The argument of this book has been that the fate of the world-system in which the British Empire was embedded was largely determined by geopolitical forces over which the British themselves had little control. The distribution of wealth and power within and between the two ends of Eurasia, in East Asia and Europe, created the openings and then closed off the freedoms that the British had exploited with striking success since the early nineteenth century. Once the politics and economics of both these great regions had turned against them, and wrecked the fine balance of naval and military power on which the defence of their interests depended, they had little chance of surviving at the head of an independent world-system. Perhaps they might have hoped to ride out the storm. But the strategic catastrophe of 1938 to 1942, and its devastating impact on the central elements of their system, were together so crushing that recovery (after 1945) was merely short-lived remission.
Of course, the British were not just victims of blind fate, benign or malign. They had taken a hand in prompting the geopolitical changes from which they had gained, although (as at Trafalgar) perhaps more to ward off an imminent danger than to create a main chance. The peculiar trajectory of the British economy before 1800, and the accompanying emergence of a ‘polite and commercial society’, were essential foundations. By then, British commerce was geared to the long-distance traffic that had roused Adam Smith's ire, and the long credit advances required by the cycle of commodity trades, including the slave trade. The infrastructure to exercise maritime power in almost every part of the world was already in place, including the systematic compilation of navigational data. The British consumer was already addicted to a range of exotic new tastes, both cultural and physical, and easily tempted with more. Economic and religious transformation had created a restless, competitive, pluralistic and (amongst a critical number) guilt-ridden society, harbouring rival visions of empire and of Britain's true place in a world needing redemption. It had the means and the motive to widen the bridgeheads already established in the world beyond Europe, and to send in new ‘landings’ for commerce, conversion and colonisation. All that was needed was the (vague) promise of gain in new regions opened up to commercial or spiritual enterprise. In the 1820s and 1830s, a torrent of travellers’ ‘narratives’, seductive prospectuses, missionary reports and settler propaganda proclaimed a world that was ready for a British invasion.
Nineteenth-century British leaders shared much of the intoxication that these visions had stirred among the key interest groups behind Britain's global expansion. Yet they were generally cautious about the government's part. They commanded a strong and well-funded state apparatus, but were wary that public opinion might turn against an unlucky venture abroad. They subscribed to ‘Gladstonian’ finance which implied a steady reduction of the government's share of the national income, and a negative view of costly long-term commitments. Hence they preferred to avoid direct confrontation with large or resilient states in Europe or Asia and intuitively grasped the signal advantage of an ‘intermediate’ situation, neither fully ‘continental’, nor entirely peripheral to the rest of Eurasia. They saw – or sensed – that this geostrategic prudentialism was vital to the stability of Britain's global connections, because these depended so much upon cooperation and partnership, not coercion and conquest. The settlement colonies, effectively self-governing from the 1830s and 1840s, could not be conscripted into imperial wars, or made to pay for their strategic defence – it was hard enough to extract any real contribution to wars fought on their soil and in defence of their (settler) interests. India, which could, was viewed contradictorily as an economic and military asset, and as a strategic and political risk. Its loyalty and quiescence could never be taken for granted after 1857. The dense web of commercial connections was best left to itself under the regime of free trade, thought most British leaders. They knew that commercial success, and the commanding role of the City, depended on ‘confidence’ – not least foreign confidence in British public finances. They were ready to throw in their diplomatic resources, and sometimes the navy, to persuade ‘recalcitrant’ states to open their markets, although rarely in cases where they would meet strong resistance or risk a dispute with another great power. They pressed British officials in India and elsewhere to enlarge the consumption of British manufactures by heavy spending on railways (and heavy borrowing from London). But they were usually reluctant to champion particular companies (unless they could serve a larger objective) and suspected the motives of British merchants and capitalists as much as they did those of settlers, planters and missionaries (a missionary, quipped Lord Salisbury, was ‘a religious Englishman with a mission to offend the religious feelings of the natives’).1 So British ‘policy’ was often in a state of unease between the need to defend ‘British interests’ abroad and official suspicion that the effort to do so would bring loss and embarrassment.
In the long nineteenth century, this hand-to-mouth practice had favoured the growth of a decentralised system. It was glued together by a mixture of commercial self-interest, ethnic solidarity, ideological sympathy and the common dependence of Indian Civilians and settlers on London's reserve bank of military force. It permitted the florescence of colonial societies largely left free to manage their local affairs: even the Indian Civilians enjoyed much of this freedom. Despite the feeling of strain in the last decades of the century (the subject of professional exaggeration by soldiers, sailors and diplomats), Britain's long lead in extra-European expansion allowed it to ride out the squalls of imperialist rivalry up to 1914. The prospects of a continental coalition against them (the great British fear) receded to vanishing point. The First World War marked a critical shift, though its full meaning was veiled. The huge war contributions of the dominions and India affected their ‘British connections’ after 1918: encouraging dominion ‘isolationism’ and Indian resentment at an imposed ‘war economy’ so poorly requited by political change. Britain's revenge on the Turks, evicting the Sultan from his centuries-old capital, roused the fury of Muslims in India, exploited by Gandhi in the ‘non-cooperation’ campaign. Indian politics were radicalised by religious emotion – a syndrome that endured. Britain's large war debts, the drain of dollar securities, and the general disruption of markets and currencies, destroyed vital parts of the global economic regime on which London, and Britain, had thrived. The general economic collapse of 1929–32 seemed to bury the old landscape of free trade imperialism, the commercial foundation of British world power. Protection, barter and blocs arrived to replace it.
Despite this deepening gloom, the inter-war years conveyed an ambivalent message. Cassandras foretold an ever steeper path of decline. A failure of will had cost the British their dominion in India, declared one ex-official in a widely read book. To Churchill (and others), the appeasement of nationalism was a betrayal of trust (‘the great liner is sinking in a calm sea…but the captain, and the officers and the crew are all in the saloon dancing to the jazz band’).2 To a vociferous body of ‘Die Hards’ (and their less vocal supporters inside and outside the government), the same symptoms of weakness were alarmingly visible in many other parts of the system, especially in Ireland, Egypt and China. But, to much seasoned opinion, this was simply hysterical, the over-reaction of old men in a hurry. An impressive array of authorities rejected the view that the fundamentals had changed. Milner and Curzon, MacDonald and Baldwin, Simon and Halifax, Hailey and Lampson, among many others, acknowledged that the old methods of imperial command could no longer be used. But they insisted that Britain still enjoyed the ability to manage what mattered: those aspects of politics that affected the stability of its system as a whole. To their nationalist opponents before the Second World War, this machiavellian capacity seemed frustratingly real.
This confident view now looks strangely myopic. But there was much to encourage it. Despite economic hard times, Britain was not obviously weaker in the inter-war years than before 1914. The British had paid out the premium for more strategic insurance in the ex-Ottoman Middle East: a ‘great glacis of desert and Arabs’ (in Attlee's later phrase3) to protect their imperial communications by both sea and air. They had appeased Indian nationalism, but also divided it by Byzantine manoeuvres, leaving themselves free to command India's most vital resource – its military manpower. The white dominions acknowledged, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, that their British connection lay at the centre of their external relations, and, in three of the five, that their British identity was the cardinal fact of their national existence. Of the trade and monetary blocs into which the world was divided after 1931, the combined sterling bloc and imperial preference system seemed the best placed to restore its members’ prosperity and escape economic disaster. If British power was constrained, so was that of other great states. Indeed, the deep mutual suspicions that divided all the other great powers seemed to suggest that, in relative terms, the British system still enjoyed considerable room for manoeuvre. In a fragmenting world, drifting towards autarky, the rapid implosion of the British world-system was among the least likely scenarios.
In fact, a total collapse was only barely averted between 1938 and 1942. The economic, political and ideological revolutions set off by the war and supercharged by depression convulsed much of Eurasia after 1930. To an extent that many contemporaries found hard to discern, they created a vortex of geopolitical change and destroyed almost all means of arresting its progress. At both ends of Eurasia, the local power balances on which the British relied broke down almost completely amid bitter mutual mistrust. Anglo-American friendship, which might have taken their place (and to which some British looked), survived in the circles of naval officers and financiers. But its formal (and effective) expression as a diplomatic alignment was blocked by disputes over debts, and the antipathy of important American interests towards the British world-system. The ethos of empire and its protectionist practice (through the Ottawa duties and the cooperation of sterling economies) were bound to stick in their craw. As a result, the status quo in world politics was defended inadequately by two reluctant associates, the British and the French, each of which doubted the other's good faith and military means. This proved no real protection against a violent geopolitical storm whose lightning assaults and sudden change of direction baffled most onlookers. With France's sudden collapse in June 1940, the central assumption of British grand strategy – that the line against Germany would be held on the mainland of Europe – disappeared like a dream. Perhaps only the failure of their three main assailants to combine more effectively (a function in part of their mutual suspicions) gave the British the time to rally American help, and for that help to arrive before it was too late.
The British system survived. But the cost of staying alive was enormous and the collateral damage irreparable. The British were forced to accept the early independence of India, both ‘premature’ (as they saw it) and partitioned. Any part India might play in their post-war recovery was soon written off. The loss of the vast bulk of their non-sterling assets (dollars above all) wrecked their balance of payments, forced a retreat to a closed sterling zone, and (by throwing the full burden of paying for imports on a steam-age economy near the end of its tether after six years of war) gravely damaged the prospects of industrial modernisation. It also transformed the terms of Anglo-American relations making the British dependent upon American aid as well as support for their currency – although this was offset in part by the value of Britain's contribution in a widening Cold War. Even so, to survive as a world power at all, the British were forced into much heavier intervention in their tropical empire, with its skeletal states; to risk a deeper involvement in the volatile Middle East just at the time when their influence was waning; and to impose an unprecedented burden of military spending on their peace-time economy. In a different geopolitical setting, they might just have remained the ‘third world power’ and exploited American help to recoup some of their pre-war position. But the scale of the Soviet victory in Europe and Mao's triumph in China – the climax of Eurasia's twentieth-century revolutions – ended all prospect of this. The Cold War did not end, as Churchill had hoped, in a three-power agreement. Instead, what remained of the British world-system was harnessed to the task of Western ‘containment’, until the strain on British resources enforced a final surrender in the late 1960s.
Of course, the roller-coaster of geopolitical fortune can form only part of the story. It provided the setting for the upsurge of private expansionist energies, the spawning of multiple ‘British connections’, the fusing of British and local resources (willing or coerced) in an endless variety of regional cases. It promised at one time the eventual formation of a globe-spanning ‘British world’. Ethnic populations of British Isles origins, the mercantile classes in Britain's commercial and cultural spheres, and colonial elites in Asia and Africa: all might have found in the liberal imperialism of British free trade the ideal global regime within which to pursue their own state-building objects. To leaders as different as Surendranath Banerjea, the Yoruba Samuel Johnson, the Xhosa John Tengo Jabavu and the Afrikaner Jan Christiaan Smuts, this was the true meaning of Britain's world mission. This vision assumed that Britain would remain strong enough to withstand hostile exogenous pressures without visible strain. But, for all its appeal, such a global ‘commonwealth’ under British protection was never more than a pipe-dream. The great power arena was always too dangerous (this was London's view) to risk the representative politics for which Indian nationalists were calling before 1914. Ethnic solidarities (among whites and non-whites) sabotaged the appeal of pan-imperial citizenship or imposed on it a narrowly racial meaning. ‘Garrison’ interests in the Civilian Raj and the colonial dependencies successfully excluded local native elites from political power and drove them towards an ethnic-nationalist programme. The wealth and cultural prestige of late-Victorian Britain, largely founded upon London's centripetal attractions, flagged in the wake of world war and depression. And, amid the huge general crisis that embroiled most of Eurasia after 1917, the appeal of British ‘modernity’ on which the Victorians had relied first came under siege and then faded away. When Whitehall rolled up the map of the world in the late 1960s, the substance of world power had already shrivelled up, leaving only the ghost of the British world-system. It only remained to acknowledge its passing.