Impact of Imperialism on British Identity
In the nineteenth century and for much of the twentieth century, Britain's empire was so large that it was truly the global superpower. Much of Africa, Asia and America had been colonized. British tentacles had spread far and wide. The British concepts of culture, religion, health, sexuality, law and order were all imprinted on the colonized countries.
There is considerable debate as to whether British rule over its colonies was beneficial or not. There is also considerable debate as to whether the colonies contributed substantially to the British economy. Both these points are discussed, but very little literature is available as to what impact the British Empire had on the average British citizen.
The British Empire is a fact of history that cannot be wished away. The major architects of this empire were the British middle class. Doctors, scientists, geologists, explorers, soldiers, administrators, entrepreneurs got an opening that would have been ordinarily denied to them. This middle class was articulate in furthering British interests and at the same time they also had a reason to strive forward. The middle class supported the aristocracy, which in turn gave the middle class unfettered access to the colonies to work and earn. Many also did a lot of good. One can think of Dr David Livingston in Africa and the innumerable explorers and scientists who flocked to India to map the nation and set up new enterprises. Basically the colonies gave the middle class of Britain a chance of self expression.
The Empire instilled a sense of pride in the average Britishers. He began to feel that he was part of the chosen race to rule the world. Thus Kipling’s comment about the colonies as the ‘White Man’s Burden’ gained currency. For close to a 100 years till 1939, which can be considered as the hay day of the British Empire the average Britishers especially the middle class felt it was their god given right to rule the world. As a spinoff, a lot of good happened for the colonies cannot be questioned. One cannot forget that the entire Tibet was mapped by brave entrepreneurs guided by the officers of the Raj.
The working class in England however was not much involved with the empire. With the Industrial revolution sweeping Europe, the working class did not have much time to think of the empire, enmeshed as it was in its attempt to survive. That is the reason Karl Marx and his theory gathered steam.
In 1939, the first cracks appeared in the Empire with the consolidation of power by Adolf Hitler. Hitler lost the war, but he did enough to rupture the British psyche and destroy the British economy, where holding the colonies and the Empire became an extremely tenuous task. The Middle class cracked and Lord Attlee decided the time had come to dismantle the empire.
In 1945 Britain still nurtured the hope that the Empire could be saved, but a strong nationalist movement coupled with a poor economy at home spun the coin in favor of dismantling the empire. Many in Britain did not realize at that time that age of imperialism was over and the sun had set on the empire.