Britain stood in splendid isolation for much of Queen Victoria’s rule as Conservative prime ministers like Benjamin Disraeli and the Marquess of Salisbury did not want to be drawn into permanent European alliances. The Entente Cordiale that Britain signed with France in 1904, three years after Victoria’s death, and the Triple Entente with France and Russia in 1907 dragged the country into World War I (1914-1918).
Before the world war, British soldiers fought in other wars. In 1839, two years after Queen Victoria came to the throne, Hong Kong was seized by the British in the First Opium War. British forces captured Ghazni in the First Afghan War the same year. A year later, in 1840, Queen Victoria married Prince Albert.
Lytton Strachey in his biography, Queen Victoria, recalled the young queen who was only 18 when she ascended the throne. He wrote:
The new queen was almost entirely unknown to her subjects. In her public appearances her mother had invariably dominated the scene. Her private life had been that of a novice in a convent: hardly a human being from the outside world had ever spoken to her; and no human being at all, except her mother and the Baroness Lehzen, had ever been alone with her in a room. Thus it was not only the public at large that was in ignorance of everything concerning her; the inner circles of statesmen and officials and high-born ladies were equally in the dark. When she suddenly emerged from this deep obscurity…all were completely carried away… the spectacle of the little girl-queen, innocent, modest, with fair hair and pink cheeks, driving through her capital, filled the hearts of the beholders with raptures of affectionate loyalty.
She would go on to rule for more than 60 years, till her death in 1901. Much of her life she would be a widow, losing her husband Albert, who died of typhoid in 1861, 21 years after their marriage. Her relatives ruled Europe. Kaiser Wilhelm II, who would lead Germany to war against Britain in World War I, was the son of her daughter, Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, Britain’s ally in the war, was the husband of her grand-daughter, Alexandria.
Britain already governed Canada, large areas of India and Australia and small parts of South America and Africa when Victoria came to the throne. Her soldiers and politicians would extend her dominion further. She would rule over the biggest empire in the world.
Britain then was a superpower like America now, an industrial powerhouse, a force in arts and culture. Think of all the eminent poets and novelists – Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling – who flourished during Victoria’s reign. They were read and admired all over the British empire.
Now, with the empire gone, Britain is a shadow of its imperial self. British writers, artists and musicians still have legions of fans around the world, but there are no towering figures like Dickens or Tennyson or the Beatles. Britain is no longer the colossus it was.
Little by little, Britain has been rolling back. Philip Larkin described the retreat hauntingly in his 1969 poem, Homage to a Government:
Next year we are to bring the soldiers home
For lack of money, and it is all right.
Places they guarded, or kept orderly,
Must guard themselves, and keep themselves orderly.
We want the money for ourselves at home
Instead of working. And this is all right.
It’s hard to say who wanted it to happen,
But now it’s been decided nobody minds.
The places are a long way off, not here,
Which is all right, and from what we hear
The soldiers there only made trouble happen.
Next year we shall be easier in our minds.
Next year we shall be living in a country
That brought its soldiers home for lack of money.
The statues will be standing in the same
Tree-muffled squares, and look nearly the same.
Our children will not know it’s a different country.
All we can hope to leave them now is money.
Maybe Britons are perfectly happy turning inwards. That will be clear if they vote for Brexit, or exit from the European Union.