How does an empire turn into a country like any other?

On the occasion of the Diamond Jubilee, today Tristam Hunt asks himself in The Guardian how the age of Queen Elizabeth II will be remembered. The article goes over some of the most important changes Britain went through in the last half a century: from the industrial Britain to the City; from decriminalising homosexual acts in 1967 to allowing civil partnerships in 2004; from the egalitarian mark to Thatcher’s and Cameron’s neoliberalism and Blair’s New Labour; from Suez to Iraq… Britain at least didn´t witness multiple republics like France, serious democratic crises like Italy, a painful partition like Germany, or shameful dictatorships like Spain, Portugal and Greece. (To tell the whole truth, it didn´t witness the birth and consolidation of a proper welfare state either, as Scandinavian countries did).

Yet, there is one defining element that draws a line between Britain and all others, with the disputable exception of France: In the second half of the 20th century, Brits had to accept that the empire of the old glory days was gone… for good. True: by the end of WWI the US had mostly become the greatest power, but right after WWII Britain still held vast domains all over the world, and the US didn´t… yet.

How does an empire turn into a country like any other? In this regard, Tristram Hunt shares with us:

If we had lost an empire, then we had also famously failed to find a role. Central to that postwar strategic confusion was the spectre of Europe. For all Winston Churchill’s happy conception of a Britain able to manage multiple loyalties of Atlanticism, Commonwealth and empire, Queen Elizabeth presided over an epic identity crisis that has still to be resolved. Referendums, parliamentary votes and political parties have all failed to answer the question as to whether our national destiny lies in an integrated Europe or not.

In a short period of time Britain has transitioned from the largest power on Earth to a relatively small country somewhere between Ireland and (the rest of) Europe. And if Scotland votes for independence in 2014, Britain may even see its size reduced by a third or so. And what if at any point the Northern Irish held a referendum and, as envisioned by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, decided to join the rest of Ireland?

Political actors might “have all failed to answer the question”, as Hunt suggests, but the reconversion of an empire into a normal nation seems an awesome challenge for policy-makers, ever for the most visionary and talented ones. I wonder how this radical shift affects citizens at the emotional and psychological levels. Spain went under a serious political, intellectual and cultural depression when it lost its last colonies in 1898. What about Serbia? Have they definitely accepted that Yugoslavia is gone forever? How do Russians feel in the post Cold War era? And, if it is true that America is in decline, will Americans ever accept to give up or even share the ceremonial staff? All things considered, Brits haven´t done so badly after all.

Koldo Casla


In a previous post I reflected about the need to think critically about the future of human rights in a new world where Europe and the US simply do not matter as much.


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