The expression “the sun never set on the British Empire” was derived from the fact that at the height of British colonialism in the 20th century, Great Britain had control of territories in Africa, Asia, the South Pacific Islands and limited influence and colonization in South America. Along with the British Commonwealth, these territories spanned multiple time zones including the international date line, so the sun would rise in the southeast Pacific Ocean and set in the continent of North America where the Commonwealth member Canada is located. Therefore, the sun would literally never set. The Commonwealth states include Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, and Canada and it is still around today.
The British Empire was the largest empire ever. It was larger than the Greek, Persian, Roman Byzantine, and the Ottoman Empires due largely to the overseas naval expeditions which began in the late 15th and early 16th century under King Henry VII (reigned from 1485 to 1509). With ships capable of long distance sea travel, The British Empire was able to expand beyond Europe. The increased desire for overseas expansion was fueled by the fact that they wanted to compete with other European powerhouses such as Spain, Portugal, Italy and France. The Netherlands (also known as Holland) expanded their influence in the what is now South Africa, Indonesia and the Spice Islands (Maluku Islands). In order to solidify their trade interests, the British would later develop the world’s strongest Navy and overpower their European counterparts to become the largest empire ever.
Great Britain’s imperialism peaked during the mid to late 1800s and began to deteriorate immediately following World War II (1939-1945). Multiple factors contributed to the eventual fall of British colonialism. Great Britain’s economy was trashed after having fought two world wars and so they could not provide the necessary resources to their colonies. Second, the largest civil rights movement for independence against British rule occurred in India (now divided into 4 countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka). This movement was led by Mohandas Gandhi pushing back against British trade and laws with civil disobedience and domestic cotton production which resulted in Great Britain falling deeper into debt. The final blow came when the British government could no longer support the troops trying to suppress Gandhi’s civil rights movement. With a lack of central military leadership leading to chaos, the British government withdrew their troops and other government officials and granted India its independence. Other British territories followed the example set by Gandhi and one by one separated themselves from British rule.
Today, the United Kingdom is a part of the British Commonwealth which is comprised of 53 independent countries and colonial dependencies. The goal of the Commonwealth of Nations is to form cooperative policies such as promoting similar civil rights, economic and environmental concerns as well as promoting democracy. Also included are arrangements for disarmament among all members in order to maintain peace with each other. It’s interesting to know that even though the British began controlling the lives of other people and showing no regard for their colonial subjects, the countries all ended up developing government systems similar to the British system of parliamentary rule and representative democracy. Finally, after hundreds of years of conflict, those new governments are now committed to setting down arms and moving forward with peaceful diplomacy.
As for the UK’s relationship with its European neighbors, they recently voted in a referendum to leave the European Union (EU) due to political differences, but they are still a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) along with most of their European allies and the US, Turkey, and Russia. These political alliances have ensured that no more intracontinental disputes happen and if a member of the EU or NATO gets attacked by an outside threat, the members can come together and unite in military forces and eliminate the aggressors. Because the geopolitical cooperation between former European enemies and former colonies is vastly improving, this helps make those parts of the world a lot more safer and freer. This is why the collapse of the British Empire is unlike all previous ones because time allowed these nations to forgive each other rather than like the Persians or the Ottomans whose dissolvement led to even more animosity and blame game.