The Rise and Fall of the British Empire Analysis

Lawrence James

The Rise and Fall of the British Empire

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At its fullest extent in the early twentieth century, the British Empire was the largest in the history of world. The cliche that the sun never set on that empire was true, for it extended from Europe to India, Australia, and New Zealand, from Hong Kong to Canada, from Africa to islands in the Pacific and Atlantic and beyond. In THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, Lawrence James, biographer and military historian, takes the entire empire as his subject, from the days of North American colonization in the early 1600’s to the post-World War II era and its “winds of change,” Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s description of the movements of national self- determination and anticolonialism which resulted in the empire’s demise except for such remaining outposts as the Falkland Islands.

Any historian of empire is likely to be compared to Edward Gibbon and his eighteenth century study of ancient Rome’s decline and fall, and James’s choice of title explicitly invites that connection. Although unlike Gibbon he discusses the origins of Britain’s empire, like Gibbon he seems more interested in its fall. Almost half the volume discusses the decline that James contends significantly began only in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I and its lasting economic, psychological, and intellectual consequences. Democratic and nationalist ideologies undermined the rationale for empire and declining resources made it too costly to maintain.

James’s work is not just history from the top: He also incorporates the “voice” of the ordinary citizen as well as that of the politicians, generals, and imperial pro-consuls. More attention is paid to the British perspective than the colonial, and by necessity the treatment of some topics is brief, but the work is well written and provides an excellent overview of an important era whose effects and influences are still in evidence.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, December 15, 1995, p. 683.

History Today. XLV, March, 1995, p. 48.

New Statesman and Society. VII, November 4, 1994, p. 39.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, January 14, 1996, p. 30.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, November 27, 1995, p. 60.

Reference and Research Book News. XI, May, 1996, p. 6.

The Spectator. CCLXXIII, November 26, 1994, p. 50.

The Times Literary Supplement. November 11, 1994, p. 23.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, March 3, 1996, p. 1.