Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Britain, Europe and the World 1850-1982

Book Cover

Book Title

Britain, Europe and the World 1850-1982: Delusions of Grandeur. London: George Allen & Unwin (Publishers) Ltd., 1983


Porter, Bernard


Through the approach of diplomatic history, Porter aims to examine Britain’s relations with Europe and the world in the period roughly from the 1840s to the early 1980s, when the book was published. The book focuses almost exclusively on Britain’s foreign service and the domestic social and economic circumstances which shaped its policies. Crucially, Porter notes that, more so in Britain than in any other European nation, trade was vital to national life and therefore disproportionately colored foreign policy decisions. Contextually, he also discusses the reasons for the rise of the British empire and for its pre-eminence as a “modern” nation in the 19th century, arguing that these factors also sowed the seeds of destruction and ultimately caused Britain’s material decline in the 20th century. While most books on diplomatic history acknowledge that diplomacy is inextricably tied to economics, Porter goes one step further in asserting that it was Britain’s economic structure that led to its fall.

Porter calls his work an “interpretive essay” and a “hypothesis”. Even though he argues that the very nature of British society and economy in the 19th century was the cause for its predicament in present day, he also clarifies that he is not proposing a “constructive lesson” for the 20th century. Because he attributes Britain’s decline to something inherent, he also implies that human agents do not have to take responsibility for it—that they were the “prisoners of events” rather than authors of them.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

Porter opens the book with an introduction to the heyday of the Victorian period, in which Britain saw herself as having surpassed the other European nations on the “modernity” track. Its foreign policy was thus conducted on this overwhelming sense of favorable imbalance. He moves through the next century in thematic blocks: the doubts and fears that accompanied the financial crisis from 1870 to 1895, the lead-up to World War I until 1914, the eras of World War I and II, and finally, the “revolutionary” period of 1945 to 1982—revolutionary in that Britain had been made dependent on other powers.

Porter’s area of interest is Britain’s interactions with the rest of the world; therefore, everything is viewed from an exclusively British perspective. He makes only touch-and-go references to other European leaders and to Britain’s colonies around the world; indeed, he makes casual references to Britain’s own leaders, being more interested in a general, thematic overview of attitudes and policies rather than an in-depth analysis of each minister’s reign. Although the book is not about empires per se, imperialism, whether in the form of trade expansion or military annexation, ultimately occupies a large part of the discussion. The book provides insight on how Britain’s various domestic and regional concerns shaped her approach to Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

Porter’s overarching argument is that the nature of British society and economy doomed it to its eventual decline in the 20th century. Crucially, it relied on a lack of military conflict in order to expand: its commitment to economic liberalism meant low taxation and regulation, which in turn implied that it could afford little more than a token army. In peacetime, its expansion was unlimited through the tools of trade and commerce. Pacifism was in its material interests, and aggressive approaches were only a last-resort means to safeguarding its investments. But the World Wars destroyed the principal condition of such expansion, and Britain was left with a severe case of imperial overstretch: it had far too much territory to defend.

Porter also points out that by the mid-Victorian period, Britain no longer saw expansion in terms of national prestige; rather, the world was a market, and everything was measured in terms of its economic utility. Britain never wanted to take up more responsibility than it was worth, and it accepted colonial duties only with a sense of reluctance and economic necessity. Instead it preferred to exert its influence “cheaply”, i.e. not through expensive military campaigns, but through trade. Furthermore, Britain saw the opening up of new markets in colonies as a service to the world, and assumed that such trade ties were desired by all—there would be no need for military coercion because, theoretically at least, there was no reason for resistance. According to the logic of free enterprise capitalism, self-interest and general interests were the same. Britain’s penetration of overseas colonies was ironically the “antithesis of force”. This policy was notably lacking in exclusivity and was highly internationalist: Britain sought to erode national barriers in the creation of a single world economy.

Annotated by Jennifer Yip