After all that has gone on these last two weeks, it feels like the End. Not of the world, exactly, although if the people who back Brexit are the same as those who deny man-made climate change, that may not be long a-coming. Nor, necessarily, of ‘life as we know it’, though if Brexit upsets my relationship with Kajsa in Sweden it might put a dent in my life. (I’m applying for Swedish citizenship, just in case.) It certainly has the potential to mark the end of Great Britain, quite literally: the ‘Great’ there, of course, originally intended not to express any vainglory, as some foreigners appear to think, but simply that the country comprised more than just England. If Scotland scurries back, independently, to the comfort of the EU, that will be the end of that. (One wag has suggested calling the rump ‘the Former United Kingdom’, as in ‘the Former Yugoslavia’; or ‘FUK’.)
More than this, however, the past fortnight – Brexit, plus the Chilcot Report, plus the drubbing in football by Iceland, and all against the background of a capitalist crisis – could be said to mark the symbolic end of the old British Empire. That will be a boon for us imperial historians, who have never quite been able before now to decide when we should stop. (Or start, for that matter; but that’s another question.) My own The Lion’s Share. A History of British Imperialism (1975) had to have a chapter added to each of its four subsequent editions, as the life or afterlife of the old Empire meandered on. The latest one (2012) covered the Iraq War. This last couple of weeks have finally brought ‘closure’ to that.
There are several other dates and events one could choose for the end of the Empire – or at least, for the beginning of the end. Favourite ones are the two World Wars, Indian self-government, the Suez crisis, Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ speech, the cession of Hong Kong, and even – going back further – the Boer War (1899-1902). Or earlier still, if you want to argue, as I do, that the Empire carried the seeds of its destruction within it from the start. But whenever we think it’s all over, something else pops up to remind us that it isn’t quite done with yet: a war in a piece of the Empire that was somehow left over, like the Falklands; a long-term repercussion of our past misadventures in various parts of the world; all those island tax havens in our ‘dependent territories’; or – more generally and probably permanently – the further spread of the old Imperial language throughout the world. And, of course, the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Chilcot has brought this particular manifestation of British imperialism to a close; although not of course for its victims, either in the Middle East or among the families of British soldiers killed there. It has been denied; but of course the Iraq War was a manifestation of British imperialism, or one type of imperialism: the ‘Liberal’ kind that was invented around the turn of the twentieth century, to divert criticism from its more acquisitive sort, and boasting more altruistic motives than had been associated with ‘imperialism’ before then. Under Blair it was re-named ‘liberal’ or ‘humanitarian interventionism’, but it was essentially the same: taking over countries, temporarily or permanently, in order to liberate them from evil – slavery, civil war, indigenous tyrants, the Germans, Saddam, or whatever. I’m personally convinced that this was Blair’s genuine motivation in Iraq, although I’m not so certain about his oil-greedy American allies. And of course this doesn’t excuse Blair for his – possibly criminal – misjudgements. Poor judgment has been at least as dangerous in history as wickedness. A study of the chequered history of earlier British imperial exploits – Gladstone in Egypt, for example – might have taught him that. (He could have got it from The Lion’s Share.) Nonetheless, the Chilcot Report has surely put an end for good to this kind of liberal imperialism on Britain’s part. And the recent drama of it all has ensured that – surely – the lesson won’t be forgotten.
For a historian it’s a happy coincidence that this came in the wake of these two other quite cathartic events: Brexit, which interrupted the continuity of British international history in just as dramatic a way, as well as potentially breaking up the Kingdom; and ‘England 1, little Iceland 2’. The latter struck me because it reminded me of a fictional incident I once read in a speculative novel by Peter Fleming, the brother of Ian and a bit of a right-wing nutter (The Sixth Column, 1966), which had the English cricket team being humiliated by a West African XI, as I remember, as the country finally ‘went to the dogs’. OK, the Iceland débacle wasn’t all that significant; but coming as it did in combination with Chilcot and Brexit it could be said to dramatise the crisis amusingly. (Kajsa was amused, at any rate.)
So, if I write any more British Imperial history books, I’ll now know when to finish: those two weeks from 23 June to 6 July 2016. That’s when, after years of slow Decline, the British Empire suddenly and finally Fell. Full stop. – This really is a great historical moment that we Brits are living through. Savour it! As a citizen I’m worried. As an imperial historian, however, I’m thrilled. It means I can now pen the final page, and retire.