What happens when you rule just about everything

What happens to a nation that becomes the largest, most far-reaching empire in the history of the world, making the Romans look like pikers by comparison? Things start to go downhill, that’s what.

That is where Great Britain found itself it’s the 19th century turned into the 20th. Much of that century had been peaceful, thanks in great part to Britain’s imposing her will through its vast Network of colonies and dominions. Its huge navy “rule the world,” in its own words.

But with the new century, Great Britain found that things were coming unglued. A new industrial power across the Atlantic, the United States of America, was on the rise. Germany, jealous of Britain’s hegemony, was becoming more warlike. British colonies themselves — for example, South Africa — were restless and more and more wanting to go their own way.

All of this is to subject of a new book by historian Simon Heffer titled The Age of Decadence. It was recently reviewed in the New York Times by Richard Aldous, who wrote:

“What fools we were,” King George V told his prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, in 1930, looking back to the era before World War I. In the context of the wartime catastrophe his generation had delivered, the king may have had a point. That was the time of Rudyard Kipling’s “long recessional” and A. E. Housman’s “land of lost content.” Arthur Balfour, prime minister from 1902 to 1905, lamented “some process of social degeneration” that “may conveniently be distinguished by the name of ‘decadence.’” Joseph Chamberlain, the most charismatic politician of the late-Victorian age, put it more pithily. “The Weary Titan,” he said in 1902, “staggers under the too vast orb of its fate.” Source: Britain at the Turn of the 20th Century Was Dealing With a Lot, Badly – The New York Times

And there is a message for Americans in this bit of history, according to the review:

For many Americans today, perhaps fearing late-stage decadence and their own Weary Titan, this story may strike close to home. For in Simon Heffer’s telling, the history of Britain from 1880 to 1914 is one in which “a nation so recently not just great, but the greatest power the world had ever known, sustained in its greatness by a rule of law and parliamentary democracy, had begun its decay.”

The message is not all gloom and doom, however, as you will see if you read the entire review.

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