There are some standard stories about the fall of the British Empire, like imperial overstretch, and the rise of nationalism world-wide. But they are rarely linked to what I see as the real cause of the Empire’s fall: incessant war mongering. As we close out this epic week of content on the British empire, World War One will take center stage. World War One has a much more central part in British mythology than it does in the US. That may be the reason why people are reluctant to draw the connection between that “victory” and the end of the Empire as closely as I do.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hey there. Today we ask, why did the British Empire fall? There are a bunch of interpretations. Was it imperial overstretch, did they just take on too much? Or was it the spread of nationalism, a shift in ecerybody’s worldview that made the kind of empire the British had no longer viable? Both of these standard interpretations are true to some extent, but they obscure the main reason. The British Empire was wiped off the face of the planet because it won two wars with Germany.
The British Empire won two world wars and that’s why it doesn’t exist any more. These apocalyptic battles exhausted the empire and its many peoples. The initial embarrassing defeats of World War 2 at Dunkirk and at Singapore, made it obvious that the UK needed its empire a lot more than its empire needed it. Once the wars were finally.over in 1945, the empire started falling apart very quickly.
But the damage was done long before World War Two even started. As I have been saying all week, it’s the informal empire that matters more than all the bits in on the map that were shaded red. Britain’s financial dominance was what made such a world spanning empire possible. The British had investments everywhere, and many territories they didn’t own directly, like the US and China, sent much more profit back to London than most formal British colonies.
Some people like to sell the idea that British dominance was fading before World War One. They were losing ground to Germany and the US in a few manufacturing sectors. But a lot of the profits from those new US and German ventures went right back to London. Nobody could touch them on this financial aspect. The British owned the world, and the whole world also owed them a lot of Money. In the decade and a half before the war British overseas investment doubled from 2 to 4 billion pounds. 100 years ago that was a lot of money.
World War One ended this with staggering speed. The costs of the horrific war in Europe were immense. As it dragged on, the British government forced their banks and private citizens to sell off most of their foreign investments to buy government debt. By 1916 Britain’s French allies were bankrupt, and the British had to foot the bill for their struggle, and what was left of the Russian fight as well. The British went from owning the world to owing the whole world money. And they owed the most money to private bankers in the United States.
By mid 1917 the gig was up. British credit in New York was essentially dead. Some like to snarkily point out that the United States was only involved in World War One briefly, and that we didn’t do much fighting. This is true to an extent, US soldiers didn’t suffer nearly as long as the Europeans did. But without the infusion of US government money the war would have ended in 1917 with a German victory and British bankruptcy.
The British ended up winning, but their empire was dead. It didn’t look like it of course. They even picked up some new territory between the wars, but the financial underpinnings of the British Empire were gone. Without its informal empire, british formal empire was doomed. This is where the imperial overstretch really came in. In 1914, British national debt had been 635 million pounds. By 1919 it was 7.4 billion pounds, and a lot of it was owed in US dollars, a currency that kept getting stronger against the pound. This debt load left Britain with less money to govern the empire, and at the same time, the need to squeeze more money out of the empire. This was not a sustainable situation.
Before World War One, most Indian nationalists would have been content with what Canada had, a slow devolution of power while remaining in the Empire. The financial pressures of the war, and the brutal repression that came with that pressure ended that possibility. In April 1919 British soldiers murdered at least 400 peaceful demonstrators in a single day, making the best case for independence imaginable.
A similar pattern was repeated from India to Ireland to Egypt to Iraq and many more. The impoverished British empire got brutal because it had fewer options, and therefore made its problems worse. Looked at this way, it becomes clear that both of the standard explanations for the fall, imperial overstretch and the nationalism of the colonized can be tracked back to the British Victory in world war one. The British lost their empire because they won two wars with the Germans.
By the outbreak of World War II, the British didn’t even pretend to be able to fight the Germans by themselves. Their strategy from the beginning was to hold on until the Americans could save them. The United States didn’t pretend that the British were capable of paying for the second world war, which is a sad fact of the Lend Lease program that is left out of most high school history classes. The British lost their empire by choosing to fight that first war with Germany.There is nothing worse for the country on top than war. Which kind of makes you wonder why the United States of today is so eager to fight them doesn’t it?
Thanks for watching, please subscribe, and if you want to learn a whole lot more about all of this you can buy my book, avoiding the British Empire, available now in paperback form and on the Amazon kindle. And tune in tomorrow, when we will start asking who deserves the blame for World War I.