Did the British Empire actually exist?

We all know about the British Empire – that grand old institution responsible for colouring a quarter of the world map in pink, and providing a source of pride for those who love to stick one in the eye to the French, who never quite achieved the same level of global dominance and had to settle for second place in the pecking order. We have all read, heard, or watched programmes on how the British Empire industrialised the world, brought civilisation to undeveloped regions, and connected the globe with train tracks and telegraph lines. We know that Pax Britannica brought peace at the end of a battleship’s gun barrel, and that in its death-throws, the Empire provided a bulwark against the Nazi onslaught in Europe. Its legacy is evoked annually in an orgy of patriotism at the Last Night of the Proms, in which thousands of people who don’t really understand the Empire empty their lungs to sing about how the mighty power of the thirty four remaining British Naval attack vessels still hold the ability to protect citizens of the realm from hypersonic jet fighters, ICBMs, and nuclear weapons. Somewhat hopeful if you ask me, but a nice thought, nonetheless.

So, we all know that the British Empire existed. We learned about it in school, we read about it in textbooks, and we have watched television presenters run around excitedly like children who have eaten too much sugar talking hurriedly about ‘the events that shaped Britain’, or ‘the fifty greatest achievements of the British Empire’. We all know that the British Empire existed. But did it? Well, yes. But also no. And as I shall be arguing, slightly more no than yes.

To explore this subject, we will take a look at some of the key areas that may cast doubt on the entire existence of the British Empire. We will take a whistle-stop tour of some of the most important moments in its history and examine their validity in the grander narrative before taking a dive into the subject of what an empire actually is, and examine whether the British Empire satisfies analytical definitions. In summation we shall conclude whether or not the British Empire ever really existed, and consider if there is, perhaps, a better way to conceptualise it.

Before beginning, a very brief timeline of British history is useful to place the empire that we commonly speak of in its rightful place in the historical narrative. The first British Empire is not necessarily the one that you are thinking of, with its mighty ships and trading colonies spread around the world. Instead, it might well be attributed to the Roman military commander, Carausius, who instigated the very first Brexit back in 286 AD. Having split from Rome, he established a stable and peaceful realm spanning the length and breadth of the British Isles, complete with its own government and even mint. He appears to have been popular with the locals too, who took warmly to him after years of dissatisfaction with Roman rule. However, this first British Empire was not to last and in 293 AD, Carausius’s treasurer, Allectus, quite literally stabbed him in the back. Possessing neither the military nor the political skill of his former boss, Allectus saw the British Isles recaptured by Rome in 296 AD.

The next British Empire was the first with overseas reach. The Norman Empire, whose political power was consolidated in London in the decades following the 1066 conquest, had territory spanning from the Scottish borders to Italy, and as far afield as Antioch.

The Norman Empire would eventually evolve into the Angevin Empire, whose power could be equated to an expired battery and whose territory collapsed slowly and painfully like a badly conceived soufflé.

Which leads us to the roots of the British Empire that we all know and love.

It is a commonly ignored fact that centuries of failure preceded the establishment of the Empire. But our story really begins in 1497, when , in an attempt to emulate the success of the Spanish five years earlier, Henry the Seventh commissioned John Cabot to set sail in search of lands to settle. Ultimately his quest was unsuccessful, and no empire was founded. As was the case in 1578 when Martin Frobisher made similar attempts under the direction of Queen Elizabeth. In 1583, Sir Humphrey Hilbert was successful in founding the colony of St John’s in Newfoundland, but he and his companions were not fans of the cold, so only took up residence there in the summer. Roanoke was established in 1586, but the colonists mysteriously disappeared after one year. And Cuttyhunk was established in 1602, but abandoned after one month. Finally, on the 14th of May, 1607, after a one hundred and ten years of failed attempts under eight monarchs, Captain Christopher Newport founded Jamestown in what is modern day Virginia.
The following century was an entirely different story. Over fifty colonies, settlements, forts and trading posts were established, which surely demonstrates that the British Empire had arrived.

Except that, as those of us with healthy love of pedantry would point out, it hadn’t. Britain only lurched into existence in 1707 under the Act of Union, which tied together England and Scotland. No British Empire could exist prior to that point, because no political or national entity named Britain existed prior to that point. In fact, there is no commonly agreed nomenclature for the loose association of English possessions before 1707, and although the first, presumably aspirational, use of the term ‘British Empire’ appears to be in the mid seventeenth century, its usage did not significantly increase until the 1770s – right about the time that the debate about how Britain might best dispose of its expensive and unwieldy empire began.

Aha! You might think. But the British Empire did indeed exist from 1707 onwards, regardless of the technicalities of language!

Yes, that may be the case. However, the very construct of the Empire itself must be considered before allowing oneself to agree with that thought.

Much of the British empire was established through the grant of commercial charter and subsequent company rule. The most commonly known of these was the East India Company, which ran vast swathes of the Indian subcontinent between 1600 and its eventual collapse in 1874. However, the very first colony, Jamestown, was established itself by a company – the Virginia company. In fact, much of what became the Empire was gained following the establishment of territorial footholds by private companies, followed by subsequent emigration. And many territorial possessions would be held at arms-length throughout the existence of the Empire. Indeed, for the longest time, the greater part of the British Empire was only indirectly ruled, with a handful territories directly administered by the British government. This style of indirect rule could be compared with a school bully kindly offering to relieve a peer of their lunch money so that he did not have to give him a good beating; it is the projection of control, but it is not a genuine relationship. Yet, much as the size, longevity, and homogeneity of the British Empire has been greatly diminished by this avenue of argument, it still must be conceded that it did seem to exist from 1707 onwards.
If the start of the Empire seems convoluted, then its end is even messier. Suffice it to say that there are numerous arbitrary dates that one could stick a pin in as to its end point – the 1997 transfer of power in Hong Kong, or the end of British Rule in India in 1947, to name but two. However, after years of study into the subject I have accepted that the 1926 establishment of the Commonwealth provides the strongest claim to the end of the British Empire. Well, at very least the beginning of the end. Or the end of the beginning. In a nutshell, that those in the corridors of power had accepted by this point that the Empire had to be reorganised due to powerful economic arguments as to the advantages of laissez-faire and a generally disgruntled population, makes a compelling argument. That it stumbled on for a few more decades is, to me, largely irrelevant; after Mary had her head chopped off she kept blinking – that did not mean she was still alive.

So, 1707 to 1926, the British Empire existed. Hurrah! Two hundred and nineteen glorious years of Imperium Britannicum. If nothing else, we have put the claim that the British Empire did not exist to the test, and disproved it.

Or have we?

It would be more precise at this juncture to suggest that we have determined that an Empire existed with Britain in charge. But we have by no means confirmed what an empire actually is, much less whether the one we have been talking about was ruled by Britain. In order to do this, we must consult the fabulously pedantic scholarship of my hero, Alexander Motyl. And, should he ever come across this work, he must forgive my butchery of its intricate detail.

Motyl is an expert in the subject of what it means to call something an empire. Not for him was the suggestion that an empire is simply, ‘a collection of colonies ruled from the centre and separated by sea’, as many post-colonial American scholars have attempted to use in order to diminish the imperial mannerisms of the extant US state. First and foremost, as pointed out by Motyl, this would invalidate the claim that Austria-Hungary, due to its landlocked status, was an empire. Instead, Motyl defines an empire as peripheries connected to the metropole, where the metropole is able to project its political, economic, military, and cultural power upon the peripheries. It makes nothing of this being a formal arrangement, and accounts for the informal arrangement of empire as we have previously described. USA, take note. This definition of empire envisages it as in a hub-and-spokes arrangement, whereby everything flows through the central metropole, and there is limited interconnectivity between the peripheries. Of course, there will be some trade amongst them, and some cultural crossover. But the majority of interaction happens via the metropole.

Therefore, for the British Empire to exist in this capacity, it must pass four tests; did the political, economic, military, and cultural power flow via the metropole? Well, as tenuous as it might be given the informal arrangement of empire described earlier, political power certainly did flow from the periphery to the metropole. If anything, this is inextricably linked to the economic test in the case of the British Empire; private companies required royal permission or government mandate in order to pursue trade and establish colonies. The governor of Jamaica could not apply to the Viceroy of India for an adjustment to the laws there, everything had to be dealt with centrally. So one might well say that the political test is passed. Economically too, the metropole dominated global trade. The whole principle of the trading empire was to import raw materials to Britain, transform them into manufactured goods, and export them to the Empire at great profit. So without going in to vast amounts of detail, it is safe to say that the economic test is passed.

The military test is somewhat more complex. Although it was the government of the metropole that directed the majority of military action, the vast army of the East India Company and its successor, the British Raj, outnumbered that of the British Isles by quite some margin. So perhaps it might seem that the military test would not be passed. However, one must recall those flag-waving patriots at the Last Night of the Proms. It was not the terrestrial military that secured the military power of the British Empire – many European nations throughout the nineteenth century far outclassed the British with regards their ground armies. It was the Royal Navy, whose policy of maintaining a greater power than the two nearest rivals combined ensured the security of the Empire. As this projection of military power onto the periphery was at the direction of the metropole, we can say that the military test is passed.

The projection of cultural power from the metropole onto the periphery is a hugely complex topic – much more so than the other three tests. But if one considers the spread of only one aspect of British culture – the English language, then one can see the effects of cultural domination upon the Empire.
So, the British Empire passes the four tests of empirehood/empiredom/empiring…. Once again, hurrah! Yay! We can go back to waving our flags in celebratory ignorance of its negative side!

Or can we…?

We have without doubt confirmed that it existed between the years of 1707 and 1926 or there abouts, and we have confirmed that it passes the Motyl test of being an empire.
But we have yet to explore one key fact – possibly the most important of them all. Was the British Empire… the British Empire?

The Motyl tests are all well and good, but in the case of the British Empire, their use presupposes a monocultural homogeneity that simply does not exist with these British Isles. And it is that phenomenon that we must now explore.
Britain is infamous for its diversity, even prior to the incredible cultural and societal benefits brought about by modern immigration. For example, having recently moved from a big, metropolitan city to a village in rural South Yorkshire, I can barely recognise the language spoken by my neighbour as matching that spoken by myself. Indeed, when I first moved in, he informed another member of the local community that I must be, and I quote, ‘from somewhere abroad’, because I was such an alien entity to him.

It is this diversity that must be reconciled in relation to the British Empire to determine whether or not it really existed. Did the cotton merchant of Manchester, or the wool merchant of Leeds, or the ship builder of Glasgow, or the financier of London, all have the same agency to project their economic and cultural power upon the Empire? And if so, could they do so as part of one homogenous entity? Was Britain really the hub, and if not, what implications does that have for the existence of the British Empire?

Let us put the British Isles themselves to the Motyl tests; political, economic, military, and cultural.

Firstly, it is beyond doubt that the political power of Great Britain is, was, and pretty much always has been, centralised to within the geographic scope of a few streets in London. The regions of the nation have no power to negotiate with one another, and they have no right to grant one another new laws. Even the devolved governments of modern Britain have limited independent agency. Protests on every facet of political change invariably lead to London. Throughout history, even those protests whose mass gatherings happen elsewhere, such as the peasant’s revolt of 1381, result in petitions being delivered to within sight of the capital. On occasion, the government might engage in some kind of outreach program, sending the great and the good into the wilds of the provinces to pacify the locals, but this is never a great deal more than lip service.

It is a similar story economically. Of course, goods are manufactured, distributed, and exported from all regions of the nation. However, the permission to do so was and is granted by the government, situated in the capital. The laws that grant the right to trade spices in French Indochina, or place a special sticker on your electrical goods to say that they are fit for purpose are all created in the capital, and the laws governing the percentage of your profits you must hand over for the privilege of doing so are similarly centralised.
It goes without saying that almost every military decision undertaken by the British since the year dot has been taken by the government or crown, situated in the capital. Of course, the occasional civil war has broken out, but these are not the decisions of the nation or the empire, but individual choices that do not affect this argument.

Finally, on the subject of cultural power, although there has been a drive in recent years to diversify the creation centres away from London, it is clear where the cultural power of the nation truly lies. And this is not a modern phenomenon. Although Mendelssohn might have engaged in a jaunt across Britain in the 1820s and 30s, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and any number of great artists, musicians and performers hit the capital and remained there without seeing beyond the city limits. If a rare museum piece is to be shown in the country, it will be in London. If a rock god is to play one show only in the UK, it will almost always be in London. If an up and coming young artists wants to make it, they move to London. As much as we regional folk would hate to admit it, London drives the cultural heart of the nation.

With this in mind, how can it be claimed that a person in Inverness, Newcastle, or Carlisle is, was, or has ever been any more a part of the metropole of a great empire than an individual from Port Royal, Boston, or Melbourne? They are each as separated from the power of the metropole as one another.

I began this exploration by stating that the British Empire existed, and it did not. But it didn’t more than it did. And in summary, I believe this remains true. An empire existed with a metropole located within the British Isles, but it was by no means a British Empire. Instead, it was the Empire of London. It was London, not Britain, that projected its political, economic, military, and cultural power to, at its greatest extent, a quarter of the worlds landmass and population. One might be tempted to argue that the Empire of London could not possibly be a real thing, because England is too small to constitute an empire in and of itself. However, this is to dismiss the Aztec Empire, which was less than half the land size of England, and the Ashanti Empire, less than a fifth the size of England, as non-existent. Landmass does not define empire – if that were the case, there are many modern nations that would be classified as such today.

An Empire of London could even be argued to have pre-existed the 1707 entity that has been under discussion by 638 years – the moment when William the Conqueror consolidated his power in the South by harrying the North.

In conclusion, the British Empire did not exist. But over the centuries, a great empire did rise up from within the British Isles to rule across the globe. But it has been alarmingly misnamed. The Empire of London has existed since at least 1069. And as a final thought, by all of the tests put forward as to what constitutes an empire, it still exists to this day.