The fate of Britain has seemingly hung in the balance for decades, subject to countless studies and confident predictions of its inevitable demise. Few countries have been subjected to such constant critical scrutiny or come so close to the brink of dissolution.
The ‘end of Britain’ must count as one of the burning issues of our times, yet it has become so familiar that we tend to lose sight of the gravity, and indeed the urgency of the situation. The contemporary challenges to British identity emerge in a whole new light when viewed through the lens of global history, incorporating the much wider collapse of British sentiment in the twentieth century that not only spelt the end of Britain as a global civic idea, and but also ignited the slow fuse of speculation about the fate of unitary sentiment in the UK. The contemporary exertions of Northern Irish republicans or Scottish and Welsh nationalists form part of a much wider entanglement of post-imperial affinities. Indeed, they are arguably the last in a long succession of peoples and cultures that have grappled with the creeping obsolescence of shared allegiances, on a scale arguably never seen before in world history.
In this second Anthony Gwilliam Annual Lecture, Stuart Ward will make the case for treating the long, protracted demise of British sentiment as a matter of historical record, particularly in those parts of the world that have largely relinquished their former British loyalties. Though the full implications in the UK remain to be seen, there is no reason why we should not start addressing the matter as ‘history’ – and more specifically, as global history.
Professor Stuart Ward is a global historian specializing in the liquidation and enduring legacies of the British empire. His work encompasses not only the former colonies and dominions that once fell within the empire’s sway, but also the political, cultural, and psychological implications of decolonization in Britain itself. His recent book, United Kingdom: A Global History of the End of Britain, is the culmination of ten years traversing the globe to uncover the many ways that Britishness was imagined, experienced, disputed and ultimately discarded in the long aftermath of the Second World War.