The acclaimed British historian meticulously traces every aspect of Britain from the Act of Union (with Ireland) in 1800 until the 1906 landslide by the Liberal Party.
There is a danger of getting bogged down in the details, but diligent readers will find plenty of enlightenment here. British Academy president Cannadine (History/Princeton Univ.; Margaret Thatcher: A Life and Legacy, 2017, etc.) follows the period called the Pax Britannica, when Britain avoided military entanglements with European powers between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I. England’s unique unwritten constitution provided the nation with an adaptable continuity while other nations were caught in the turmoil of revolution. In this period of tremendous upheaval in all the great European powers, Britain maintained government stability while engaging in unprecedented expansion. The Industrial Revolution and the Reform Act(s) enabled the country to wield a disproportionate influence over the affairs of the world. Revolutionary developments in industry and infrastructure encouraged population and agricultural booms as well as growth in the arts, writing in particular. However, at the same time, food prices rose, and exports were unreliable; there were bank panics and strikes by Luddites who feared the new mechanized looms. Of course, before all that could happen, England and other nations had to deal with Napoleon. By 1815, it had taken multiple coalitions of Dutch, German, Prussian, and Russian forces to defeat him. In the end, it was the Russian manpower and British economic advantage and naval supremacy that won the day. At that point, England had to pay the costs incurred in both the Napoleonic Wars and the American Revolution. Peace, new markets, income, property taxes, and customs and excise taxes helped tremendously. Territorial expansion was worldwide, with local governors deciding which areas to annex. Inevitably, the empire’s pre-eminence would buckle under its own far-flung reach. Ever adept, Cannadine shows us why and how it happened.
Dense but satisfying history of a time when “Britons were prodigiously energetic, industrious and creative, even as they were also in many ways a flawed and fallible people.”