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A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire (2002)

by Simon Schama

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961415,083 (4.01)1
'While Britain was losing an empire, it was finding itself...' The compelling opening words to The Fate of the Empire, set the tone and agenda for the final stage of Simon Schama's epic voyage around Britain, her people and her past. Spanning two centuries, crossing the breadth of the empire and covering a vast expanse of topics - from the birth of feminism to the fate of freedom - he explores the forces that shaped British culture and character from 1776 to 2000.The story opens on the eve of a bloody revolution, but not a British one. The French Revolution never quite crossed the Channel, though its spirit of fiery defiance and Romantic idealism did, sparking off a round of radical revolts and reforms that gathered momentum over the coming century - from the Irish Rebellion to the Chartist Petition. The great question of the Victorian century was how the world's first industrial society could come through its growing pains without falling apart in social and political conflict. Would the machine age destroy or strengthen the institutions that held Britain together, from the family to the farm? And if the British Empire helped to make Britain stable and rich, did it live up to its promise to help the ruled as well as the rulers? On the way to answering these questions, The Fate of the Empire makes stops at both celebrations, like the Great Exhibition, and catastrophes, like the Irish potato famine and the Indian Mutiny. Amidst the military and economic shocks and traumas of the 20th century, and through the voices of Churchill, Orwell and H. G. Wells, it asks the question that is still with us - is the immense weight of our history a blessing or a curse, a gift or a millstone around the neck of our future?It is a vast compelling epic, made more so by the lively storytelling and big bold characters at the heart of the action. But alongside flamboyant heroes, like Nelson and Churchill, Schama recalls unsung heroines and virtually unknown enemies. Alongside the grand ideas, he exposes the grand illusions that cost untold lives. Schama looks head on at the facts and asks, 'What went wrong with the liberal dream?' The answers emerge in The Fate of the Empire, which reveals the living ideals of Britain's long history, 'a history that tied together social justice with bloody-minded liberty'.… (more)
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Showing 4 of 4
Of the three volumes of A History of Britain, this one, for me, is easily the most interesting. Simon Schama's approach through all three has been to avoid a chronology of events and focus instead on themes and especially people. In this volume, and the title is a clue, the primary focus is around empire, which extends to include Britain and Ireland as a nation. Links are made between the Irish potato famine, the Scottish clearances and the famines of India. Simon Schama explores the motivations of the political elites in these scenarios, which, to modern minds, can seem incomprehensible, even unforgivable. There's little of Niall Ferguson's exploration of the counter-factual of the British in India, much more of how India was exploited to the benefit of Britain (an example might be the establishment of the railways to improve the economy of India for years to come, or, arguably, to allow food exports to Britain and troops to be moved more efficiently).

In the latter part of the book, Churchill understandably features prominently. The great, flawed, politician with his belief that the empire would outlast the post WW2 period, but who also was pivotal in guiding the country away from appeasement of Hitler and the likely consequences for Britain as some kind of subsidiary state.

The the whole topic of empire is often treated emotively, with anything from fond nostalgia to abhorrence. Simon Schama presents a critical and largely unsentimental view. Definitely worth a read! ( )
  peterjt | Feb 20, 2020 |
Thin. ( )
  timspalding | Jun 17, 2017 |
There's history read mostly for entertainment. And then there's history that's not escapist at all, that brings to mind the struggles of the day. This is history definitely in the latter category.

The subject of the book may be British imperial history, especially in Ireland and India, but the particulars of that history remind one of all the great debates the world has been having since the Englightenment. Or, more precisely, all the competing philosophies that people have killed, rioted, and rebelled for throughout most of the world in the last 250 years: equality vs freedom, economic security vs dynamism, rule by oligarch or by democracy, universal vs limited franchise, imperialism vs national self-determination. The debate over the aesthetics of the environment are even represented as Schama shows throughout the book, from beginning to end, how political the act of perceiving and traveling through the English countryside has been in the book's years.

But this book, even though it touches on all those issues, isn't detailed enough to provide any conclusive answers to any side of those arguments. And Schama acknowledges that up front, that this is even more of a collection of personal essays on Britain than a detailed history. To be sure, you do get an overview of British history up through WWII. To an American like me, it was nice to see some details about the actual philosophies of Disraeli and Gladstone, that Winston Churchill was not the stereotypical conservative that some Americans imagine him to be, Prince Albert's contribution to Victoria's reign, the controversies of rule in Ireland and India. Still, I got the sense I was exposed to some elliptical references that only an educated Brit would know. Like many general histories, though, it left an appetite for learning more details.

But I'm going to be viewing a bibliography so heavy with titles from the 1990s with suspicion. Especially when I see Schama repeating that hoary feminist myth about a legal "rule of thumb" sanction for husbands to beat their wives. A running theme is the use of British history from Macauley to Winston Churchill and George Orwell, how their perceptions of what the British past was guided their visions for the future, their notions of what war must preserve. I said in my review of the preceding volume in the series that Schama calls himself a "born-again Whig". He didn't just mean subscribing, in part, to a great man of history. (Though you can find that in his portrayal of the great, contradictory Churchill and his defense of the man, warts and all.) He makes clear he mostly means Macauley's notion of an empire bringing democratic liberalism to the world, teaching its subjects, and then releasing them to become brothers in a common culture.

Schama well-nigh rhapsodizes about this gift of empire at the end. In some ways, this book reminded me of Niall Ferguson's Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order and the Lessons for Global Power. Both attempt to rehabilitate the empire while acknowledging its often emphasized downsides. Unlike the preceding volume, Schama lists many crimes of the British Empire. If he doesn't genuflect at the altar of Imperial Guilt, he pauses for several moments of silence. Unlike Ferguson, he doesn't quite come out and say it was, as a whole, all worth it. Still, Schama approvingly notes we get lovely Indian novels in English, West Indians in London, and Pakistanis breathing liberty in the Sceptred Isle.

Schama's notion of what it means to be British is not a racial notion. He explicitly rejects that. It is what, in American terms, is called a proposition nation. While I appreciated the details of British history Schama gave me, I don't buy this notion of nationhood, a notion that Schama is so passionate about that he lapses, at book's end, into a brief, uncharacteristic bit of incoherence. Empires less liberal than Britain seem to have had trouble with diverse populations. Mass immigration, democracy, and multiculturalism are as unsustainable a combination in Britain as anywhere else. And Enoch Powell, deliverer of the infamous 1968 "Rivers of Blood" speech against mass immigration, now seems less the paranoid ranter of Schama's description and more of a Cassandra. ( )
1 vote RandyStafford | Jan 23, 2012 |
Yet another valuable volume in the series of companion books to Schama's television series. With this book Schama (and potentially some fellow authors) flesh out the details that did not fit into the allocated space of the television series.
While everyone has their favourite characters or areas they will know more about, as someone with a general interest I found this volume to be as interesting as it was historically sound. I particularly enjoyed the sections on Queen Victoria and utilitarianism. ( )
  ForrestFamily | May 21, 2009 |
Showing 4 of 4
The final section of the book is a brilliant, essayistic look at modern Britain through the lives of two men, Winston Churchill and George Orwell. Schama does more with these two well-worn lives than one could have imagined. In particular, he uses Orwell to tell the story of Britain's fall from superpower and its resurrection as a less glorious but vibrant and modern nation. In these last chapters one can see clearly that this is not an angry account of Britain but a realistic one. In seeing his country warts and all, Schama is able to paint an affectionate and human picture of a country to which he is still deeply attached.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Fareed Zakaria (Jul 19, 2011)
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