Article by Conor Temple. Edited and researched by Rob Russell.
Britain has always been a power that has punched above its weight on the world stage. For a small island nation, isolated from the European mainland, to have occupied a position as the pre-eminent global power for the best part of a century is no mean feat. For the bulk of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, Britain boasted somewhat unequivocally, a position of almost unrivalled global power and influence. However, the Second World War heralded a reshuffling of the global order, seeing Britain upstaged by the United States and the USSR amid their struggle for Cold War supremacy. In the intervening decades, Britain has seemed both uncomfortable and unsure about what role it is to play on the global stage, Britons themselves wary of displaying overt patriotism in what has become a truly multicultural society. Yet after a truly Olympian summer, building upon the tide of goodwill towards the Royal Family generated by the Royal Wedding and the Diamond Jubilee, it seems we have fallen in love with being British again, something first evidenced in the glory days of the mid-nineteenth Century, a time when Britain was known as ‘the workshop of the world.’
Britain was a leading light in the Industrial Revolution, developing at a previously unseen rate of change. From canals to roads to railways, the mid-nineteenth Century saw an entire nation transformed within the space of a generation. 1851 marked the zenith of British industrial dominance, the Great Exhibition of the same year at Crystal Palace in Hyde Park presenting Britain’s dazzling array of products to the world. However, by the 1870’s, Britain’s position was already being challenged by Germany and the United States, in which cheaper and more plentiful supplies of energy and raw materials were more readily available.
As the 19th Century wore steadily on into its final quarter, the European powers found a new way in which to expand their global influence; Africa. The Scramble for Africa sought to divide up the continent between the European powers in such a way as to avoid conflict between them. The Berlin Conference of 1884-5 sought to ratify European colonisation of Africa whilst simultaneously eradicating African claims of sovereignty.
From such a position of global hegemony, how was it possible that Britain’s power could be surpassed as quickly as it was? The answer is simple, in two of the largest conflicts the world has ever seen, the First and Second World Wars. The former saw, for the first time, the emergence of the United States as a true global power. A nation that could now itself assume a role similar to that of the ‘global policeman’ as Britain had done in the years before it. The latter saw Britain pushed to the very brink of destruction by Hitler’s Nazi Germany, with cities left in a state of disrepair, a populace almost broken by near-military defeat and a financial debt only fully repaid in 2006. That this debt was one owed to the United States, the world’s new superpower, can be seen as the passing of the baton from one global power to another. The Anglo-American loan, negotiated by the economist John Maynard Keynes, is symbolic of the eschewing of Pax Britannica in favour of Pax Americana. The final figure repaid was $7.5bn over a period of fifty-six years, made in fifty instalments taking into account an annual interest rate of 2%.
What followed for Britain was a period of relative decline, the wave of decolonisation beginning with the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 setting the trend for the rest of the twentieth Century, ending with the secession of Hong Kong in 1997. No longer was Britain at the very forefront of global politics, that privilege rested with the United States and, more recently perhaps, China. In the British psyche, that fact seemed to rankle for a long time, but in the last few years, that perception seems to have changed.
Britons now seem content with the position we occupy in global affairs. We have a strong voice, but not the voice, but that seems to suit these days. Britain is a nation akin to the wise grandfather; listen to us, learn from our mistakes and study our successes. No country in the world could pull off the regal pomp of the Diamond Jubilee followed by the glorious self-deprecation and humour of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, and for that we should be immensely proud. Glorious Britain, a declined power? Naturally, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
- The Great Exhibition, was the first in a series of world fairs, celebrating culture and modern technologies. It was organised by Prince Albert, husband to the monarch of the time Queen Victoria.
- By the 1830s after the so called ‘Golden Age’ of the canal system, the network of canals had grown to almost 4,000 miles in length, all in order to meet the transport demands of the industrial revolution.
- The Anglo-American loan had the original purpose of supporting Britain’s post-war overseas expenditure as opposed to the welfare reforms of the Clement Atlee’s Labour government as is often erroneously suggested.