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THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE by Lawrence James

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

By Lawrence James

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-312-14039-8
Publisher: St. Martin's

 A history of the British empire from its earliest swashbuckling days to the era of its maturity, when it buckled rather than swashed, by the biographer of Lawrence of Arabia (The Golden Warrior, 1993, etc.). At its height at the time of WW I, the empire covered a quarter of the earth's land surface and had a population of 425 million; now there are ``a few scarlet pinpricks on the globe.'' But James argues that the British empire ``transformed the world'' and believes that prime ministers Clement Attlee and Harold Macmillan and Colonial Secretary Iain Macleod were the ``real heroes of imperial retreat'' because of the political adroitness they showed in handling the process and because, unlike the empires of the other major colonial powers, the British empire ``did not dissolve in tears.'' In the course of its colonial history, Britain veered from lusty acquisition through gunboat diplomacy (Prime Minister Lord Palmerston's view being that ``half civilized governments . . . all require a dressing down every eight or ten years to keep them in order'') to an era when there was greater skepticism about the value of what Britain had brought to its colonies. James notes that the forces which led to the breakup of the empire were at work even before the massive blow to British prestige caused by her defeats in the Second World War. He is less clear about whether the great loss of life that accompanied decolonization in India could have been avoided or about why the subsequent history of so many of the colonies has been so unsatisfactory. He suggests that the growth of the Commonwealth, however little it may have accomplished, enabled the British to accept the loss of empire with greater equanimity. In sum, he believes that ``few empires have equipped their subjects with the intellectual wherewithal to overthrow their rulers. None has been survived by so much affection and moral respect.'' A worthwhile if not particularly innovative study. (24 pages photos, not seen)