The Rise and Fall of the British Empire
Macmillan, 1996 - 704 pages
Great Britain's geopolitical role in the global scheme of things has undergone many radical changes over the last four centuries. Once a maritime superpower and ruler of half the world, Britain's current position as an isolated, economically fragile island squabbling with her European neighbors often seems difficult to accept, if not comprehend. Although still afforded nominal status through membership of groups such as G7 and the retention of a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, the simple truth is that Britain has been resting on her laurels since 1945, if not before.
The British Empire is both cause and effect of this spectacular transformation. At first an exercise in straightforward profit-making, foreign exploration and colonization by British settlers, traders, and entrepreneurs soon gave rise to serious moral misgivings about the exploitation of native peoples and resources. But the riches to be gained from empire-building were always a powerful argument in its favor, although changes in the domestic social and political climate made benevolent imperialism a more desired objective. The lure of profit was tempered by an urge to uplift and civilize.
Those responsible for the glories of empire were also driven by questionable motives. Personal fame and fortune formed an inevitable and attractive by-product of the conquest of new territories, and many empire-builders felt an unimpeachable sense of destiny. The achievements, however, cannot be denied, and during its heyday the British Empire was the envy of the world. Revisionist historians make much of the stunted potential of the former colonies, but as always, the truth lies somewhere between the two extremes.