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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

“The Rise and Fall of the British Empire”, by Lawrence James

720 pages, St. Martin’s Press, ISBN-13: 978-0312140397
Lawrence James makes a straight factual narrative of the empire, neither going the neoimperialist apologist route nor the leftist postmodernist road, emphasizing both its achievements and its darker moments. He does have an interesting style in introducing some of the chapters by describing certain paintings, poems, popular songs and novels of the time to that symbolized Britain at that point in time. James both writes well and covers all the essentials – the big players, issues, and events – in a logical manner. He provides a good balance of historical fact, analysis, and opinion that gives the reader the ability to appreciate the creation and growth of the Empire as well as is decline and both the human suffering and opportunities related to the Empire.
It is amazing to see how much history James packs into this one book, going all the way back to 1605. I most appreciated the work for how well James’ covers the 20th Century, especially WWII and post-WWII history; where most such histories spend too much time on the “rise” of the empire, James makes sure to cover its stagnation and decline, as well. American readers come away getting an excellent understanding of how WWI and WWII led to the financial problems that plagued Britain and made it so difficult to maintain an empire when the average Brit was having so much trouble at home. James opens our eyes to the paradox of the UK as a nuclear-armed world power, with military bases and power all around the world, but one experiencing serious post-WWII hardship (e.g., rationing, currency and import controls, the fall of the sterling zone, and the export or die necessity) that plagued the average Englishman. James covers the Suez debacle of 1956 extremely well as well as the Malaysian Emergency and the uprising in Kenya (his discussion of the Irish issue, home rule vs. independence vs. partition, is equally outstanding). Any American reading this will appreciate that while the Empire was in serious trouble after WWI and was undermined by WWII, the Empire didn't “end” with Indian independence in 1947; there was still a lot of life left in her and James brings those people, events and issues to life.
His discussion about the interaction of the UK’s military and political activities during WWII vis-a-vis the Dominions, esp. Australia, is most eye-opening for Americans. James does a great service showing how Britain interacted with the Dominions at a time of peril for the UK (1940-1942) that led to extreme danger for Australia (1942) and choices for Canada. We also understand how Australia and New Zealand are forced into America’s arms and the how and why the Dominions did what they did to save Empire and themselves. He then helps Americans understand how the dollar replaced the pound as the world’s reserve currency and why Britain and the Empire come to rely on American Lend Lease during WWII and the problems that arise due to the end of such financial help and America’s attempts at free trade and convertible currencies, at a time when the UK’s economy was almost 100% war-related and would take years and massive amounts of precious capital to convert back to peacetime (interrupted by the Korean War).
As with so many history books, this would’ve benefitted from more and better maps; I marvel at how an author can write so well about so much but then the publisher fails to include the sorts of ready helps that improve such a large work. Why no relevant lists of the names and dates of the sovereigns (kings/queens) as well as prime ministers and their political parties (for at least the UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and Canada)? How hard would it have been to create a chart or list showing the dates of the acquisition of each colony, dependency, or protectorate? Or when dominion or independence was granted? I kept wishing for a timeline chronology showing what was going on politically and culturally across the empire over the years. And given Churchill’s importance on so many issues for so long, why not a biographical chart showing the dates of all the various positions he held in various governments? But these failings do not undermine how readable and informative this great book is and how useful it will be in anyone's library as a reference work, both for what was written and its notes/bibliography.


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