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In Depth Analysis, not a narrative
on September 21, 2011
There has been a plethora of books regarding the British Empire in the last decade or so, some of them easily accessible to the general reader such as Niall Ferguson's Empire. There has been a number of reasons for this, much of which involves researchers looking back to history to draw parallels the Globalization of present day. (Examples include the decline of the American Superpower, the rise of a multi-polar world, global free trade and trade flows and the impact of technology (the telegraph, railways, etc.) on world trade and political development, British adventurism in the Middle East and Afghanistan).
But in terms of scholarship, much of the exciting new work has been thanks in great part to impetus provided the multi volume work - The Oxford History of the British Empire which drew a lot of academic interest into what was once seen as a stale subject or a dead horse that had been flogged one too many times.
Having read a number of books on the subject I must admit I wasn't sure what this brick of a book would add to the subject, and thus I was pleasantly surprised and hooked after reading the introduction. This book doesn't treat the British Empire as a monolithic entity nor does it delve into great depth into the personalities that created the Empire. Instead it analyses the Empire as a balance between its constituent parts which included the British Isles (which was a font of investment capital and emmigration to the other parts), India (which provided an army, revenues and security to the East) and the Dominions (which provided manpower and capital under an idea of a shared culture and identity) and a bunch of less important holdings. How unimportant the scramble for Africa was, was particularly revelatory.
It provides analysis as to how these various entities interacted and provided the stability for the Empire project to survive and continue through different crises until it ultimately came apart after the independence of India after the Second World War. It then concluded that without India and the Dominions drifting away into the US sphere of influence, there was no way to sustain the Empire project with just Britain and the other lesser holdings alone.
There is much here for someone who is looking for parallels with our present situation with analyses of global investment flows, the impact of technological change and the global political backdrop and interactions between major powers. However, although it states that it is a general history, it does presuppose a fair amount of familiarity with the material and might not be appropriate as a first text. but still an extremely important work - I am surprised that it has not been publicized more.