Britain’s Empire and its Transformation

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The fact that the Commonwealth in essence exists today is something of historical significance. It is a living memory of the huge might and power that Britain had over the world; Britain had one of the most powerful and large empires in history covering almost one third of the surface of the planet. The Commonwealth has gone through some changes. Its first incarnation was in the mid-17th century led by Oliver Cromwell, and now after decolonisation it exists more as a cultural bond as member states have no legal obligation one to another. Instead, they are united by language, history, culture, and their shared values of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. The Commonwealth nations used to all be part of Britain’s empire and were as this article will demonstrate, of vital importance to Britain, and a great source of fear for other large powers.

This is demonstrated in the American government’s proposed military stratagem known as War Plan Red. This plan occurred during the inter war period (between the first and second world wars) when America believed there was a chance that Britain and its empire would pose a military threat to the United States and its interests. So they developed a plan on how to defeat them. This was War Plan Red and its main focus was dealing with Canada. Canada was part of the British Empire and many argue it still is in a way as its part of the Commonwealth and also due to British culture being prevalent in large parts of Canada, as well as having our Queen as their monarch. The plan assumed that Britain would probably use its dominion in Canada as a springboard from which to initiate a retaliatory invasion of the United States. The assumption was taken that at first Britain would fight a defensive battle against invading American forces.

This is what most of War Plan Red was based on, as it was a military plan for an invasion of Canada to clear out the British forces. This whole affair showed how British power, as great as it was at the time, was not what it used to be. There was a time when Britain was the most powerful country in the world but a number of historical events had occurred for them which meant their power over a large part of the world, was dwindling. The two most significant of these were America rebelling against the British and losing Britain a huge country as well as the resources they could gain from it. The second was the First World War which exhausted a huge amount of British money and resources. This all led up to the interwar period where it seemed as if America (which had only gained independence a few hundred years ago) could have a chance at beating Britain. The USA’s main method would be a planned blockade and this may have proved to be fatal as The Royal Navy officers believed that the United Kingdom was so vulnerable to a blockade that, if a superior American fleet appeared near the British Isles, Britain would quickly surrender.

All this goes to demonstrate that Britain’s time was nearing its end. Indeed Britain was an incredibly important player in WW2 and without them, the world would have fallen to the Nazis, this was due to their fantastic army, navy and air force. However WW2 exhausted Britain financially and subsequently had to give up their Empire as they could not afford to run it. Now, War Plan Red showed that Britain was vulnerable in a way that it had not been for the last few hundred years and the days of running the world were at an end. However what is very important is that due to the Commonwealth I believe it has made Britain the most successful empire in history. Yes it may not have a military hold over every country and provide them with funding, but it has influence over them through culture, monarchy and many other things which links these countries together. Britain’s influence is now very much a soft power, dealing with international relations and culture rather than warfare. The British Empire in a sense still exists to this day and has had a longevity that no other empire in history has every really reached. War Plan Red shows that Britain’s Empire of global leadership through armed forces and influence through hard power and force was on the way out, however the empire for me still lives on, however now has global leadership through diplomacy and influence via culture, a very large part of that is to do with the Commonwealth.


Written by Sam Toombs, Edited by Simon Renwick


Bell, Christopher M. (November 1997). “Thinking the Unthinkable: British and American Naval Strategies for an Anglo-American War, 1918-1931″. The International History Review 19 (4): 789–808.

John Major, “War Plan Red: The American Plan for War with Britain,” Historian (1998) 58#1 pp 12-15.

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