Part two of the comprehensive assessment by Brian Milne of the history of union in Britain and what has lead to the current state of play we have today. This trilogy of publications examines what has brought Britain to brink of isolation and aversion to the principals of the European Union. Part two examines the background to the establishment of the Empire on which “the sun never sets” and how it was gradually dismantled.

Part two: The second empire and where the sun never set

Rule Britannia and all that

The UK took over vast parts of the world by bribery, trickery and violent conquest to become the centre of the largest global empire than has ever been or may ever be seen. It is a long and complicated tale, but here it is retold as the shortest part of these three parts. It is just another story of a rise and fall of an empire, the details too many to recant without detail yet as easy to describe in a few words in order to inform enough to satisfy.

We begin by taking one step back. As we have already seen, the early 18 century saw Scotland dragged kicking and screaming into an unhappy union. Whilst England was busy taking new territories for its first empire an army was raised by supporters of the Jacobite claimants to Scotland who took Charles Edward Stuart as their leader to begin a war of succession that began in Scotland and fought its way down to almost Derby, but then was to fatally lose in Culloden in 1745.

It had been initially supported by the French, who then failed to send a supporting army to invade the south but which allowed the victorious England to claim France was still the enemy. It also allowed the English to claim that had betrayed a member of their union, and thus a little more than 30 years later, their support for the Americans and then in 1789 their Revolution that was considered a threat to the stability of many nations enforced an enmity that was soon to come to a head with all out war in Europe under Bonaparte.

The Peace of Paris was however part of a humiliation that drove the UK to look elsewhere to increase its influence. Hence 1783 to 1924 became the age of empire. Sea power was massively increased to rival and defeat all other navies, eventually to humiliate and destroy much of a combined French and Spanish fleet at Trafalgar in 1805. Between 1815 and 1914, approximately ten million square miles of territory and an estimated 400 million people were added to the British Empire.

By the Empire Exhibition of 1924 the UK was considered the ‘Mother Country’ of a worldwide empire covering around 20% of all the land in the world, with a mighty navy that controlled large areas of each ocean, thus Britannia ‘ruled the waves’ as well as it being said with some justification that it was an empire on which the sun never set. It went beyond actual empire – for instance the Opium War forced China to allow British traders to sell the drug opium into China.

India was to all intents and purposes ruled by the East India Company rather than the UK directly until the Indian Mutiny in 1857. When the rebellion was ended direct rule began. Considered loyal, strong and stable colonies such as Canada were given self-governing status or dominion in 1857, Australia and New Zealand in 1907, freeing the UK with them to exert greater control over other colonies. In 1876 Victoria was declared Empress of India and the drive for more colonies stepped up, and thus from 1881 to 1919 when the Treaty of Versailles gave Germany’s colonies to the UK and France as ‘mandates’ to administer the colonies in Africa, the empire stretched from Cairo to Cape Town as a result of participation in what was known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

The Second Boer War from 1899 to 1902 had added South Africa to the empire when the Britain defeated two Boer states in South Africa – the South African Republic (Republic of Transvaal) and the Orange Free State with the aid of two South African colonies and other empire territories such as Australia and India. That was to be the final colonial war in which the British gained territories. In 1924 the British Empire Exhibition was held at Wembley Stadium at a time when the empire still looked united and strong.

The great favour that went slowly but inexorably wrong

At that time the UK still believed they were doing the world a great favour by taking the British people and their way of life, governance from London and Christianity to the rest of the world. By putting an end to the slavery on which a great deal of English wealth had been accumulated and so-called barbaric traditions, the empire was bringing to nations created by them ‘civilisation’ and ‘Pax Britannica’ or ‘British peace’. It was all an illusion since after World War I it became increasingly difficult for the UK to hold on to the empire because of a number of very pressing reasons. They could no longer afford it and had no right to rule people and nations who did not want to be ruled by them. They realised that the Royal Navy was no longer strong enough to protect all of their colonies around the world and that the army that was already too small but now depleted by war, was failing to keep control and maintain peace. The 1919 Treaty of Versailles promoted ‘self-determination’ or the right to rule your own country which made it difficult for the Britain to support the principle for other countries, then deny it to countries in its empire. When the Irish rebelled between 1919 and 1921, the result was that the island of Ireland became divided into Northern Ireland, which remained part of the UK, and the Irish Free State, which was a dominion like Canada until 1937 when it became more independent as Éire. In 1949, that became the completely independent Republic of Ireland and left the Commonwealth entirely.

There was a strong independence movement developing in India from about the time the government had ordered a massacre of a peaceful gathering at Amritsar in 1919. Mohandas Gandhi led a non-cooperation movement which openly refused to obey British laws until in 1935 the Government of India Act gave them control of everything except foreign policy. Thus the British Empire was bit by bit dismantled to be replaced by a voluntary arrangement between former colonies that retained the monarch as their nominal head of state called the Commonwealth. In 1926, the UK government agreed the Balfour Declaration making Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa entirely independent countries that were to remain ‘freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations’.

In 1947, India and Pakistan were given their independence. Most of the African and Caribbean colonies became independent during the 1960s. The last serious blow to the Britian’s imperial collective ego was when Rhodesia pronounced their unilateral declaration of independence in 1965 which lingered on until 1980 and independence when Rhodesia became Zimbabwe. Until the 1960s, Britain was part of a commonwealth trading community based on the former empire; however countries began to renounce and leave the commonwealth. In 1997 the UK formally handed Hong Kong back to China.

Why is Part 2 so short?

The UK’s history is so full of deceit, violence, bribery, corruption, lies and propaganda that it would take a brilliant thriller writer to do it justice when looking at the second empire, the one over which the sun never set and through which blood was usually trickling somewhere. The fact that it happened and the collective spirit, or should it be ego, of what “Britishness” is came to be epitomised by the well polished, glossed over version of a harmonious, peaceful empire where everybody sang the National Anthem with gusto, head held high and pride in their English masters (sometimes, but not too often, mistresses).

Well before William I popped over the Channel to take over management, King Cnut had definitely proved that Britannia does not rule the waves, as stated in the poem by Scots James Thomson and set to music by Thomas Arne in 1740 in time to become the epitome of the then future second empire. One might therefore say that the world that lives on in the mind of many British patriots is equally pretentious. The less said about that empire that at present inspires so much nostalgia and ambition for the never again achievable, the better perhaps.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

    Allergic to Unions? Part one – a very English history of the illusion of being on top.

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