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July 25, 2007

Comments

Nato

I think it's hard to tell what might have ended the British Empire without two crippling world wars.

Nathan Smith

Yes... but after two world wars the British empire was still intact.

Nato

"Intact" in a very loose sense of the word. It may well be that autos contributed greatly to the Empire's inability to repair itself. Personally, I think it was that the wars - especially WWII - accelerated the growing industrial importance and self-sufficiency of territories while replacing Britain with the US as the global market epicenter. Further, railroads and other advances had already been expanding native populations and integrating disparate subgroups. Finally, the spirit of the era was self-determination and anti-colonialism, which encouraged local people to adopt their own nationalist dreams.

I will say that autos, being well-designed for low-density infrastructure, probably increased the relative importance of rural areas into which colonial power had made few inroads. Of course, if this had happened before rail as it did (to some extent) in Africa, then the various countries would likely have dissolved into civil wars in much the same way.

Nato

It's worth noting that the auto fleets in British possessions was tiny in the postwar years, and of those a large percentage were attributable to the war itself.

Nathan Smith

Wow. Thanks. Yes, it would definitely be a factor that interacted with others.

Thomas

The main problem with your argument that I see is if the automobile destroyed the Brittish empire, then presumeably it created other empires. I suppose one could say that the US empire was built on the automobile, but then why not other countries? Mexico and Canada, for instance, have just as many resources and large tracts of contiguous land, and yet they didn't form powerful empires. So it seems to me that the automobile is not sufficient to create empire, and I would also wager that it's not sufficient to destroy empire. It might have been a vector of change, but somehow I don't think it was the impetus. American empire was clearly built through immigration, the women's liberation movement, and the civil rights movement. Whenever you add such a large percentage of enfranchised population to the workforce, you're bound to have a tremendous surge in productivity and economic growth. What role the automobile played in that is to me uncertain.

Nathan Smith

Well, no, the point would be that the automobile would tend to destroy maritime empires of the British kind, and not create new ones, by favoring surface trade over trans-oceanic trade.

Of course, maybe the automobile would also encourage the creation of land empires. In addition to America, the automobile-- or, more exactly, the tank-- almost created a Nazi empire in Europe, and then (one might argue) it created the Soviet empire (eastern Europe, occupied by Soviet tanks) and the European Union (a trade bloc whose integration was driven forward by the rise in surface trade).

Thomas

Okay, but then the claim is that the superiority of ocean travel was the raison d'etre for British empire. I won't dispute that claim, but then you have to account for island and predominantly-coastal nations that didn't enjoy empire. I would think that the main cause of British empire was the industrial revolution, which also had a large effect on shipping. Perhaps there's a sort of chicken and egg effect going on there, but I think it's clear that the British empire was based on much more than just a strong maritime presence. And if that's the case, then I think your main thesis that the automobile destroyed the British empire requires perhaps a lot of nuance and analysis to be persuasive.

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