Did Britain make the modern world?

The British empire has receded into history. Yet despite its difficult legacy, says Tristram Hunt, the cities that the empire helped forge are fast becoming the economic powerhouses of the 21st century...

Crowds in Coronation Park, Delhi, celebrate the coronation of King George V in 1911. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

On 30 June 1997, the United Kingdom’s 99-year lease on Hong Kong’s New Territories came to an end. With it died the final embers of the British empire. At the stroke of midnight the Union Jack was lowered to the strains of God Save the Queen, the Hong Kong police ripped the royal insignia from their uniforms, and Chinese troops poured over the border. Britain’s last governor, former Conservative party chairman Chris Patten, recorded the final, colonial swansong in all its lachrymose glory: its “kilted pipers and massed bands, drenching rain, cheering crowds, a banquet for the mighty and the not so mighty, a goose-stepping Chinese honour guard, a president and a prince”.

Steaming out of Victoria Harbour, as the Royal Marines played Rule Britannia and Land of Hope and Glory, aboard the Royal Yacht Britannia, “that night we were leaving one of the greatest cities in the world, a Chinese city that was now a part of China, a colony now returned to its mighty motherland in rather different shape to that in which it had become Britain’s responsibility a century and a half before”.

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