Britannia’s Unlikely Rise and all too predictable fall

Peter Forbes
16 min readJan 28, 2020

How, in the 19th century, did a small, previously marginal, North West European country manage to install its Queen as Empress of India, the Jewel in the Crown of the British Empire? Why didn’t the Mughal Emperor conquer Britain?

This, of course is a deliberate echo of Jared Diamond’s famous question: “Why did Pizarro come to capture Atahuallpa, instead of Atahuallpa’s coming to Spain to capture King Charles I?” It is surprising that Diamond’s geography-first method has not been applied to the singular case of Britain’s one-time role as the world’s greatest power. This is an interesting question per se but it takes on an urgency in the light of the agenda of Boris Johnson’s new government. When Johnson first came to power in July 2019, he selected a group of strongly right-wing MPs for prominent roles in his Cabinet: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng and Liz Truss. We didn’t have to guess the orientation of these newcomers because in 2012 they had jointly written a manifesto entitled Britannia Unchained. The thrust of this was that Britain had to become a bustling buccaneer country again as it had been at its peak. The route to this was Thatcher plus: more deregulation, a further shrinking of the state. All this would unleash the energy that had once made Britain great — so it claimed.

But history doesn’t repeat itself like this and to understand why the Britannia Unchained programme is fatuous we need to answer the pseudo Jared Diamond question. There have been plenty of attempts to anatomise Britain’s post World War 2 decline. Indeed, even as far back as the 1890s, commentators were agonizing that Britain was being overtaken by Germany and America. But what answer would most Britons, before 1945, have given to the question “Why did Britain become the most powerful nation the earth had seen? I think most, high and low, either explicitly or implicitly, would have answered: because we earned it; we deserved it. The very fact of Britain’s dominance from, say, the 1850s on, derailed any reflective enquiry. We have rightwing historians of Empire, such as Niall Ferguson, who essentially, but with more data, give the same answer. But the absurdity of that response has been exposed by the manner in which other countries have caught up with and often surpassed the UK. The unstated premise of all studies of Britain’s “decline” since the days of supposed Imperial glory is that it is an aberration, a falling away from the natural state of things: Britain’s superiority.

Peter Forbes

I write about biomimicry and nanoscience in books and review science books for the Guardian and Independent. Teach Narrative Non-fiction at City University.