Politics & Policy

The Course of Empire

A new book covers Britain’s colonial era from the absorption of Ireland to the start of the empire’s unraveling.

The 19th-century United Kingdom is to the modern reader half familiar and half foreign. We recognize it through the profusion of period books and movies that captivate audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Some of the issues of the time also jibe with our own — free trade, immigration, and military involvement overseas. In other ways, however, the period is utterly alien, with rampant imperialism (literal imperialism, not its 21st-century shadow) being the biggest departure.

In Victorious Century, historian David Cannadine takes the reader on a rapid march through this period in British and Irish history, describing the social, political, and military trends that saw the transformation of the United Kingdom from a world power to the preeminent power on the globe. Beginning at Britain’s modern nadir in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, Cannadine narrates the U.K.’s progress from the Act of Union of 1800, which united Ireland with Britain, through the economic and colonial boom that left the nation, by 1906, ruling nearly a quarter of the world’s population.

The theme that emerges throughout this volume is that of a nation increasingly successful abroad but riven by dissent at home. While divisions between rich and poor and urban and rural were as present in Britain in this period as they were in all industrializing nations, the most serious split stemmed from the unhappy absorption of Ireland into the newly united kingdom.

Viewed in England as just one step in the gradual consolidation of lands conquered centuries before, the Act of Union was, to Ireland, a further destruction of its national identity. England’s earlier merger with Scotland in 1707 followed a century-long union of the crowns of those two former enemies, which had come together through inheritance, not war. By the time their parliaments merged, the two English-speaking Protestant nations had spent years peacefully coexisting and pursuing similar goals as their ruling classes mingled and intermarried.

Not so Ireland. The Irish parliament that voted for its own demise in 1800 was one in which only Protestants could sit, and for whose members only wealthy Protestants could vote. That, in itself, was not so different from the pre–Reform Act Parliament at Westminster, but given that roughly nine in ten Irishmen were Roman Catholic, the lack of representation was unmistakable. The coerced union with an unwilling people meant that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was fatally flawed at the inception. Ireland’s legislative conquest was the union’s original sin, one that would mar the domestic political scene time and again.

As Cannadine takes pains to note, British motivations here were not as nefarious as they might appear. Taking place after the recent loss of Britain’s American colonies, and in the face of French-inspired rebellion in Ireland, the Act of Union could be seen primarily as a war measure, meant to further unite a realm under siege from Napoleon and his allies. Also implicit in the act was the promise by the prime minister, William Pitt, to seek Catholic emancipation — treating members of that faith as equals in the British Isles for the first time since the Reformation.

Victory over Napoleon and the continuing Industrial Revolution meant increased security and prosperity for the United Kingdom.

Events intervened, as they tend to do. Union was popular with the aristocracy in both kingdoms, but emancipation was not. For the Anglo-Irish elite, it promised a loss of control over the quasi-colonial realm. For the staunch Anglicans of the Tory party in England, it presaged a degradation of the religious settlement that had held sway since the Glorious Revolution of 1688. King George III, the head of the Church of England, was steadfastly opposed to Catholic relief, and the measure never found majority support in the new, united Parliament. Pitt resigned shortly thereafter. As Cannadine writes: “He was the first British Prime Minister to fall over what would become known as the ‘Irish Question’; but he would not be the last.” The question of union with Ireland would bedevil every British government from then until Irish independence in 1922.

In the meantime, victory over Napoleon and the continuing Industrial Revolution meant increased security and prosperity for the United Kingdom. The political system that we know today had its roots in that time, as loose affiliations in Parliament gradually became the Tory and Whig parties. Tories found their support in rural areas and among landowners and Anglicans, while Whigs were more popular in towns, with the Celtic fringe, and among “non-conformists” — Protestants who did not belong to the Church of England. While the divisions were more tribal and less ideological than today, Tories (the predecessors of today’s Conservative party) were, in Cannadine’s words, “more committed to the established order [and] firm government,” while Whigs (who later became Liberals) were “more willing to entertain ‘liberal’ ideas.”

Another factor in government was the Crown, which, much more than today, played a role in the selection of the prime minister. Britain’s unwritten constitution now mandates that the Queen invite the leader of the largest party to form a government, but Elizabeth’s ancestors had far more latitude. That discretion, combined with the number of members who sat more or less as independents, meant that personal preference often dictated who would form (or attempt to form) the government of the day. The result was that governments formed under Queen Victoria were often short-lived, resting on minority support in Parliament.

The theme of union-versus-disunion spreads along with the empire in the long 19th century. The growth of “settler colonies” (i.e., those populated mostly by British and Irish emigrants rather than native peoples) meant that the question of responsible governance was repeated around the world. Balancing integration with the mother country and the universal desire for self-government was never easy to answer. The relentless acquisition of Indian and African colonies, in which white settlers were a vanishingly small minority, further complicated the issue.

In contrast with hyper-rational theories of government that delighted continental radicals, Britain’s system of colonization had no overarching scheme. Colonial affairs were the subject of a minor portfolio in the Cabinet, and the running of things was often outsourced to private corporations, as in the case of the British East India Company. The monopolies tended to be more rapacious than the government, which is how the EIC ended up owning half the subcontinent and fielding a quarter-million-man private army. When company excesses finally led to rebellion in 1857, the U.K. government reluctantly assumed direct control of India.

Colonial affairs were the subject of a minor portfolio in the Cabinet, and the running of things was often outsourced to private corporations, as in the case of the British East India Company.

That reluctance, perhaps, is overplayed in Cannadine’s telling. While it is true that Parliament never directed companies and colonial adventurers to conquer nearby lands, they always accepted the fruits of those efforts. The non-British reader could be forgiven for viewing Britain’s profession of reluctance with a gimlet eye. One unexpected annexation of a native Indian kingdom could be seen as an accident, but when the pattern is repeated time and again, and the men who carried out the invasions are rewarded instead of punished, one begins to suspect that the British government was less hesitant about its hegemony than it professed to be.

Ireland continued to cause trouble as the unloved stepchild of the kingdom. Emigration accelerated after the Great Famine, and boycotts and guerrilla campaigns expressed Irish discontent beyond the ballot box, while Conservatives and Liberals divided on how to reconcile Irish voters to the union. Liberals, typically, went further in their efforts to placate the people there, disestablishing the (Protestant) Church of Ireland and broadening the franchise. But Liberal prime minister William Gladstone’s proposal for Home Rule in Ireland (a more extreme version of what is now called devolution) split the party and cost the Liberals the next several elections.

By the 1880s, Britain’s world-bestriding possessions were the envy of lesser imperial powers, but there was nonetheless the feeling at home that internal division foretold the empire’s destruction. In this, 19th-century Britons were not so different from 21st-century Americans. Every successful empire thinks it is Rome and, in our arrogance, we always think that our own time is the crucial one, the moment before a fall becomes inevitable.

Decadence is a constant theme in such discussions, and so it was in Britain, where comparisons to Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were rampant. But even more so, the question of integration versus disintegration was paramount. Even as the empire grew more diverse, British nationalism became more popular, as did the Conservative party, which embraced the theme more thoroughly than the Liberals did. Among non-British parts of the empire, nationalism had the opposite effect, driving Irish voters into a nationalist third party and stirring independence desires in India.

Joseph Chamberlain began his political career as a Liberal but split from the party over Home Rule. As he moved from radicalism to alliance with the Conservatives, Chamberlain became a fierce advocate for acquisitions abroad to protect and consolidate what the United Kingdom already controlled — what Cannadine calls a “defensive and pessimistic” form of nationalism, more concerned with fending off competitors than with any positive vision of empire. For a positive vision, Chamberlain instead called for greater integration of the settler colonies. Here, the past and present of the Irish question stopped the movement in its tracks. The alienation of the Irish voter meant that nearly all the MPs from that island were third-party nationalists, making any stable government majority difficult to maintain. More important, the precedent of Ireland’s being subordinated to England made clear the course that history would take if Canada or Australia were to yoke their trade policies with Westminster, let alone consider deeper political mergers. Although these colonies remained loyal to Queen and country, none of them wanted to see their people coerced and their land occupied as Ireland had been.

Cannadine draws an end to the period with the general election of 1906, which saw the Liberals swept back into power for the first time in 20 years. The landslide marked the end of an era that had seen sweeping change across the Isles and the world. One of the few criticisms of this book must be in how much of this transformation the author seeks to describe; even at 624 pages, the volume feels cramped. Another hundred pages might have allowed greater background and context about the people and events it describes.

That is a minor complaint about a book that tells a fascinating tale with engaging prose and intriguing themes. In his even-handed analysis, Cannadine does not find the British Empire to be without fault, nor does he engage in the needless iconoclasm that is so much en vogue among modern historians. This book is British history at its height, as it was, and well worth reading.