Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law

First Page



Within the space of a generation, the British Empire has disintegrated in a way that appears extraordinary, even in retrospect. "How marvelous it all is," Lord Rosebery exclaimed at the end of the nineteenth century. If marvelous in its growth, the Empire has been no less significant in the manner of its passing.

The decline of great empires exerts a peculiar fascination over the mind of the historian; indeed, more has been written about the fall of Rome than about the death of any other political entity. Diverse and contradictory theories are advanced to explain a complex historical phenomenon, and different dates are assigned for its end. Thus, for some, Rome "fell" in 476; for others, that year saw merely the climax of a process which began long before. Similarly, 1968 marks the end of the British Empire, but the manner of its going was clear long before. The basic difficulty, of course, is twofold: to distinguish long-range causes from proximate causes and to attach precise dates to the start of great and imprecise events. Any assessment of Britain's imperial role involves consideration of both.