Prof. Stuart Ward

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The Untied Kingdom: A World History of the End of Britain

Prof. Stuart Ward of the University of Copenhagen

A Centre for Imperial and Global History lecture
Date24 May 2017

Matrix Lecture Theatre

As Theresa May’s Government gears up for historic Brexit negotiations amid speculation about a second Scottish independence referendum, the future of the Union has never seemed more brittle. Indeed, the past five years have witnessed almost constant speculation (and an equally steady stream of opinion polls) about the likely break-up of Britain before the decade is out. But the idea itself is by no means new, having stirred previous waves of public conjecture in the late-1960s, the mid-1970s, the late-Thatcher era, the devolutionary settlement at the turn of the millennium and now our current era of SNP dominance in Holyrood and Westminster.

At each juncture, there has been a pronounced tendency in media, scholarly and political commentary to presume some kind of causal connection between the decline of the British empire and the inward corrosion of the Union – much as the present-day Brexit conundrum is frequently ascribed to a species of imperial nostalgia.

This lecture subjects these ideas to critical scrutiny, examining various possible ways of putting meat on the bones. Rather than consider the empire and metropolitan Britain as distinct and separate realms of historical experience, with the fate of the one somehow determining the other, the approach here is to reconceptualise Britain and Britishness as global categories of analysis – indeed, as ideas that were radically adapted to the global dispersal of British people, capital, goods and culture from the 18th to the 20th centuries. If Britain was the world’s first global civic idea, one that was required to do more identity work across unprecedented distances than anything before (or since?), it is worth asking what unique pressures were brought to bear when ‘Greater Britain’ struck heavy weather in the age of global decolonization. In particular, it is worth considering how loss of confidence in Britishness abroad influenced (and was influenced by) contemporaneous developments in the United Kingdom – in short, by recourse to a world history of the end of Britain that examines the present-day constitutional conundrum in terms of the eclipse of ‘global Britain’.

ProviderCentre for Imperial and Global History

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