Why the British Empire Is Shrinking

It wasn’t just Elizabeth II, officially “by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith,” who died September 8.

Within days of her death, debate began in several former British colonies to renounce all ties to the British monarchy and declare themselves republics.

Here in the United States, it’s hard to ignore the non-stop press fawning over the queen and royal family. But in Britain’s former colonies, her death has reopened old wounds that Elizabeth managed to keep mostly closed in her 70-year reign.

At the end of World War I in 1918, more than 450 million people lived under some measure of British control, amounting to about one-fifth of the world’s population. Indeed, only 22 countries ultimately escaped invasion or occupation by Great Britain.

But there was a steep price paid by those living under British rule. An economist in India claims that the British monarchy extracted today’s equivalent of $45 trillion in wealth from the Indian subcontinent during two centuries of colonial domination. Not to mention the deaths of 800,000 Indians at the hands of British soldiers in the 1857 “Indian Mutiny” and the starvation of at least 12 million others, including at least three million in the 1943 Bengal famine.

That year, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s cabinet ordered rice be exported from India to elsewhere in the British Empire despite being warned that widespread starvation would be the likely result. For his part, Churchill blamed the famine on Indians “breeding like rabbits.”

Then there was Britain’s crucial role in the trafficking of African slaves to North America and the Caribbean. Between 1514 and 1866, British ships transported more than three million slaves to this region. Indeed, in 1713, after a war with Spain, Queen Anne of England and King Philip V of Spain signed a treaty giving the British a 30-year monopoly on transporting slaves from Africa to Spanish colonies in the Americas.

Conditions on slave ships were brutal, and between 12% and 25% of slaves died onboard. Most who survived were put to work on sugar cane plantations. Slaves worked long hours in the field supervised by overseers equipped with whips and guns. Many were literally worked to death; it was cheaper for plantation owners to buy new slaves than to improve working and living conditions.

Still, while the British colonial legacy was harsh, it also brought benefits. The colonial administrators orchestrated the building of roads, the construction of railway networks, and established common law courts. These courts often replaced tribal or religious courts. In many countries, common law was recognized as providing fairer results in disputes than the legal system it replaced. Because of its virtues, along with the overwhelming strength of the British military, common law spread throughout the world.

But at best, the British colonial period is remembered as a mixed legacy. Yet the British monarch, now King Charles III, remains the head of state in most Caribbean countries: Antigua & Barbuda, the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Saint Kitts & Nevis, and Saint Vincent & the Grenadines. He’s also the monarch of Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, along with the Pacific island nations of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and Tuvalu.

As head of state, Charles’ representatives in these countries, called governor generals, have important constitutional duties, including approving new governments. They must also sign off on all legislation and in some countries, appoint senior officials. These duties are mainly symbolic but remain necessary for a government to assume power or for a bill to become law.

But the number of countries in which the British monarch is the head of state is shrinking. Last year, the parliament of Barbados voted to sever ties with Britain and become a republic. At the ceremony in which the newly appointed president was sworn in, Prince Charles – now King Charles III – acknowledged the “appalling atrocity of slavery” from which Barbados had suffered.

Several other countries are also considering renouncing their ties to the British monarchy. Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua & Barbuda, has announced a referendum on whether his country should become a republic as well. Other Caribbean nations are also considering severing their ties to the crown, including the Bahamas, Belize, Grenada, and Saint Kitts & Nevis. And only hours after Elizabeth’s death, the Australian Green Party announced its renewed support for the country to also become a republic.

Meanwhile, in Great Britain itself, more than one-quarter of its citizens want to abolish the monarchy altogether. That number could grow quickly if Charles proves to be an unpopular king. That almost seems inevitable given the contrast between the opulent living standards the royal family enjoy and the increasingly dire conditions that ordinary British citizens are enduring. Inflation is surging, partly in response to the British government’s decision to phase out Russian energy imports. Neither Charles nor his mother had any role in making that decision, but they’ll find it hard to escape resentment for the hardships it’s causing. Not to mention the fact that King Charles oversees a $42 billion royal portfolio and inherited $500 million from his mother – all tax-free.

Moreover, Great Britain could cease to exist in the form it has since 1707, if renewed calls for Scottish independence come to pass. In 2014, Scottish voters narrowly rejected a proposal to end that union. Had it been approved, Great Britain – the union of England, Scotland, and Wales – would have shrunk by nearly half. And Scotland’s leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, has announced a second referendum on Scottish independence to take place in October 2023.

It’s easy for Americans, separated by an ocean from Great Britain, to say “good riddance” to these developments. But that would be a mistake, for the demise of the British Empire might foreshadow future developments in the United States.

After all, the “land of the free” has active-duty military troops stationed in 159 countries. It also has around 750 military bases in 80 countries. More than 170,000 military personnel are stationed at these bases.

Since 1945, US armed forces have intervened in foreign conflicts 211 times in 67 countries. American participation in wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan is well-known, but there have been countless other interventions. They’ve helped support a de facto American empire in which the dollar is the world’s reserve currency and military force is available to quell threats to its supremacy.

And while some people might prefer it remain unsaid, the continued existence of this empire is hardly preordained. It’s hard to forget the chilling scenes from Afghanistan last year when the US military abandoned the country after the government Uncle Sam supported was overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists.  

No empire lasts forever. As the dollar trades near a 20-year high, those fortunate enough to have reaped the benefits of “dollar diplomacy” would be wise to consider international diversification – whether it be an offshore bank account or a second passport – just in case.

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