The decline and fall of the British empire

When the Great Exhibition opened in 1851, Britain was the greatest imperial power in history. At the launch of the Festival of Britain in 1951, that empire was crumbling before the nation's eyes. Denis Judd explains why the intervening century saw a slump in the nation's fortunes

An engraving depicting London's Piccadilly Circus heaving with crowds on their way to The Great Exhibition of 1851. A banner reading 'God save the Queen and Prince Albert' has been strung across the street. Within the Crystal Palace some 100,000 objects were displayed – taking up ten miles of space – the work of 15,000 contributors. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the July 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine

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1851: The Great Exhibition

The Great Exhibition of 1851 was Britain’s glittering shop window and showcase for the world’s attention and admiration. The first and greatest industrial power, the greatest imperial power, and the greatest naval power was, in effect, showing off its extraordinary achievements and at the same time advertising its manufacturing and industrial wares.

Although William Morris and others were to react negatively to the mass production of everyday utensils, furniture and textiles as depressingly lacking in beauty and originality, the tide could not be turned.

Within the Crystal Palace some 100,000 objects were displayed – taking up ten miles of space – the work of 15,000 contributors. Over half the display came from Britain and its empire, but other nations were invited to participate. In fact, the event was tactfully entitled “The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations”.

The largest foreign contributor was France, which produced a particularly impressive array of textiles, and was an increasingly worrying competitor in Britain’s overseas markets. Russia was another significant contributor, even though its exhibits arrived late, having been held up by ice in the Baltic Sea.

For the vast majority of the British visitors, however, it was sufficient to bask in the reflected glow of the amazing diversity, quality and inventiveness of Britain’s industrial and manufacturing output. There was, as Queen Victoria wrote in her diary, “every conceivable invention”.

Yet within a few years, there were signs that the nation that had so triumphantly mounted the Great Exhibition was far from infallible. Not only was domestic reform urgently needed to combat inequalities and deprivation, but the Crimean War (1854–56) became a byword for military inefficiency and the 1857–58 Indian Rebellion shook British rule from the Punjab to Bengal.

Indeed, during each decade that linked the Great Exhibition with the Festival of Britain a century later, there is ample evidence that the self-confident superpower of 1851 was in slow decline.

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1860s: Colonial uprisings

The decade opened in 1860 with the outbreak of the bitterly fought Second Maori War in New Zealand. The struggle lasted for 12 years and required the intervention of British regular troops to achieve victory. The Maoris’ stubborn resistance meant that they were eventually admitted to the franchise as well as enjoying a far higher status in colonial society than, for example, the Aboriginals of Australia.

Another colonial struggle erupted in 1865 with the Jamaica, or Morant Bay, Rebellion, when freed slaves, protesting at their impoverishment and lack of equality, were brutally crushed by Governor Eyre. The uprising’s ringleaders were hanged and many blacks shot or flogged, and their villages burnt down. Then, in 1867, Fenian groups carried out acts of violence in London and Manchester.

In the same year the British North America Act created the Dominion of Canada with full internal self-government. Earlier, Karl Marx had set up the First Communist International in London in 1864.

The decade closed with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 (a development that was to draw Britain far deeper into the affairs of Egypt and the Middle East) and with the Red River Rebellion in Canada.

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1870s: Loss of life

Disraeli’s premiership (1874–80) ended with two military humiliations: the massacre of British troops at the battle of Isandlhwana at the outbreak of the 1879 Zulu War and, in the same year, an invasion of Afghanistan that got off to an equally disastrous start.

Disraeli did, however, succeed in purchasing controlling shares in the Suez Canal Company, easing British worries over who would control the vital quick route to the east. And, for good measure, he got parliamentary approval to bestow the new title ‘Empress of India’ upon Queen Victoria in 1876.

At home, working class discontent was addressed by the legalisation of Trade Unions in 1871, and the introduction of the secret ballot for elections a year later.

In 1873 the appalling loss of life during the Bengal famine put in doubt Britain’s claim that the welfare of the queen’s Indian subjects was central to British rule and to the ‘civilising mission’ itself.


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1880s: Rifts at home, defeats abroad

One of the most traumatic events of the decade was the defeat of the Irish Home Rule bill in 1886 and the resulting permanent split in the dominant Liberal party. The defection of the Liberal unionists led by Joseph Chamberlain, the Duke of Devonshire and others made it far more difficult for the Liberals to win elections and in 1895 resulted in a Liberal unionist coalition with the Conservatives. The defeat of the bill also meant that the Irish Question remained unsolved, and that the continuing controversy threatened to destabilise the United Kingdom. Indeed, some politicians began to call for ‘Home Rule All Round’ – that is, for each of the four countries of the Union.

The decade had begun with the assassination of the chief secretary for Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his deputy, TH Burke, in Phoenix Park, Dublin, by a Fenian splinter group. In South Africa, the British were soundly beaten by the Afrikaners in the Transvaal war of 1880-81, and were forced to restore that country’s independence. In the Sudan, General Gordon was killed in Khartoum by Mahdist rebels. At home the decade ended with the crippling London dock strike of 1889.


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1890s: The rise of Germany

The 1890s ended with the triple humiliation of ‘Black Week’ in the South African (or Boer) War of 1899–1902 – in December 1899 when British forces suffered three significant defeats at the hands of the Boer civilian army. Despite Britain’s military victory two and a half years later, the conflict had exposed the British army’s shortcomings and led to the deaths of over 30,000 Afrikaner civilians in various refugee camps, also known as concentration camps.

The 1890s was a decade when Britain’s global supremacy seemed more threatened than ever, in particular by the rapidly rising power of the German empire. In the final years of the century, Germany offered Paul Kruger’s Transvaal moral support in its clash with Britain, and muscled in on the African partition – for example, by dividing up the Cameroons with Britain. Then, in 1898, it announced a massive naval building programme.

In 1893 Cecil Rhodes’s drive to conquer what was to become Southern Rhodesia (modern Zimbabwe) precipitated the serious Matabele uprising. At home, Keir Hardie became the first Labour MP in 1892.

The Second Irish Home Rule bill was thrown out by the House of Lords in 1893. Even Queen Victoria’s elaborate Diamond Jubilee celebrations of 1897 prompted a poem by Kipling, Recessional, which seemed to predict national decline.

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1900s: The end of isolation

In 1902 Britain signed a treaty of alliance with the rapidly rising ‘other island empire’ power of Japan. The treaty was renewed and strengthened in 1905 to guarantee either nation coming to the other’s aid if attacked.

In 1904 Britain concluded an ‘entente’ with the old enemy France. This was not an alliance but an agreement to lessen bilateral tensions at certain points of imperial and international rivalry, and, more vaguely, a commitment to future co-operation. The ‘entente’ with France inevitably led to a similar understanding with Russia, France’s formal ally.

These arrangements showed that Britain’s era of ‘splendid isolation’ was over, and that the 19th-century’s superpower feared that it could no longer afford to go it alone.

The decade contained other sobering events: the death of the much-adored, totemic queen-empress Victoria in 1901; the Treaty of Vereeniging, which ended the bitter Boer War but included terms blatantly aimed at accommodating the defeated Afrikaners to some sort of partnership with the British in the new South Africa; and the launch of Sinn Féin in 1905 and the Muslim League in 1906 (following the unpopular partition of Bengal).

The general election of 1906 delivered not merely an antiunionist landslide and a huge Liberal overall majority but also sent some 29 Labour MPs of various affiliations to the Commons. Three years later, Lloyd George’s controversial ‘socialistic’ People’s Budget ignited a ferocious debate over taxation and led to a constitutional crisis that resulted in the limiting of the delaying powers of the House of Lords.

Amid this furore the two general elections of 1910 resulted in two ‘hung parliaments’.

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1910–19: Under attack

The First World War, inevitably, dominated this decade, and once more exposed serious failings in Britain’s top military leadership, as well as producing embarrassing administrative messes like the notorious ‘shell shortage’ of 1915.

The abortive 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin was a warning that the demands of Irish nationalism must soon be met, especially after the failure to implement the Third Irish Home Rule bill in 1913–14. Perhaps most significant of all was the need from 1915 on to negotiate huge loans from the United States to finance Britain’s war effort. At a stroke, the great creditor nation of the 19th century had become an international debtor.

Before the outbreak of war there had been a plethora of serious internal conflicts: not merely the 1909–11 constitutional crisis, but also the growing tide of suffragette agitation, sometimes leading to acts of calculated violence and even death threats aimed at cabinet members. A serious strike launched by a ‘triple alliance’ of coal, dock and transport workers in 1912 served to confirm suspicions that the old order was under a sustained attack.

For some, the outbreak of war was almost a relief from these tensions and provided a sense that the nation could now restore its usually adequate working relationships.

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1920s: Ruptured union

The controversial 1921 Anglo-Irish treaty partitioning Ireland provided at last a partial, though bloody, resolution of the Irish Question. It led to a civil war between the pro and anti-treaty factions, and ultimately the grudging acceptance of the Dominion of the Irish Free State by republicans as a temporary expedient.

This was the first rupture in the union of the United Kingdom that had been established in 1801. But the decade contained plenty of other indicators of British decline. The 1926 imperial conference finally defined the constitutional status of the Dominions, acknowledging their right to full internal self-government and leaving it up to them as to whether they went along with British foreign policy. This marked the end of any hope that the empire might retain a fully coherent and binding set of external policies. Indeed, it would be left to the Dominions to decide whether they wished to take Britain’s side in any future war.

The round table conferences on Indian constitutional reform, beginning in 1930, eventually guaranteed Dominion status to Britain’s ‘Jewel in the Crown’, a concession that many Indian nationalists hoped would lead to complete independence. The 1929 Wall Street Crash heralded the onset of the Great Depression. At home, the 1922 Glasgow hunger march to London indicated the impact of economic decline on Britain’s traditional industrial heartlands. The first minority Labour government was formed in 1924. Two years later the General Strike, though in the end a failure, awoke fears of socialist revolution and endemic class warfare.

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1930s: Appeasing Hitler

The 1930s are indelibly associated with the failed policy of appeasement. It was an indicator of Britain’s decline that Neville Chamberlain’s government felt unable to offer a more robust response to Hitler’s policy of aggrandisement in Europe.

Interwar cuts in defence spending meant that Britain needed time to rearm if it was to seriously challenge Nazi aggression. In addition, the horrific losses of the First World War, in which over a million British and empire troops died, were fresh in the memory, and many hoped to avoid a similar second conflict with Germany.

Nonetheless, the Munich Agreement of 1938, with its shameful betrayal of the integrity of Czechoslovakia, was a cynical piece of diplomacy. As popular as it initially was, appeasement failed to achieve Chamberlain’s boast of “peace in our time”. It also led to the resignation of the foreign secretary Anthony Eden in 1938.

Other signs of Britain’s reduced standing can be found in the 1931 Statute of Westminster which put into statutory form the concessions made to the Dominions at the 1926 imperial conference. Indian nationalism also forced the government to introduce the 1935 Government of India Act, which in effect gave India home rule and Dominion status.

Although the Great Depression was lessening by the mid-1930s, the chaos it caused had encouraged the formation of the National Government (a coalition of the three main parties) in 1931. The growth of British fascism under the leadership of Oswald Mosley was another sign of unsettled times, even though the resistance to the Blackshirts, perhaps best demonstrated by the left’s victory in the ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in Stepney in 1936, stopped the movement from gaining mass support. The abdication crisis of 1936 also indicated that times had changed, when the playboy king Edward VIII chose to renounce the throne for the sake of a twice-divorced American woman with a dubious past.

The decade ended with the government guaranteeing Poland’s frontiers – a move that led to the outbreak of war with Germany on 3 September 1939.

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1940s: Empire out, welfare state in

Despite the heroics of the Battle of Britain, the Blitz, El Alamein and D-Day, one of the most significant episodes of the war was the Atlantic Charter of 1941. This was an agreement that was largely the initiative of US president Roosevelt, with Britain’s premier, Winston Churchill, the reluctant signatory.

Aimed at the reordering of the world when the war ended, the charter spoke of “the right of all people to choose the form of government under which they live”. Despite Churchill’s attempt to pretend otherwise, this could only mean that empires like Britain’s should devolve power as soon as reasonably possible. And the fact that Churchill was prepared to sign it reveals Britain’s determination – desperation even – to keep on the right side of America in the months leading up to Pearl Harbor.

The war provided other humiliations for Britain: the fall of Singapore in 1942 seemed almost a death knell for the far eastern empire; the Japanese conquest of Hong Kong and Burma were heavy blows; Gandhi and the Congress party’s ‘Quit India’ movement in 1942 brought chaos.

When, in 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence, some must have recalled the words of the Viceroy Lord Curzon in 1902: “As long as we rule India we are the greatest power in the world. If we lose it we shall drop straight way to a third-rate power”. As if in confirmation, in 1948 Ceylon and Burma became independent and Palestine was abandoned.

In 1949 the Irish Free State became a republic and left the Commonwealth; India also became a republic, but stayed in the organisation. The Labour government pushed through a raft of radical domestic reforms. It did indeed seem, as the historian AJP Taylor once said, as if: “Imperial greatness was on the way out; the welfare state was on the way in.”

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1951: The Festival of Britain

Herbert Morrison, Labour minister and a former leader of the London County Council, said of the event that he had done so much to create: “The festival is the British showing themselves to themselves – and the rest of the world.”

A collective pat on the back, the festival was different in many ways to the Great Exhibition of a century before. Above all, it was a celebration of the nation’s recovery from the perils and privations of the Second World War. It also regenerated London’s semi-decaying industrial South Bank, making it the site of the main exhibitions which explored the British identity, the British landscape, British science and industry. There was the Dome of Discovery, the Royal Festival Hall and the slender, eye-catching Skylon, one of the best-remembered displays.

A large fun fair was set up in Battersea Park, and in Poplar in east London the new Lansbury Estate was designed to show off all the latest ideas about urban architecture, town planning and community living. A Trinidadian steel band came to play – a first in the capital, and a hint of future population changes, with the beginning of Caribbean immigration a few years later. Throughout the summer of 1951 the festival permeated much of British life. By September over eight million people had visited the South Bank exhibition.

Many of the displays looked to the future, and the focus was kept firmly on the liberating power of science and technology. Apart from providing, as some claimed, ‘a tonic for the nation’, the Festival of Britain transformed London’s South Bank for ever.

What happened next…

Just five years later the Suez Crisis cruelly demonstrated Britain’s fall from great power status. The plot to invade Egypt with France and to take back the newly nationalised Suez Canal from the control of Colonel Nasser’s revolutionary regime in Cairo by military force was a lamentable failure.

The USA refused to support the invasion; Commonwealth countries like India disapproved; there was a near catastrophic run on the pound; and mass demonstrations in Britain showed how much opposition there was to the attempted coup.

Whereas only a few years before Britain would have been able to cow a country like Egypt with ease, it now had to slink out of the Suez Canal zone, humiliated and widely reviled.

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Professor Denis Judd’s book Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present (IB Tauris, 2011) will be issued in a revised edition later this year.