Empires come and go, though seldom as suddenly and thoroughly as Great Britain’s fall from world dominance.
Many Britons celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 as a sign that all the rationing and shortages and general gloominess of the immediate postwar era were over. Wilson (London, 2003, etc.) will have none of it: The coronation, he writes, was “a consoling piece of theatre, designed to disguise from themselves the fact that the British had . . . lost an empire and failed to find a role.” If the collapse of empire seemed swift, it was a long time in coming; Wilson locates the decline in the trenches of WWI, in growing independence movements throughout the colonies, but especially in the backroom diplomatic angling of WWII, when putative allies seem simply to have outfoxed the clever British prime minister. “All Churchill’s cherished war plans—to guard and fight for the Eastern Mediterranean, to protect the British Empire by land in the Far East, to liberate Poland, and above all to establish a strong and united postwar Europe—were swept aside at Tehran by Roosevelt and Stalin,” Wilson writes. The world surely would have been different had it been otherwise, for, as Wilson argues early on, Britain, though conservative and monarchical, championed the ideals of personal liberty while supposedly revolutionary Russia and Germany destroyed them; though a few tried to assume the roles, Britain spawned no Hitler or Mussolini or Stalin of its own to struggle to keep its empire, and democracy endured. Throughout, Wilson writes appreciatively, and without false sentimentality, of the old England of bicycles and weekend picnics and Agatha Christie.
A lucid companion to The Victorians (2003), and a fine work of social history of a world gone by.