Globalization, Immigration and the British Empire

How does the British Empire relate to globalization today?

While it had been on the decline since the early 1900s, WW2 coincided with the final days of the UK and the British Empire as a major world power and the rise of the USA and Soviet Union. These two would be at loggerheads during the Cold War up to 1989. The postwar period has also seen passage through Friedman’s three stages of globalization, the growing interdependence between states, organizations and now individuals. Since the events of 9/11, the world has also witnessed the growth of terrorist activity, much of it non-state based, and more recently political uprisings in Arab states around the Mediterranean, and a global financial crisis starting in 2008 and continuing in 2011.

Globalization today is shaped by these events and contrasts with the first age of globalization from around the 1500s when European countries started to build their empires through a combination of conquest, trade, investment and missionaries spreading their respective brands of religion. While different in timing and many other ways, the two are linked. The question asked here is what if any of today’s economic, political and socio-cultural events can be traced back in some way to the former British Empire?

Many of today’s countries, and there are about 200 of them, have some connection past or present with the British Empire. The Queen is head of State of 16 sovereign countries including Canada, Australia and New Zealand; she is head of the Commonwealth group of 54 countries including the above; the union jack appears on the flags of a number of countries; and the English language is spoken as the first language of an estimated 400 million (6%) of the world’s population of 7 billion, and as the second language by estimates which range from 200 million to 1.4 billion. Thus English could be the first or second language of 26% of the world’s population. The spread of empire from the first age of globalization has had something to do with this.

One way to look for connections to the BE is again to use a world map and show the places which geographically were part of it. Fortunately there are many maps available (check the web) which do this. One shows the empire for 1603, 1713, 1763, 1837 and 1905. With time, more of the world is coloured red while the US loses its rosy complexion after 1776. Today there are 14 remnants of the empire, and 54 countries of the present day Commonwealth of Nations, two of which, Mozambique and Rwanda were not formerly part of the empire causing The British Commonwealth to drop British from its title. For membership, see Wikipedia. Past members aside from the 13 colonies of the US include Burma and some other countries which for various reasons exited the empire. In looking for effects today, these should be included.

While geography may help in deciding where to look for imperial influences, what does one look for in order to suggest linkages between the present and past. This is more difficult because it depends on the interest of the reader. I may be interested in economic influences while others choose sports, the arts, politics, history and other topics. None has priority in my view and so I will proceed with issues in which I am more interested and which have resonance today such as immigration, the global financial crisis, trade and investment flows, conflict situations, events arising from 9/11. I start with immigration.


In Moving Millions (Wiley, 2010), Jeffrey Kaye has written about the factors fuelling global migration today. Some of those on the move can be linked directly or indirectly to influences associated with the former British Empire. Current stories of immigration in general are on the front pages of newspapers and TV news shows in Europe, North America, Australia and Asia. While some stories like the migration from the Middle East and Turkey into Europe, and Vietnamese boat people sailing in leaky boats towards Australia and Canada have no direct BE connection, others do.

In 1958, Enoch Powell, a British MP, gave his “rivers of blood” speech in which he warned against immigration to the UK from former colonies in the West Indies and Africa. In fact his actual words did not include this phrase but was a quote from Virgil – Powell was a classical scholar before becoming a MP,

“As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’. That tragic and intractable phenomenon which we watch with horror on the other side of the Atlantic but which there is interwoven with the history and existence of the States itself, is coming upon us here by our own volition and our own neglect. Indeed, it has all but come. In numerical terms, it will be of American proportions long before the end of the century. Only resolute and urgent action will avert it even now.”

Powell’s reference was to the bloody American Civil War fought largely over slavery, which itself was a byproduct of imperial trade and conquest.

In the case of the UK in the 1950s, the migrants came from the colonies. Having been told for years that they were a part of the mighty British Empire, they decided to move to the mother country, which in the course of time they changed. The empire’s founding fathers like Curzon, Cromer, Rhodes and Kipling probably never anticipated that this might happen, but it did when those in the colonies saw opportunities for their families and moved to the UK. Integration was probably accomplished better than Powell had predicted, but it created pockets of ethnic minorities in cities such as Liverpool and Bradford, and especially in certain city neighbourhoods. Measures were introduced to integrate these newcomers and today some are members of parliament, for example Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP elected in 2010, was born in the UK, the child of Ghanaian parents who had emigrated there. Multiculturalism has since become a topic for academic study and further policies introduced to assist newcomers to integrate into British society. There are also lobby groups in the UK which argue for control of future migrants from all countries not just from former colonies. One is Migration Watch UK which states:

“However, the essence of the problem remains – namely that governments have lost control over our borders during the past fifteen years. This has resulted in immigration on a scale that is placing huge strain on our public services, housing, environment, society and quality of life.”

In Canada, Chinese migrants came from Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s – some had come from China much earlier to assist in railway building – a British territory which was handed back to China in 1997. Many invested in Canada, especially in real estate, and now parts of the lower mainland of British Columbia have a high proportion of Chinese living there. Immigrants have also arrived in Canada in recent years from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Caribbean. In 2009, 20% of immigrants to Canada were from India, Pakistan, the UK and colonies and the US; an additional 12% came from the People’s Republic of China, some of whom may have been from the former Hong Kong.

Reports of ethnic tensions and multiculturalism are part of the daily news cycle in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US. Not all have imperial connections but many do and immigration and multiculturalism are sensitive topics in public discourse. Empire building in the first age of globalization in part gave rise to this issue and linkages still occur. While in earlier times, millions emigrated from the UK, Ireland and other parts of Europe, as well as the later flow from the colonies to the UK noted above, another movement is now taking place. Reports in 2011 from Portugal (never part of the BE) indicate that well educated and trained Portuguese are emigrating to Brazil, Angola and Mozambique due to poor economic times at home and better opportunities abroad. This is similar in many ways to those who emigrated from the UK to Canada, Australia and New Zealand especially in the postwar years, and it is likely that there will be further migration from the UK to former colonies. With the end of apartheid, many white South Africans moved to North America, Australia, New Zealand and the UK

While migrants from the UK to the colonies transferred various British customs and practices to the imperial outposts, including sports such as cricket, tennis, croquet, soccer and rugby, other customs and practices were imported including polo. World cricket championships involve England, India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Zimbabwe, all countries previously part of the empire. Rugby includes some of these countries and others like France, Italy, Rumania and Georgia. Soccer has become the most international of all sports and was played throughout the empire.

Among the words originating in the Indian subcontinent and in current usage in the west are bungalow, cheetah, chutney, dinghy, gymkhana, khaki, pyjama and shampoo. Today migrants to the UK also bring their music, songs and literature as well as ethnic foods. On the shelves of supermarkets and corner stores throughout the UK, Canada and other former colonies are foods and drinks from all parts of the world. Restaurants and stores specialize in selling different ethnic foods. This is not to suggest that all these aspects of globalization are the result of previous imperial connections but some of them assuredly are.


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