelude to a thrust deep into Africa that inspired dreams of British dominance from Cape to Cairo. By the time Queen Victoria celebrated her diamond jubilee in 1897, her overseas realm was the largest known to history, encompassing nearly a fourth of the world's population and its habitable lands. In a final spurt after World War I, much of the Middle East (and its oil) also fell to Britain, as did entire slabs of formerly German-ruled Africa; thus at its territorial peak, the empire was seven times bigger than Rome's.

And yet . . . and yet, in half a century, a mere wink in historical time, the great empire was but a memory, as foreshadowed by Gibbon. Once India attained its independence in 1947, nearly every other colony that mattered followed suit. Such is the story graphically narrated by Brendon, a Cambridge University scholar and former keeper of the Churchill archives. His book is in no sense an apologia; it is history with the nasty bits left in. Not one massacre, civil war, famine, racist outrage, covert trick or egregious human-rights abuse is passed over. His chronicle thus serves as a useful counterpoint to the generally upbeat accounts of Britain's imperial era, notably Harvard professor Niall Ferguson's well-written yet almost nostalgic encomiums. Brendon supplements but does not supplant Jan Morris's irresistibly readable Pax Britannica trilogy, published in the 1970s, the critical yet fair-minded standard by which new entries should be judged.

This Decline And Fall is strongest in its details; the author seemingly has scoured every available memoir for devastating quips, nicknames, anecdotes, rumors and shrewd assessments. Consider his description of Prime Minister Anthony Eden, prime mover of the 1956 Suez fiasco: "The son of a half-mad baronet and an exceedingly beautiful woman, Eden was said to be a bit of both. He veered between consuming vanity and crippling self-doubt. . . . After succeeding the octogenarian Churchill in April 1955, he writhed at charges that he was inclined to dither and scuttle, that he was incapable of administering the smack of firm government. One journalist wrote that when he made the emphatic gesture of punching his fist into the palm of his hand, no sound was heard. Another said that his words of command had all the dynamism of a radio 'talk on the place of the potato in British folklore.' "

One wishes that Brendon had more clearly spelled out the implications of the empire's fall for Americans. As he stresses, it was not simply a war-weakened economy that sped the empire's demise after 1945: "At its heart was a betrayal of the civilized values which the British claimed to espouse," an increasing reliance on coercion even as the empire's paladins extolled rule of law and fair play. This has an obvious resonance for Americans who believe they are on a providential mission to lead and reform an incorrigible world.

The British, too, were convinced of their exceptional gift of governance, with a hint of divine approbation. And, as detailed in these pages, there were indeed mitigating benefits for the ruled. But white dominions aside, the final exit was commonly messy and often tragic. In India/Pakistan, Malaya, Ceylon, Singapore, Burma, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Cyprus, Aden, Kenya, Uganda, Rhodesia, Sudan, Ghana, Nigeria and Ireland, the end of British rule proved a prelude to civil strife, violent partition, military coups, autocracy and virulent racism. This happened to an imperial power whose sons and daughters willingly settled overseas, learned local languages and endured disease on behalf of a shared creed. Brendon's account, especially of the Middle East, provides a cautionary text for a new administration that will inherit autocratic allies, penal colonies, reliance on coercive air power, and pervasive cynicism about America's declared global aims. ยท

Karl E. Meyer is co-author, with Shareen Blair Brysac, of "Kingmakers: The Invention of the Modern Middle East." He was formerly an editorial writer and London bureau chief of The Washington Post.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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