Wednesday, October 20, 2010


"The sun never sets," the old saying goes, "on the British Empire." If you're a certain age, you are probably familiar with that slogan. As schoolchildren, we were taught it as though it was the eleventh commandment. Our grade 4 teacher at Graham Bell Public School in Brantford, Mrs. Palmer, was a wonderful teacher in the "old school" image. She was probably middle aged in the mid 1960's, which would have meant that her career began in the 1930's. She was kindly, matronly, plump, wore those sensible shoes female teachers wore back then, had her steel grey hair permanently styled in a bob cut, and smelled of lilly-of-the-valley. And she was staunchly proud of the fact that Canada was the largest member of the British Empire. Our classroom was decorated with pictures of long dead Kings and Queens, and festooned with Union Jacks, and a huge map of the world upon which large swatches of red meant only one thing: British supremacy.

Never mind that, in 1964, Britain was trying to set speed records to get rid of all that red on the map. Never mind that several of the kids in the class were Polish or Ukrainian or Italian. Never mind that Canada had just recently unveiled its new, distinctive Maple Leaf flag, a heresy to our beloved teacher. Mrs. Palmer was convinced, and managed to convince all of us, that the British Empire was a select club, and that Canada, as the largest and one of the oldest "possessions" was the most fortunate country on earth to belong to that club.

The sun, of course, did set upon that Empire, as it does on all empires. The myths of British invincibility, of British supremacy, and of British permanence were exposed as just that: myths. Any close reading of British colonial history will show that the Empire was created largely by accident. The Empire was all things: a commercial empire, a collection of military bases, protectorates, colonies, and penal institutions. It was created through conquest, negotiation, purchase and lease, influence, trade agreements, and alliances. There was no central plan in its creation, and no cohesive organization in its administration. At any given time, the Empire was run from the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office, the India Office, the Ireland Office, the Admiralty, or the head offices of various companies. In short, the greatest Empire the world has ever known had all the grand vision of a Monty Python comedy sketch.

The eminent Canadian historian George Woodcock tried to explain the demise of the British Empire in his 1974 book "Who Killed the British Empire?" Woodcock claimed that the Empire, and all other empires in history, go through a period of growth and then eventual decline leading to its ultimate demise. According to his analysis, the British Empire died because of four things:

1) many people in the Empire no longer wished to be ruled by the British
2) external threats, especially those from Germany, Japan, and the United States
3) the decline in the will of the British people to rule and protect its own Empire
4) economic pressures ( world wars, depressions ) which made the Empire too expensive to own.

Add these all up and the conclusion is inevitable: the British Empire died of natural causes. It grew old, tired, feeble, and unable to survive serious threats from within and without. Woodcock argues that the high-water mark for the Empire was the late Victorian age, when the British actually began to take great interest in all its colonies and tried to unite them in a larger Imperial Federation. The decline began after the exhaustion of World War One, and was in full swing with the Statute of Westminster in 1931, which allowed for the creation of dominions, or fully independent coutries, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Ireland. The death knell was sounded after World War Two, where, despite the propoganda that showed a strong and united Empire rallying around a just Mother Country in its death struggle with the forces of evil and tyranny, Britain demonstrated that it was no longer the world military and economic power it once was. The patient was on life support when the Empire lost India in 1948. All that was left was to bury the corpse in the Suez Crisis in 1956.

But that did not spell the end for all empires. For, with the death of the British Empire, the American Empire was allowed to grow in earnest. American wealth, influence, and military power were thought to be unchallenged in the immediate post WWII years. Threats from the Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Cold War rivals were brushed aside. But now, the new collossus faces grave external pressures. Economic rivals such as China and India join Japan and Germany to challenge American wealth. Muslim extremists keep American forces pinned down in Afghanistan, Iraq and other locations. Latin America seethes with resentment towards the gringo arrogance it perceives in its relations with the United States. Allies, such as Canada, Germany, France, Israel, and even Britain itself, question the motives for American decisions. No country seems ready to snap to attention at the command of the Imperial Power of the U. S.

Could history be repeating? Are we in the early stages of the decline and fall of the American Empire? History is a stern teacher. We should all pay attention to the lessons it presents us.


  1. If we have influenced The World in any way good, or by example, then that is good, but our open minded hospitality has allowed some undesirables in.