I mentioned in a recent post (about eugenics), that I was something of a sceptic on the “decline and fall” understanding of certain events in history. This inspired me to re-read a modern reprint of Michael Grant’s 1976 book in “The Fall of the Roman Empire”, which I picked up a copy of second-hand in Cambridge a few weeks ago. It contains a convincing argument that the Roman Empire did in fact in decline and fall, largely due to its own interior politics.
Now the decline component is almost unarguable, as we have so many readily accessible measures that relate directly to decline. The Roman civilization was definitely in decline, just from the fact that civilization - from the Greek word ‘civitas’ which means city - can be measured by the size and stability of the city’s. At its peak the Roman Empire had hundreds of cities in the hundreds of thousands of people class, and several pushing the million mark. Those numbers had usually halved by the time the Roman Empire was staggering to its doom; and with a couple of centuries after that collapse it would have been difficult to find many cities in western Europe with more than 40,000 people. De-civilisation in its most simplistic form of de-city-isation.
There are many other samples that convince but the Roman civilization declined. Trade, measured by the number of shipwrecks, was in steady decline for the last few centuries of Roman rule. Productivity, measured by production of pottery - a vital component of any trade or storage item we currently use plastic for - was also in steady decline: and completely collapsed along with the Romans. Even the size of cows in places like Britain went down for a couple of consecutive centuries during the period of collapse.
So it is possibly fair to argue that the Roman Empire did in fact decline and collapse. However, it is not so simple to argue that more recent empires have suffered the same thing. This would be a case of comparing apples and oranges.
From the Australian perspective, the greatest focus is on the “decline” and “fall” of the British Empire. This may seem a given concept, considering that the British Empire did in fact fold itself up and depart the scene. However when you look at the statistics to back up the so-called decline, there is no real evidence that anything like what happened to Rome was relevant in the circumstances.
There was for instance, no decline in city-isation through the British Empire as it was wound up. On the contrary, population, productivity, and city-isation were all running ahead by leaps and bounds in the lead up to the independents granted to most parts of the empire. This is as true for Kenya in the 60s, and India in the 40s, as it was for the original Dominion’s in the 1890s. There is no measurable decline in this so-called fall.
Nor is trade much of an issue - though on sheer statistics of shipwrecks, there is a certain amount of somewhat unavoidable evidence that the first and second world wars had a major negative effect on imperial trade - or indeed world trade. Despite those blips, productivity and trade rose through out all components of the Empire, except for the motherland, which did in fact suffer greviously from carrying a much of the burden of the world wars. A large part of the assumptions that people have made about the decline of the British Empire is based on the theory that Britain could not recover from the financial effects of the two greatest wards mankind has ever seen, and that therefore the collapse of her empire was inevitable. (This is not particularly related to the facts, which seemed to show was in the 1930s British international trade and commerce was undergoing a staggering revival, particularly in non-imperial countries such as the South Americas.) Judging by the increased health of the rest of the Empire and Commonwealth, it is hard to imagine that Britain could not have recovered much of her financial position, had the maintenance of the empire been of importance to its components. ( Many people would argue for instance, that London has reasserted itself as the financial capital of the modern world.)
Certainly there are no records of living conditions collapsing to the point that cows get smaller!
In fact, at the end the maintenance of the empire was not an important issue for its components. Every country with in the Empire or Commonwealth came out of the war without no an obvious external threat on its horizon (internal threats from racial subdivisions, or communist insurgencies may have been another matter). The main purpose of the Empire and Commonwealth - mutual protection - was now a distant need, and one that seems to be covered by the new United Nations. In fact the naval supremacy of the United States, Britain, and France (the good guys), made the prospect of international peace and safe trade almost inevitable. Unlike an Empire required for defence, a Commonwealth to encourage good international relations and good trade, seemed to be more than adequate.
A key point about the so-called collapse, was the fact that Britain abandoned the remaining colonies as fast, or faster, than was practical (or decent). Not only the countries which had already been prepared to independence - such as India which had long been established with a good stable bureaucracy and internal elections of parliaments; but even countries which were not remotely prepared with an infrastructure ready for independence. Everybody was thrown out on their own as quickly as possible.
This was the decision of the British taxpayer and governments, neither of whom were willing to pay the costs of remaining in the role of “the world’s policeman”. Frankly, they felt that they had done enough, and if the Americans wanted to have a go, good luck to them. (The refusal of the British taxpayer and government to pay this price is fairly clear from the interwar period as well. Modern analysts point out that Britain during the interwar period could, for approximately a 1% fee on their overseas trade, have had the largest navy and air force in the world, with a modern mechanized army as well... Which compares to normal insurance rates on peacetime trade that were actually 3% It was not so much that Britain couldn’t afford the cost of Imperial Defence, but that the British taxpayers didn’t want to pay it.)
This is not a measure of an empire declining and falling. It is an indication of an empire that has successfully achieved much of what it wants, and now feels safe to move on to new internal reconstructions and reorganizations. An argument for decline and collapse, should hopefully have a few indications of falling population, collapsing industry and commerce, and shrinking trade. The British Commonwealth of Nations had none of those indications (except to the localized effects of the two world wars on Britain herself). Instead the Commonwealth was evolving into stronger, better organized, and more competently run independent regions, that usually fully deserved to graduate to independent rule.
Indeed, although it has only been 50 - 100 years (or 200 if you count the United States, possibly longer - see for instance Dominion of Virginia before 1776), since the Anglo-sphere started hiving off independent seed cultures, there has never been a more successful example of a culture growing and expanding; stabilizing and becoming the norm; and successfully dominating the international landscape.
Whereas the collapse of the Western Roman Empire left behind shattered remnant states with reduced populations and impoverished economies; the conversion of an Empire into a Commonwealth of Nations left behind more than 50 stable and independent nations with good infrastructures, growing populations, expanding industries, and ever-increasing trade opportunities. (Unfortunately it also left behind the 15-20 prematurely abandoned undeveloped states, particularly in Africa, which have in fact fallen into chaos since. But the key point here is that their collapse was largely self-inflicted after independence, rather than the product of a collapsing empire.)
Hardly a good way to define a decline and fall.
Perhaps it would be possible to argue that the successor states to the Roman Empire maintained a semblance of Roman administration and law, or even that the Roman language and cultural heritage played an important part for centuries to come. This is still a far cry from being able to state that the English language is now the international standard for communication; that the rule of law and habeus-corpus is now the international standard applied by the UN and by all non ‘rogue states’ (yes, don’t look too closely at China); that some form of Westminster style Parliament is the dominant form of government aspired to by ‘modern’ states; that democracy is the international goal; that universal franchise regardless of sex or race is an international requirement; that free trade is considered by most to be a universal good; that freedom of religion is considered important; and that freedom of speech is considered vital.
Where did these concepts come from if not the British Empire? (I will acknowledge that a less stable form of unfettered democracy was also French in origin... but not necessarily that their version was a good thing.)
If the decline and fall of an empire is a bad thing for its citizens, and for those in the world around them: then it is not really sensible to say that the British Empire had a decline or a fall.