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Diamond jubilee commemorates a dignified reign over a declining empire

As Britain prepares to celebrate Queen Elizabeth II's diamond jubilee next month, Jonathan Gornall chronicles the inexorable post-war decline of this once mighty imperial power.

Victoria Terminus, a grand symbol of empire built in what was then Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. The station has since been renamed. Getty Images
Victoria Terminus, a grand symbol of empire built in what was then Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria's golden jubilee. The station has since been renamed. Getty Images

"A strange thing happened," reported Frank Gillard, the veteran BBC correspondent, to listeners of the Home Service on the evening of February 6, 1952. "The sky, which had been clear and bright all morning, with blazing sun, clouded over and became dark and sultry. The storm rapidly developed and broke in cascading rain and heavy thunder."

As gloomy portents go, it was an apt one.

For an audience stunned by the news of the death of King George VI, Gillard was describing the moment the news reached Kenya, where his heir, Princess Elizabeth, had been relaxing at the Treetops wildlife retreat prior to a five-month tour of the Commonwealth.

"At about 2.45 local time," continued Gillard, "the truth was known. The Duke went to the princess and broke it to her. In the words of a member of the household, she bore it like a queen."

She would have much more to bear over the next six decades, as the empire the queen inherited was dismantled piece by piece and the power and respect her forebears had once commanded would be diminished to the point of extinction.

***

For many, the coronation on June 2, 1953, was seen as the dawn of a new Elizabethan Age, but the empire England had begun to build more than 400 years earlier, under the reign of Elizabeth's 16th-century namesake, had already passed its apogee.

"The kingdom which the 25-year-old Queen Elizabeth came to reign over in 1952 was another world, one which must seem astonishingly distant to young people today," wrote the royal commentator and journalist William Shawcross in The Times earlier this month, in one of a rash of articles celebrating the queen's diamond jubilee year.

"Among the words which identify it are perhaps 'cohesion' and 'confidence'. But it was on the cusp of criticism and change."

Yet for a glorious moment, Britain appeared to be on top of the world.

The 1951 Festival of Britain, for example, was an austerity-busting celebration, a "united act of national reassessment, and ... reaffirmation of faith in the nation's future". And on June 2, 1953, the queen received the perfect coronation day present when the news broke that a British expedition, spearheaded by a beekeeper from the Commonwealth realm of New Zealand, had conquered Everest.

At the end of the Second World War Britain and Elizabeth seemed confident that, in one form or another, the empire had a long future.

Addressing the young people of the dominions on Empire Day in 1946, the 20-year-old princess had spoken of the bonds of comradeship, strengthened during "the dark years" of the two world wars, that bound them all.

"We have ... common ideals of freedom, justice and humanity, which are to be found in every corner of our empire," she said. "We cannot think that such a noble brotherhood can have come into existence for no object or that it is not our duty to do everything in our power to make it flourish."

It was a forlorn hope. Far from flourishing, the empire was already withering, and it had been the great (but ruinously costly) enterprise of the Second World War that had destroyed its roots.

One year after this speech, India, source of the profits of the East India Company since 1612 and the bedrock of the British Empire since 1858, was the first of the imperial fruits to fall.

The young queen, says Richard Toye, professor of modern history at the University of Exeter, doubtless shared the view of most Britons of the period that the empire had always been a benign, civilising influence for which its subjects should be rather grateful.

But that, says Toye, was "quite unrealistic". The empire was not evenly good for all "and the retreat, particularly in Africa, was more rapid than most people had ever expected".

The young princess's talk of "freedom, justice and humanity" had a counterpoint in the reality of the lives of millions of the empire's subjects. Britons, says Toye, "did not really acknowledge the extent of many of the abuses there were".

In India, for example, allegiance to Britain had cost a heavy price, not least during the decades of service given to the Raj by members of the British Indian Army, some 120,000 of whom lost their lives in the two world wars.

Even more lives would be lost extracting India from British control. Independence in 1947, and partition from the new Dominion of Pakistan, which would remain under British sovereignty until 1956, was a bloody affair.

Africa would follow suit. Even as Princess Elizabeth and her husband, Prince Phillip, relaxed in 1952 in Kenya, part of British East Africa since 1888, the Mau Mau uprising was brewing. Treetops would soon be burnt to the ground as part of an anti-colonial revolt that, though brutally crushed at an estimated cost of some 20,000 lives, led ultimately to independence from Britain in 1963.

Egypt, Sudan and the former Gold Coast (now Ghana), had already gone, but between 1960 and 1965 the pace quickened and Britain lost Nigeria, Tanganyika, Sierra Leone, Uganda and Northern Rhodesia.

"The final gear-change" of British colonial policy, as historian Anthony Kirk-Greene noted in 1992, had come in a speech by British prime minister Harold Macmillan in South Africa in February 1960. "The wind of change," he said, "is blowing through this continent ... whether we like it or not."

One of the chief architects of decolonisation was Iain Macleod, MacMillan's colonial secretary, but even he insisted that "of course, we did not 'lose' an empire. We followed to its logical conclusion what has always been British colonial policy". But the reality was that empire's end was less a product of pompous ideology and more an inevitable result of the inescapable fact that Britain was now a busted flush.

Nothing illustrated Britain's new post-war impotence more tellingly than the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Although British forces successfully seized the Canal Zone as part of a secret three-way deal with France and Israel, the anachronistic enterprise was cut short and the moth-eaten British Lion sent packing, tail between its legs, by America, the new leader of the pride of nations.

The writing was on the wall and in 1968 Britain announced it would be abandoning all of its interests east of Suez by 1971. Withdrawal from Aden and the Arabian Gulf - paving the way for the foundation of the United Arab Emirates - was "the significant final step in the country's retreat from a world role", according to historian John W Young, writing in 2010. Simply, Britain could no longer afford to police the world. The government was partly motivated by ideology but nonetheless domestic issues were increasingly the priority. Times were hard and, says Toye, "if there wasn't some concrete benefit for the British people then to continue spending money on [the empire] at a time of crisis was not a plausible thing to do".

***

Today, Britons are at best ambivalent about the heritage of empire and, from time to time, some fresh embarrassment emerges to offend contemporary sensibilities.

In April, for example, documents newly released from the National Archives, concerning the anti-Mau Mau operations in Kenya between 1952 and 1956, revealed some of "the nasty expedients employed occasionally when British power was challenged", according to one newspaper report.

Historian Lawrence James, author of Churchill and the British Empire, due to be published next year, condemned this latest "posthumous assault" on the empire. They merely confirmed, he wrote in the Daily Mail, "what has been known since the earliest days of the Empire: exasperated and frightened generals ... did resort to harsh measures in campaigns of conquest and pacification". Taken in the balance, "the faults of the Empire are more than outweighed by the benefits it extended to its millions of subjects".

When imperial authority was challenged, wrote Niall Ferguson in his 2002 book Empire, "the British response was brutal", as the piratical seafarers of the Trucial States discovered to their cost in 1809, when a punitive expedition destroyed Ras Al Khaimah and the fleet that had been harassing British commercial shipping.

But "the difficulty with the achievements of empire is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire".

Yet modern Britons - shamed by episodes such as slavery (while forgetting the empire's leading role in its eventual abolition) - shrink from all things imperial.

In 2004, for instance, a BBC website aimed at schoolchildren offered this: "The Empire came to greatness by killing lots of people less sharply armed than themselves and stealing their countries", while two years later the Church of England, "recognising the damage done", took the extraordinary step of apologising to descendants of victims of the slave trade.

"It is obviously true that all the people who were enslaved were damaged by it, and many of their descendants were damaged by it," says Prof Toye. "But how can one compensate for that historic wrong by compensating the descendants of people who happened to be slaves?" It is, he says, "probably true that most of them are much better off than if their ancestors hadn't been enslaved, because that is why they are now living in America."

Not all such descendants of slaves share the concerns of the Church of England. There has been some talk of seeking an apology and compensation for slavery from Britain in Jamaica, which gained its independence 50 years ago but retains Queen Elizabeth as its head of state. In March, however, Portia Simpson Miller, the newly elected prime minister, brushed aside the calls.

She does, nevertheless, intend to press ahead with plans to remove the British monarch as head of state. It was not, she said, "about getting rid of the queen - who could get rid of the queen? She's a wonderful, beautiful lady ... [but] We are a nation where our maturity is now saying we should ... take full charge of our destiny."

In Britain, celebrations of the queen's diamond jubilee have launched a thousand tacky souvenirs, from tea towels to china wear (though not always intended respectfully: "Sixty glorious years on benefits," reads the cod royal motto on one mug, "Perfect for drinking toasts to citizenship, not subjecthood").

The occasion has stirred feelings of pride and antipathy in equal measure - and, reflecting the nation's ambivalence, often simultaneously. On May 20, for example, The Observer newspaper's food magazine was given over to a diamond jubilee special - with food "fit for a queen" - while in another section a columnist condemned the "60 glorious years of a woman who has done little worth noting".

If the queen has views on the course taken by the ship of state since she took the helm, she keeps them to herself, as the protocol of Britain's curious parliamentary monarchy demands.

Yet very occasionally she has allowed her feelings to show.

In a speech in 1992, marking her 40th anniversary as queen, Her Majesty spoke of a year during which her son the Duke of York had separated from his wife, her daughter the princess royal had divorced her husband and Windsor Castle had been badly damaged by fire, as her "annus horribilis".

That same year the queen, seeing the way the republican-minded wind was blowing, "volunteered" to pay income tax. Victoria would most certainly have not been amused.

Worse was to come. Also in 1992, a tabloid journalist published the tell-all book Diana: Her True Story, a sordid account of the affairs of the prince and princess of Wales, clearly sourced from the princess herself. Within a month of the queen's "horribilis" speech, it was announced that Prince Charles and Diana were to separate.

The marriage, constantly in the media spotlight, was to haunt and diminish the royal family for years, even after the couple divorced in 1995. When Diana died in a car crash in Paris two years later, an extraordinary and positively un-British hysteria gripped the nation, which for a while seemed to blame the royal family for the accident that had claimed the so-called "People's Princess".

The queen has survived all this and much more, including humiliations that would have been unthinkable at the beginning of her reign. Most public of these, perhaps, was the decision by the Labour government in 1997 to scrap the Royal Yacht Britannia, in the teeth of evidence that the hundreds of flag-flying overseas voyages undertaken since 1954 had done untold good for British diplomacy and commercial interests.

Fittingly, for her final foreign mission Britannia conveyed Prince Charles and Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, away from the former colony after its handover to China in July 1997. Five months later the queen was seen to shed a tear at the decommissioning ceremony for the yacht at Portsmouth naval base.

Whatever the ups and downs of the royal family, public affection for the institution has remained consistently high. This, says Professor Toye, is partly a product of sentiment. "We used to have the Crown, Church and Empire as things to admire and hold on to as symbols of Britishness. Now the empire's gone, the church is rather a weak reed and the monarchy is all that's left."

For Andrew Marr, writing in his 2011 book The Diamond Queen, the credit for the survival of the monarchy goes without doubt to the queen herself.

"Many years back," Marr concluded, "I would have confidently described myself as a republican ... 'Get over yourself,' I thought, and long ago jettisoned the elitism of anti-monarchism in a profoundly pro-monarchy country.

"The majority are not always right, God knows; but when they raise a glass or a mug to the stability and reassurance Queen Elizabeth II has brought during difficult decades, they express genuine common sense ... Britain without her would have been a greyer, shriller, more meagre place."

Today, the voluntary Commonwealth club aside, Britain's empire is no more than a rump of 14 remaining overseas territories, as the former Crown colonies were renamed in 1981, that serve as a vestigial reminder of former glories. Together, these remaining territories are home to no more than 250,000 people, while in 1918 the British flag flew over a quarter of the Earth's surface and as many of its inhabitants.

The Second World War would change all that. Britain may have emerged victorious, thanks largely to America's help, but such was the economic cost of the six-year struggle that it was all but a pyrrhic victory and a new empire rose to take Britain's place.

***

Though her statesmen of either shade might reject the concept of the American Empire, "Talking about American imperialism is a little like talking about a triangular triangle," as the intellectual left-wing activist Noam Chomsky once remarked. "The United States is the one country that exists, as far as I know ... that was founded as an empire, explicitly, according to the founding fathers".

America might directly control less territory than Britain did in 1903, but its reach and influence - culturally, politically and militarily - is far greater. With US bases in dozens of countries, hundreds of thousands of troops serving its interests overseas and drones the modern answer to gunboat diplomacy, there is no comparison between contemporary American might and British power at its height in the mid-19th century.

Yet the story of the decline of the British Empire contains two invaluable lessons which, as history tells us, America is certain to overlook until it is too late.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson - and one that Britain in turn failed to learn from Rome, its role model - concerns the risk of imperial overstretch.

In 1972 Corelli Barnett, Cambridge historian and one-time keeper of the Churchill Archives Centre, argued that between the world wars the British Empire, far from being an asset to Britain, was a political and military liability, "one of the most outstanding examples of strategic overextension in history".

Today, says Prof Toye, the Americans "do spend absolutely extraordinary sums of money on their military ... and it's hard to see what concrete benefits they have as a nation extracted from Iraq, say, though clearly there are individual security companies, and doubtless oil companies, that have made enormous sums out of this, really more or less at the US taxpayer's expense".

The same can be said of Afghanistan and "even if they successfully withdraw, the key question is are they actually going to reduce their military spending anyway?" The problem facing America, says Professor Toye, "is of a society where the military is basically untouchable, and of course this is locked in to the fact that senators and congressmen have defence industries in their constituencies".

The other lesson, bound tightly to the first, is that an empire should not fool itself about its motives.

"We're not an imperial power, as nations such as Japan and Germany can attest," George W Bush said in April 2004. "We're a liberating power, as nations in Europe and Asia can attest as well" - and this "Imperial denial", as Ferguson characterised it in his book Colossus - The Rise and Fall of the American Empire, would have been familiar to Britain's in-house critics of the empire.

Chief among them was JA Hobson, who in 1902 published Imperialism: A Study, a critique that portrayed the empire as a plot by commercial self-interests.

"Though the reasons openly assigned for the British occupation of Egypt were military and financial ones affecting our own interests," wrote Hobson, the Chomsky of his time and place, "it is now commonly maintained that we went there in order to bestow the benefits which Egyptians have received from our sway, and that it would be positively wicked of us to keep the pledge we gave to withdraw within a short term of years from the country."

***

At her coronation in Westminster Abbey in 1953, the queen sat surrounded by the remains of imperial greatness - the graves and memorials of the great Britons who had forged, ruled and fought for the empire she was about to inherit.

These were tough acts to follow and, although Elizabeth II has proved herself woman enough for the job, in the end there was nothing she could do other than reign with dignity over a nation's inevitable decline.

Doubtless no one will ever know the private thoughts of the young princess who inherited an empire and, more than 60 years later, will pass on a small, economically challenged island off the coast of France. However, one thought from Winston Churchill, one of the last Great Britons, would perhaps capture the drift: "I can save the British Empire from anything," he once said, "except the British."

Jonathan Gornall is a former features writer for The National.