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Book Review


Kennedy, Dane. Britain and Empire, 1880-1945 (London: Longman, 2002). 140 pp, $19.20.

      World history instructors have found it increasingly difficult to keep up to date with the wide array of monographs that have recently been published on the British Empire. Britain and Empire, an addition to the Longman Seminar Studies in History series, aims to come to the aid of the harried instructor by incorporating the findings of much of this enormous literature into a short readable survey on the British Empire from the late Victorian era to the end of World War II. In particular, Dane Kennedy, professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University, sets out to examine the relationship between Britain and its empire. As the British Empire expanded, Kennedy argues, the British were united in their support of the imperial enterprise. The book is well written and informative, but focuses too much on Britain while overstating the support imperialism found among ordinary Britons. 1
    Kennedy contends that whenever Britain's power was threatened by rival states, it responded with a new commitment to empire. When its economic and military preeminence was challenged by Germany and the US in the late 19th century, the British Empire added new colonies, particularly in Africa, while consolidating control over its informal empires in Latin America and Asia. Victory over its European rivals in World War I brought new colonial possessions in Africa and the Middle East. Even though Japan occupied some British colonies during the Second World War, Britain regained them by the war's end. 2
     The book, which is more about Britain and less about developments within the colonies, focuses on the impact of imperialism at home. Kennedy contends that empire permeated every facet of British life and gained enthusiastic mass endorsement. Schools, voluntary organizations, newspapers, literature, and government sponsored cultural events, promoted imperial patriotism. Successive governments remained committed to social imperialism, maintaining their colonial possessions through popular support and an efficient and active state. Only those on the fringes of the political spectrum, such as the communist party, showed any sustained opposition to imperialism. Even at the end of World War II, on the eve of decolonization, Kennedy claims that Britons remained as committed to their empire as ever. 3
     Kennedy has produced a concise narrative on the expansion of the British Empire, but he overstates the degree to which the British supported the colonial effort. The book concentrates on British political leaders and those in the upper classes who traded, administered and reported on the empire. Looking at the views of the British working classes, as Bernard Porter did in his recent book, The Absent-Minded Imperialists (2004), reveals less avid commitment to the imperial enterprise than Kennedy contends. After World War II, no political movement emerged to demand that Britain retain its empire. If the average person deeply identified Britishness with empire, 1945-1950 would have been the time to show it. Unfortunately, Kennedy ends his account abruptly in 1945, never tackling decolonization. 4
     To buttress his arguments, Kennedy provides a number of welcome additions to the text. The book includes six cartoons and 27 short written documents from the period, a timeline, a glossary, a who's who of important people and three black and white maps; two which show the British Empire in 1897 and 1930 and, rather strangely, a map of the Middle East in 1926. These, I presume, are for classroom use and are included to entice instructors to assign the book to their students. However, students will need much more background knowledge of Britain and its empire before they can attempt to understand the dizzying array of places and events that litter each page of the book.  5
     That said, Britain and Empire will prove useful to teachers looking for a quick overview of British imperialism to update their lecture notes. Instructors will need to look elsewhere, however, for a book that spans the British Empire's whole history, that outlines developments within the colonies themselves, or that focuses on the attitudes of the British working class to empire.  6
John F. Lyons
Joliet Junior College

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