We may not like to admit it, but in one way the British imperialists of a hundred years ago were right on the ball. This was in their predictions, of how the world would turn out if Britain lost her empire, and sank – as one imperialist put it – to the ‘petty status of a Belgium’. (Welcome to the twenty-first century!)
First, America would take her place. That was obvious to almost everyone, and indeed many imperialists even welcomed the idea – if America could perhaps be persuaded to re-join her old oppressors to form an Anglo-American Empire, centred now on Washington, but including the British Commonwealth. Cecil Rhodes was quite keen on this; hence the number of ‘Rhodes Scholarships’ (to Oxford University) he meted out to Americans; and the ‘secret society’ he formed to achieve this. (Some conspiracy theorists think it may have worked: Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar.) Others too envisaged the Commonwealth somehow surviving as a real power in the world, albeit with its capital re-located elsewhere: to New Delhi, perhaps; or even – this is George Bernard Shaw – to Baghdad. – The ‘American Superempire’ bit of this, with or without secret British connivance, was pretty spot on. (See my Empire and Superempire.) But it didn’t take any magical gift of prophesy to foresee it.
What may be thought to be a little more prescient are the other predictions of global empires floating around in imperialist circles at the time, if the Anglo-American one failed. A German Empire was of course one, for a short time. Then there was the rise of Russia, always a fear for the British, later in the form of the Soviet Union. A third possibility – and this is where the predictions become more perceptive – was a new Islamic empire, based in the Middle East and spreading out from there: as indeed one had done more than a thousand years before. That too was feared as a possibility in the West. Then – and these were generally seen in this precise sequence – would come the rise of China to take over, based on its huge potential in terms of size, population and ingenuity.
Today we can see the credibility, at least, of all these predictions. What interests me as a historian, however, is that a hundred-odd years ago it was mainly the imperialists who made them. That might have been because they were more focussed than were Liberals on Grosspolitik. Liberals were right – in the main – about British imperialism, which they helped to bring an end to. But they didn’t see or even speculate much further than that.