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The Sad, Dark End of the British Empire

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Britain had dominion over so many portions of the Earth it was said, famously, that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” Since the end of World War II, however, that sun has been steadily dipping toward the horizon. Today, sundown is truly at hand.


On Sept. 18, the voters of Scotland will go to the polls to determine whether their nation will declare independence from the United Kingdom after 307 years of union with England. Polls over the last 18 months reported by the website What Scotland Thinks show a gradually rising tide for independence even though advocates of remaining in the U.K. still lead in the surveys. But many Scots have said they are undecided—and thus they hold a key to the decision. The Economist magazine has suggested that Scots voting with their heads will choose to stay with England, while those voting with their hearts will opt for independence, but “it is the nationalists who have fire in their bellies.”

The undecided Scots also hold the key to the final dissolution of one of the greatest empires in history. The British Empire brought profound changes to the world—but in the decades since its rapid decline after World War II it has become a kind of a historical joke, sometimes in poor taste. This week the British embassy in Washington decided, for reasons only known to itself, to hark back to Blighty’s glory days and tweet a picture of a sparkler-bedecked cake “commemorating the 200th anniversary of burning the White House” during the War of 1812. After newspapers got wind of the tweet, the embassy quickly retracted it, tweeting: “Apologies for earlier Tweet. We meant to mark an event in history & celebrate our strong friendship today …. Today UK-US celebrate #specialrelationship & work together shoulder to shoulder across the globe.”

But even that assessment is somewhat self-delusional. Since the beginning of the Cold War, America has done the lion’s share of the shouldering. Britain, the colonizer of America, has become in some ways the colony (or lapdog, as some self-deprecating British wags put it). And now it’s about to get even smaller.

The downsizing process has been long and hard. At its most extensive, the British Empire comprised 57 colonies, dominions, territories or protectorates from Australia, Canada and India to Fiji, Western Samoa and Tonga. From London, the British ruled about 20 percent of world’s population and governed nearly 25 percent of the world’s land mass, according to calculations by British researcher Stephen Luscombe. The spread of British influence, including the English language, gave birth to the United States, the world’s only superpower; the world’s largest democracy in India; and, perhaps inadvertently, disseminated British concepts of freedom, democracy and common law around the globe. On the negative side, Britain once corrupted an entire nation, China, with opium purely to extract drug revenues, and its haughty, racist dominance of subjected peoples left generations of rage in its wake in many countries (not least of which are some of those closest to home, like Ireland).

Today that empire has been reduced to 14 scattered islands such as the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean and Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific. The Commonwealth of Nations founded before World War II and revived after the war comprises 54 former British territories but is little more than a monument to the empire. Now the wave of dissolution is lapping up against the shores of the British Isles themselves.

Of course it’s been many years since Britain has acted like an empire, though some former provinces still experience “colonial cringe” at the sound of upper-crust British English. London’s imperial might began to crumble during World War II after Japanese armies marched to gates of India and the shores of Australia, breaking the back of Western colonialism before Japan was defeated in 1945. A nationalistic surge ended the colonial era, beginning with the withdrawal from India and Pakistan in 1947.

Some would say the empire officially came to an end in February of that year when—utterly drained by the two world wars—the British cabled Washington that they no longer had the money or troops to defend Greece or Turkey as the Soviet Union threatened to extend its influence in the early Cold War. “The British are finished,” Dean Acheson, soon to be Harry Truman’s secretary of state, was said to have remarked when he read the cable. The United States quickly displaced the United Kingdom as the main stabilizing power in the West.

The decline of British power hasn’t come without a fight. In 1942, Winston Churchill was famously quoted saying: “We mean to hold our own. I have not become the king’s first minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But his successors have been liquidating ever since. Over several decades, Britain withdrew from East of Suez and from their possessions in Africa; Hong Kong, the city-state that reverted to China in 1997, was among the last to go. There has been one exception: In 1982, in a desperate effort to hold onto the miniscule Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic, the U.K. fought a brief war with Argentina—which it won as a kind of imperial consolation prize.


Today even this already reduced British role in world affairs is threatened by the coming referendum in Scotland, regardless of its outcome. Michael Sexton, writing in the Australian newspaper, said “the fact the referendum is being held at all underlines the decline of English culture and confidence across the past half century.” If Scotland votes to break away from England, that decline will become even more pronounced. As Britain’s influence declines, its veto in the United Nations Security Council, for instance, might be open to question, as would that of France, which has also lost most of its empire. As they have before, nations bigger and stronger than Britain or France—Japan, India, Brazil, South Africa—will ask why the U.K. should continue to have veto authority alongside powerhouses like China, Russia and the United States? (The answer—nuclear weapons—can’t hold off rising powers indefinitely.)

The Scottish referendum is also having ripple effects on separatist struggles elsewhere, especially in Asia. It is under scrutiny in Taiwan, the self-governing island that is claimed by China but constantly flirting with independence. The government in Taipei has opened a representative office in Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. In China, the Uighur minority in the western province of Xinjiang has been struggling for autonomy or independence. To draw attention to that battle, the Uighur American Association recently declared that the “Scots aren’t the only ones considering independence.” In Japan, activists are seeking to drive the United States from its big military bases on Okinawa. “Scotland can be our potential model and we are paying attention to it,” Masaki Tomochi, an Okinawan scholar, recently told the Diplomat online magazine. The experience of the Scots is also being noted by separatists in Europe, where Basques seek to break out of Spain; in North America, where French speakers in Quebec would like to secede from Canada; and in the Middle East, where the Kurds have tried to carve out a homeland from Turkey, Iraq and Iran. An Australian scholar, Iain Stewart, has suggested that Australians who want their nation to break its last commonwealth ties with the U.K. and become a republic “should watch the Scots.”

As anyone who has seen the (admittedly fictional and historically inaccurate) movie Braveheart knows, the Scottish yearning for independence goes back many centuries. Even when the British empire was at its most dominant, Scottish nationalists forged ahead, according to a timeline published by the Scotsman. The Scots National League was formed in London in 1921 and was influenced by moves toward independence in Ireland, next door; Dublin threw off British rule in 1922. When the league became the Scottish National Party (SNP) in 1934, the first objective was home rule, then independence. After World War II, the Scots persuaded British conservatives in 1968 to support devolution, in which much control over domestic affairs would pass to the Scots. A referendum in 1979 saw 52 percent of the voters favor devolution, but that result was overturned by a technicality. Finally, in a 1997 referendum, 74 percent of the voters opted for devolution; an elected Scottish national parliament opened the next year. The SNP drew up a manifesto in 2007 that called for the forthcoming referendum on independence.

If the Scots approve independence on Sept. 18, that will only be the beginning of a negotiated withdrawal from the U.K. that could take years to execute. Among the issues to be negotiated, according to the Economist, will be Scotland’s membership in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Scots must set up a diplomatic corps and open dozens of embassies and, with the English, divide Britain’s armed forces—including its nuclear submarines, based in Faslane. In finance, the Scots and English must agree on dividing Britain’s national debt. Scotland must decide on its currency as the English have said they will not permit Scotland to use the pound sterling. Dividing access to North Sea oil, a lucrative asset, will surely be contentious. Marking off the boundaries of fishing waters will be difficult.

Then there are issues like continuing to have an open border between England and Scotland, dividing the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), setting an international telephone dialing code for Scotland and adopting an internet domain. There is even the question of whether Balmoral Castle in the Scottish Highlands will still be available as the Royal Family’s vacation retreat. (The castle’s website suggests that it is being overrun by tourists at certain times of the year.)

Fortunately, one issue appears to have been settled and that is the fate of the Stone of Scone, the symbol of Scotland’s sovereignty. Historically, it was present when the kings of Scotland were crowned. But it was seized by English invaders in 1296 and placed under a chair on which English kings sat in Westminster Abbey. The stone was stolen by Scottish nationalists on Christmas 1950 but was recovered and returned to Westminster Abbey four months later. The British government sent it back to Scotland in 1996. Until then, to ask a Scot about the Stone of Scone was to open a torrent of four-letter Anglo-Saxon judgments about English ancestry and legitimacy.

The Encyclopedia Britannica says that Sir Walter Scott translated a telling passage about the symbol from an ancient Scottish prophecy: