The British Empire was, like the industrial revolution, essentially an English phenomenon. It is a myth that the Empire was largely run by Celts, especially Scots. It was overwhelmingly staffed by the English, as the difference in population between England and the rest of the UK would suggest. The Celts may have been represented disproportionately to their proportion of the British population, but they were still very much in a minority amongst the British in the Empire.
Practically, there were two Empires. The first including the American colonies, ended in the first half of the nineteenth century and was primarily driven by trade and political competition between the major western European powers, all of whom lived in fear of the other gaining European ascendency through their passion of colonies which were seen as a source of wealth and hence power. The clichéd idea that Britain obtained an Empire in a fit of absent mindedness really will not stand up. England sought an empire consciously in the seventeenth century because they feared the power of other colonising nations, particularly Spain. The second developed from the 1830s and forties when colonisation began to be seen officially as primarily a duty rather than a political or commercial enterprise,
Trade not plunder was the engine of the early Empire. The American colonies became England’s largest overseas trading partner. England’s relations with India were primarily those of a trading nation until Clive’s victories in the mid eighteenth century. It was not until the second English empire that the imperial ideal became dominant.
As for overall material gain from the Empire, it is a moot point whether the Empire from start to finish turned a profit. The Boer War, for example, cost Britain £200 million pounds at 1900 prices when Britain’s GDP was approximately £2 billion. If the same proportion (10%) of today’s GDP (2010) was devoted to a war, the expenditure would be in excess of £147 billion.
David Landes in the “Wealth and Poverty of Nations” dismisses the claim that colonialism was the primary cause of the wealth of European powers or their cultural offshoots such as the United States, by pointing to inconvenient facts such as the experience of Spain, the greatest power in Europe between 1500 and 1650, and Portugal. Despite the immense wealth generated by their American possessions, as societies they remained poor even during their period of greatest material gain from the Americas. Nor did their rulers achieve financial respectability – the Spanish Crown managed to go bankrupt in 1557, 1575 and 1597. As for the slave trade, one may point to the wealth of Britain at the time of abolition and in the century which followed. In 1807 Britain’s GNP was approximately £200 million pounds. By 1914 in was over £2 billion pounds. (Prices in 1807 and 1914 were approximately the same as far as these things can ever be judged) At most, Mr Landes allows that the wealth received by Britain from the slave trade, India and the Americas may, but only may, have slightly accelerated the first Industrial Revolution.
Whether Empires are ever morally justified is a moot point. I must confess to veering instinctively towards Gibbon’s view of the matter, namely that great empires are to be regretted because they impose uniformity and allow a man no escape from +a government which he cannot either tolerate or be tolerated by. But my head tells me that in practice the harshest and most morally obnoxious societies are those which are based on Oriental despotism, dynastic kingship or primitive tribal association. The British Empire mainly ruled over peoples who before the British came behaved in a manner which would appal latter-day liberals..
What is certain is that compared with every other empire ancient and modern, the British Empire was a model of restraint and in its final century, of deliberately benign government. For those who would dispute the matter, let them consider the cruelty of the French in Algiers in the decade prior to Algerian independence or the Chinese now in Tibet.
The British Empire gave a great deal, both material and moral to those it ruled. The humane values to which the Commonwealth pays at least lip service to as the defining values of a civilised state, are English values. It may even be that in the long run the representative institutions which have been so perverted in many of Britain’s ex-colonies will bear the fruit of democratic rule. Political institutions do not guarantee democratic ways, but they do provide the opportunity if times become more propitious.
Perhaps the most amazing fact about the Empire is the small number of Britons who were involved in the administration of colonies. The subcontinent is perhaps the best example. At the height of the Raj, the 1921 census of the Indian Empire (which included Burma and the states which became Pakistan and Bangladesh) shows a total population of 318,492,480. The total British (white) population was 115,606. This represents 0.036% of the population or one white for every 275 Asians. The 2001 UK census shows approximately 2,083,759 residents of Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi origin. (www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=273). This represents 3.6% of the official population of Britain in 2001, or one subcontinental Asian for every 28 whites. The British figures are understated because of illegal immigration and the fact that the census relied on self-reporting of racial type. In addition, the Asian population has grown since 2001. Nonetheless, using the 2001 census figures, If immigrants from the subcontinent were in Britain in the same proportion as the British were in the subcontinent, their numbers would be approximately 21,000 as opposed to the two million plus which are now resident. (These comparative figures also show how unreasonable it is to try justify sub-continental immigration to Britain on the grounds that Britons colonised the sub-continent. The British in India did not swamp the native population anywhere because they were in such tiny numbers. The numbers of sub continental Asians and their descendants in Britain is large enough to allow what is effective colonisation of parts of the country).
The Empire was a most remarkable phenomenon in its scope, disparate nature and, until the advent of the steamship, its utterly daunting lines of communication in vessels most men would not now trust for a trip across the Channel. At its height it covered approximately a quarter of the world’s population, drawn from the four quarters of the earth. It was the only world empire ever worthy of the name. It will probably be the last because the political, material and technological circumstances of the world are never again likely to be conducive to such dominion.
As a coda, I would add that the existence of the Commonwealth, which is a voluntary association of states, is unique. Never in the whole of history have the past members of an Empire so immediately and willingly associated themselves with their erstwhile imperial masters.