A Portrait of the English-Speaking Peoples at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

‘Propagate our language all over [the] world. … Fraternal association with U.S. – this would let them in too. Harmonises with my ideas for future of the world. This will be the English-speaking century.’

Winston Churchill’s remarks to the British Cabinet, 12 July 1943

‘If one reflected on the most important events of the last millennium compared with the first, the ascent of the English-speaking peoples to predominance in the world surely ranked highest.’

Professor Deepak Lal, In Praise of Empires

As the first rays of sunlight broke over the Chatham Islands, 360 miles east of New Zealand in the South Pacific, a little before 6:00am on Tuesday, 1 January 1901, the world entered a century that for all its warfare and perils would nonetheless mark the triumph of the English-speaking peoples. Few could have suspected it at the time, but the British Empire would wane to extinction during that period, while the American Republic would wax to such hegemony that it would become the sole global hyper-power. Assault after assault would be made upon the English-speaking peoples’ primacy, each of which would be beaten off successfully, albeit sometimes at huge and tragic cost. Even as the twenty-first century dawned, they would be doughtily defending themselves still.

Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no-one will bother to make a distinction between the British Crown-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance between the late-eighteenth and the twenty-first centuries. It will be recognised that in the majestic sweep of history they had so much in common – and enough that separated them from everyone else – that they ought to be regarded as a single historical entity, which only scholars and pedants will try to describe separately. A Martian landing on our planet might find linguistic or geographical more useful than ethnic factors when it came to analyzing the differences between different groups of earthlings; the countries whose history this book covers are those where the majority of people speak English as their first language.

As the dominant world political culture since 1900, the English-speaking peoples would be constantly envied and often hated, which far from being anything perturbing has been the inescapable lot of all hegemonic powers since even before the days of Ancient Rome. Like the Romans, they would at times be ruthless, at times self-indulgent, and they too would sometimes find that the greatest danger to their continued imperium came not from their declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous critics within their own society.

Despite the harsh methods occasionally adopted to protect their status and safety from Wilhelmine Prussian militarism, then the Nazi-led Axis, then global Marxism-Leninism and presently by Islamic fundamentalism, the English-speaking peoples would remain the last, best hope for Mankind. The beliefs that they brought into the twentieth century largely actuate them yet; their values are still now the best available in a troubled world; the institutions that made them great continue to inspire them today. Indeed the beliefs, values and institutions of the English-speaking peoples are presently on the march.

In 1901 there was nothing inevitable about the domination that the English-speaking peoples’ political culture would retain throughout the twentieth century and beyond. Wilhelmine Germany’s burgeoning economic power was reflected in the massive High Seas Fleet that was being built specifically to challenge the Royal Navy. Third Republic France had a huge global empire and a thirst for revenge against Britain for slights real and imagined that it had received over the last century culminating on the Upper Nile three years earlier. Tsarist Russia, the largest country in the world with a vast standing army, looked enviously at British India across the narrowing gap between them in Central Asia. Each would have liked to have seen the United States humiliated over her continued protection of Latin America through the Monroe Doctrine. Within a decade the German High Command had drawn up plans to shell Manhattan and land a one hundred thousand-strong army in New England.

The world of 1901 was a multi-polar one of fiercely competing Great Powers. The idea that a century later, the English-speaking peoples would hold unquestioned sway in the world, challenged only – and even then not mortally – by some disaffected fanatics from the rump of the Ottoman Empire, would have astounded Kaiser, Tsar and French president alike. Two global conflagrations in the space of a generation, in which the English-speaking peoples escaped invasion – except those who lived in the Channel Islands – whereas no other Great Power did, explains much, but certainly not all.