The Changing Role of Britain in the 20th Century
This brief paper seeks to be an introduction to a large and complex topic, namely, how the role of Britain in the world has changed as a result of the traumas of the twentieth century. In 1900, Britain was the economic and political standard of the world, while in 2000, she was considered by many a mere appendage of the United States. If this is even partially true, both internal and external affairs must be taken into account and their mutual interrelation understood. This is the purpose of this present paper.
In the early part of the twentieth century, Britain possessed a huge colonial empire, dominated global trade and maintained the globe’s reserve currency, the pound sterling. But this same period showed the exact forces externally that would come to eliminate the empire and harshly diminish Britain’s hegemonic role in world politics. Between 1900 and 1914, Britain was strongly challenged by a large and prosperous Russia and, more ominous, a highly industrialized, cohesive and military powerful Germany. In many respects, by 1912, Germany was in advance of Britain in many areas, including petrochemicals and railroads. Russia was challenging Britain’s hegemony in Central Asia and the far east, and she took to arming Russia’s enemies in Japan. After the Japanese victory in 1905, the Asian world had defeated a European (or semi-European power) and some hold that this victory was the first real shot in the anti colonial battles of the twentieth century. The Boer war in the first years of the 20th century saw the nationalist Afrikaners defeat the British, and the latter were forced to use terror tactics and concentration camps against the white Africans who were to oppose Great Britain from that time onward. Ireland had bled Britain white and, during World War I, will engage in a revolutionary war with Britain that will force her (partial) independence in 1921. In other words, Britain was successfully being challenged on nearly all fronts (Rubenstein, 244ff). Without the empire and the domination of the pound sterling, Britain’s international role would be radically curtailed, and other powers would take its place.
The simplest approach to Britain’s decline in the twentieth century is to stress the destruction of the two world wars. Britain was not about to permit Germany to dominate the continent of Europe, take over (with Austrian help) the former Turkish possessions of the Balkans and create her own global empire. Thus, Britain swallowed her pride and made an alliance with her second rival, Russia, against her first, Germany. Britain cynically saw Russians as semi-Asiatics who can be used as cannon fodder against the Austrians and Germans on the eastern front. The same strategy was to be disastrously followed in World war II.
Prior to World War II, Britain was forced to concede the independence of Ireland and the eventual removal of Ireland from Britain’s influence altogether. Many in England thought that the colonial armies in India and Africa were no longer reliable, and even worse, that the British military forces were dangerously overextended throughout the empire (Louis, 332). The real problem for Britain then and now is that she remains a small, rather pitiful state in herself, desperately dependent on outside sources of food and raw materials, not unlike Japan in this respect. Therefore, the problem remains that Britain cannot retreat into a shell, but always must maintain some kind of external presence and influence. Most will hold, without much disagreement, that the solution to this problem, at least after World War II, was to become an appendage to American money and power.
It is impossible to deny the basic thesis that the two world wars were destructive, fratricidal and ultimately, the primary cause of the loss of empire and the near destruction of Britain’s international influence. In both cases, it can be challenged whether Britain fought on the right side. In World War I, an industrialized Germany was not necessarily a threat to Britain and more than Russia, but n one could have predicted the mas destruction that brought one of the most violent empires into existence in the USSR and laid the road bare for the rise of Hitler in Germany. Nothing was solved by the mass slaughter of World War I, and World War II only substituted one tyranny for another in Europe. But after World War I, Britain did not have the heart to fight another war, whether against Hitler or the USSR, both considered equally menacing to English interests. Hence, the dual humiliation at Dunkirk (not to mention the appeasement of Chamberlain) and fighting with the USSR showed the world how impotent the British empire had become.
Again, in the Second World War, nothing was to be gained in fighting for Stalin, who, after all had slaughtered more than Hitler had, and then, seeing all eastern Europe, as well as China, fall into the hands of this totalitarian tyranny. It seems that, at some level, Britain had miscalculated each time, worried about her international prestige and currency monopoly, threw in her lot with the wrong crowd and was bled white in the process. In both world wars, nothing was solved, the world was never made safe for democracy or British domination, new tyrannies arose and Britain, in 1946, was an economic basket case dominated by the new leftist Labor party that looked askance on the empire as a whole (Rubenstein, 232)
The British response to the inevitable loss of empire after World War II was the Commonwealth, a means of retaining some British influence over the new Third World and seeking to give the former colonies over to moderate nationalists who might see some benefit to an English connection (Louis, 329). Inn fact, Louis holds that the British “transition teams” in the former colonies used scare tactics to keep the new nationalist governments from leaning to the Americans, holding that the US was a rising power that sought to monopolize their markets. The same was said of the USSR, and hence, the Commonwealth was billed as a median way between the east and the Americans, maintaining Britain’s role as well as he pound sterling as the reserve currency (Louis, 335).
But after World War II, Britain’s economy had entered a tailspin. The new Labor governments were elected by huge margins, and sought the reduction of empire and the nationalization of many industries such as coal and the railroads. But just as important was the radical weakening of England’s position internationally, where the pound was radically devalued and Britain was in no position to enforce the free trading rules the empire had fought so long to maintain. But it was not until 1967 that the pound sterling was removed as the world’s reserve currency, a serious blow to the British trading system that was now a memory. The Bretton Woods agreements after the war made ceratin that a new regime was put in place, this one dominated by American capital, the American military and the dollar (Louis, 358ff). Adding to Britain’s domination by other powers, Britain joined the EEC in 1973, and of course, was a long-standing member of NATO. Britain was now just one power among many.
Harold Macmillan made the claim that the relation between the US and the UK is something akin to the relation between Rome and Greece (Dobson, 164). That Britain, acting in the role of the ancient Greeks, bequeathed to Rome her basic philosophical and scientific views, while the Romans took these and made a political empire out of them. This seems to be a way of maintaining some kind of British cultural supremacy over the Americans, and has been answered by comparing the US and the UK not so much to Greece and Rome, but between the Old Rome and the New Rome, that both are empires and both are doomed to over extension and eventual failure. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the American culture through media and movies has long outstripped the BBC and related organizations in terms of global culture. If anything, the Cold War saw the UK simply riding some vague conception of “Anglo-American” sentiment to suggest a sort of equality, where of course, the reality is that England is a dependency of the US.
In Havighurst’s (1985) work, the imperial failures of the British empire from South Africa to Ireland to India, are all joined by attacks on free trade and the British conception of laissez faire. In other words, that there is a relation between the destruction of the British empire and the attacks on free trade in the name of nationalism, socialism or isolationism. Putting this more abstractly, for every political failure, such as the slaughter of World War I, there is a corresponding political consequence. In the case of the destruction of the empire, the political consequence was a power turn to economic nationalism and import substitution. The only thing that saved the “British” free trade system was Bretton Woods itself, since, it seems, every trading regime must have a hegemon to enforce it. Britain might console itself by holding that Bretton Woods is really a British invention, updated for the Cold War world, but the fact is that it is enforced by American guns, trade sanctions and dollars, at least for the time being. This is the central point: the British role prior to World War II was to police the globe both with guns and with money, enforcing the rules of the dominant trading regime. Nevertheless, Britain retreated from this role wit the rise of labor and the new ruling classes.
For Havighurst, he argues that there is a connection between the imperial failures in England’s post-war history and the fal of the Lords from power (Havighurst, 95). The failure of the imperial world dominated by London was met with the political consequence of the Lords, the old aristocracy that was so dominant for so long, being eventually pushed from power. This was done after World War I with the passing of voting rights acts, enfranchising the poor, women and soldiers, not to mention the long overdue reforms to the district system, where districts were regularized over a set number of constituents. All of this drove the old aristocracy from power and paved the way for the rise of Labor, which in turn, gave the political legitimacy and justification for the abandonment of the empire (Havighurst, 163). New priorities came with the rise of Labor, and these priorities were domestic rather than international and hence, took Britain away from a central international role.
It also must be mentioned at this point that Britain’s decline was not always seen as inevitable. After all, Britain did at least formally win World Wars I and II, and it was the British Air Force that destroyed the German, causing Hitler to have little air cover in his disastrous Russian gamble. The Battle of Britain was one shining light in the British twentieth century history that gave some hope that the British military might retain some respect, but it was too late (Havighurst, 288-232). Even more, it was not guaranteed that Britain’s economic woes after the wars were completely destructive of her dominant international role, but it was the rise of Labor that sealed the fate of the empire, something that Havighurst holds is just as important as the material losses of the war (367-369). Furthermore, the fact that the US was seeking to rebuild western Europe through the Marshall Plan meant that European economics will be based on the dollar and the domination of the American government. One might even argue at this point that the British, though undeniably weakened from the war, was merely pushed out of first place by both the USSR and the United States, and had the isolationists come to power in the US, that the British would have eventually rebuilt its power and hence its empire. It might even have been able to use the Commonwealth to do this in a form of “indirect empire” (American style) rather than direct colonialism. Britain, in this argument, was not so much defeated as replaced.
Several interlocking and complex claims are being made here. But the first is the easiest: the shocks of World Wars I and II outstripped the ability of Britain to pay for these. But it is hard to see how this inevitably destroyed the British empire. In Soviet Russia, the destruction of World Wars I and II were infinitely harsher, and Russia also suffered through a Civil War from 1918 to 1921. Yet Russia maintained a huge empire until 1990. Japan, in a similar situation to that of England in terms of size, maritime power and lack of resources, bounced back after World War II to become one of the world’s most powerful economies in less than a generation. England, on the other hand, even with American assistance, came under receivership from the International Monetary Fund and never quite bounced back from the war. Russian losses were far greater than British losses in terms of men and material, and yet their empire was strengthened under Stalin and Khrushchev. One might even make the argument that Russia had as many national problems as the British, including the Islamic problem, the Baltic problem and the Ukrainian problem, as England had with their restive colonies. Yet the USSR was able to repress these insurgencies throughout her huge empire, while England was forced to let their colonies go into the loosely defined Commonwealth. Hence, it is far from certain that the two wars inevitably destroyed the British empire, and hence, Britain’s central role in world politics and economics. Other factors need to be mentioned.
The rise of the Labor party is mentioned in every major piece of literature in this field. The political aspects to international failures and problems cannot be underestimated. This is the second claim of this paper, that the Labor party made ceratin that the British empire could not be resurrected as the Soviet empire was. The failures of World Wars I and II led to a bankrupt Britain, but, as the Soviet example shows, this is not a determining factor in the loss of empire. There was a political lack of will, a lack of desire to maintain the empire that was manifest in the rise of Labor and the reform of the voting procedures in England, leading to new classes taking power, including the lower middle class and the working classes, whose elected spokespersons held that the empire was no longer viable.
Hence, the conclusion here is that Britain’s role in the world changed from the dominant political and economic actor to that of an appendage of the United States not because of the losses of the two World Wars but due to a loss of political will. Britain’s role changed radically due to the reluctance to fight a third world war, this time against the Soviet Union, just recently an ally of the Empire itself. With the rising American power, the British ruling classes changed to that of Labor, and a major sea change in British politics could be discerned even after World War I, becoming more obvious after World War II. Slowly but surely, abetted by the shocks of the wars, the British ruling classes changed, and, with the newly enfranchised voters in the English political world, the desire to maintain the empire was removed from the British people, with the rise of Labor creating a new set of priorities, more economic and domestic, that took over from the “high politics” of empire and the old aristocracy.
Ultimately, the joining of NATO and the EEC, the removal of the pound sterling as the world’s reserve currency, the elimination of the empire, the losses of the two wars, massive debt, serious economic problems, the domination of the United States and the USSR in world politics are all major symptoms of this radical diminution in Britain’s international role. But the cause is the rise of the lower middle classes and the working class to some prominence in Britain, causing priorities to shift from “high politics” to the “low politics” of bread and butter local issues. The empire and hence, Britain’s central role in the world no longer fitted in with these priorities.
Dobson, Alan. Anglo-American Relations in the 20th Century. Routledge, 1995
Havighurst, Alfred. Britain in Transition. University of Chicago Press, 1985
Louis, William et al. The Oxford History of the British Empire in the 20th Century. Oxford University Press, 2001
Rubenstein, WD. 20th Century Britain. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003