The British Empire had no definite beginning. It just sort of emerged out of the gloom. Nor did it have a definite end – until yesterday. Up until then, writing books about the history of the Empire (which is what I do), I had always found it difficult to know where to stop. There are several dates that can be picked for the beginning of the end, of course: either of the two world wars, Indian independence, Suez, the retrocession of Hong Kong, even, before any of these events, my own favourite: the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). But still there remained traces of the Empire all over: far-flung British populations, the Falklands, island tax havens, the English language, deprecating views of ‘coloured’ peoples that may have been inherited from colonial times, and so on. But when could we say it was all finally over? That’s no clearer than its exact starting date. In cases like this all we can do is to pick a symbolic event; and England (pop. 53 million) 1, Iceland (pop. 330,000) 2, in Stade de Nice on Monday 27 June 2016, coming on top of ‘Brexit’ just three days earlier, seems to me as good a choice as any.
It’s a good symbol because, as everyone knows, it was the Brits who invented football, and then exported it to the world under the cover of their ‘informal’ empire: that is, the empire of their world-wide trade. It’s also apt because our defeat was at the hands of the Vikings (essentially), who have been a pain in our arses for over a thousand years: invading, raping, pillaging and colonising us in the 9th-11th centuries; conquering us (disguised as Frenchmen) in 1066; the great au pair invasion of the 1960s, undermining our morals; and making us struggle with their flat-pack furniture.
Brexit, however, is a more substantial terminal point. Of course we haven’t had a (significant) empire for ages; but we’ve still been ‘Great Britain’. The ‘Great’, of course, isn’t any kind of boast, but simply indicates that Britain is more than just England: for my Swedish friends, stor rather than stark. It consists of four separate nations. With Scotland about to hive off to rejoin Europe, and similar noises coming from Wales and Northern Ireland, we in England may not be able to claim that title any more. That must mark the end. From imperial Britain to Little England. Iceland 2, England 1.