When the British ruled much of the world, they had been famous for their provincialism—marching off into sweltering jungles, for example, wearing formal dress more suited to a London drawing-room. Ironically, as Britain let go of its colonies, it became a great deal more international. One reason was the influx of immigrants from former British holdings in the West Indies, Africa, and India. Another was the increasing power of the United States, whose policies Britain generally acceded to and whose culture had an overwhelming influence.
Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe changed as well, as the island nation forged strong links with its neighbors on the continent. In 1973, Great Britain entered the European Economic Community, and in 1992, the European Union; in 1994, it opened the Chunnel—a railway tunnel running underneath the English Channel, connecting Britain to France.
KEY IDEA Great Britain had an uneasy, often violent relationship with Ireland throughout the 20th century.
The “Irish Question”
One issue that bedeviled Britain all through this period was that of independence for Ireland. The Irish had never accepted English rule and so were faced with a dilemma when Great Britain entered World War I: should they fight to defend an empire they hated? Many Irish did fight for that empire; others took the opportunity to rise up against England in a bid for independence known as the Easter Rising of 1916. Although planned to be a nationwide rebellion, a series of mishaps led it to be confined to Dublin with only about 1,700 men taking part. In fact, at the time only a small portion of the Irish public had supported the rebellion, yet the extreme harshness of the British response whipped up support for the Irish nationalist cause, represented by the political party Sinn Fein and the Irish Republican Army.In 1921, after a long struggle, the British split Ireland into two self-governing dominions: the Irish Free State (later renamed the Republic of Ireland) and Northern Ireland. Independence for all but Northern Ireland was achieved in 1949; reunification has never been achieved. Nor has lasting peace for Northern Ireland. At first sporadic, ongoing outbursts of violence between Protestant and Catholic factions in Northern Ireland escalated through the years until the 1990s, when paramilitary groups ordered a cease-fire. However, the peace process has been slow-moving and tensions continue today.
Ideas of the Age
A spirit of nationalism dominated the 20th century, leading to the dissolution of the British Empire.
The Irish were not alone in their nationalist fervor. Throughout Europe and the European colonial empires, nationalism was the dominating spirit of the 20th c. This nationalism took many forms, from the peaceful demands of activist Mahatma Gandhi, leader of India’s independence movement, to the murderous ambitions of Hitler, who killed 11 million “racial undesirables,” including 6 million Jews, in a quest to “purify” Germany. The English themselves were fiercely patriotic, yet perceptive writers began to see the ugly side of their own country’s nationalism in such affairs as the Boer War, in which two independent South African republics were absorbed into the British Empire, mainly in order to acquire the area’s newfound gold.
After World War I, Britain’s grasp on its empire began to loosen as the spirit of nationalism increased in its far-flung holdings across the world. In turn, Britain granted ever greater degrees of self-determination to its subject lands. In 1926, British political leaders convened a conference at which Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand were made members of the British Commonwealth of Nations.In other words, these countries were now partners, not possessions, of Britain. In the decades after World War II, Britain yielded to nationalistic and economic pressures and relinquished control of most of its remaining colonies in Asia, Africa, and the West Indies. The last trace of the empire disappeared in 1997 when Hong Kong, which had been a British colony for 155 years, was returned to Chinese control.