Britain waved goodbye to Hong Kong with nostalgia but few tears.
“Does it matter to us British? Not much,” said empire historian Jan Morris, who is writing daily newspaper accounts of the hand-over. Morris is in Hong Kong, and that’s where the hoopla is, not in Hackney, Holborn or Hammersmith.
The colony’s return to China marks the last major act in a voluntary, prolonged dismemberment of modern history’s greatest empire. “Sic transit gloria imperii.”
In London, Liverpool and Birmingham, where Chinese populations are particularly strong, fireworks, parades, fairs and singing and dancing marked Monday’s observances.
But as with most British government leaders in Hong Kong itself Monday, reaction in London was muted. National newspapers headlined the hand-over with a mix of self-deprecation and optimism. “Chinese Promise of Early Elections” was how the Times heralded it.
Great ceremony and national stock-taking marked the 1947 partition and independence of India, the great jewel of the empire. But by the time fireworks lighted Hong Kong half a century later, the British had seen it all and the Commonwealth of former colonies stood 53 nations tall.
“I’m with those historians who think the empire never really had much impact on the masses - it was always an elite thing,” said John Kent at the London School of Economics. “Europe is much more important to mass perceptions today than the empire was. And the most anti-Europe now are those who would have been most pro-empire.”
It’s a different era, a different country, and the Brits are a people with a different self-image.
“Nothing became the British as a people of empire like their leaving it,” said historian John Keegan.
Britain’s first empire collapsed in humiliation and military defeat at Yorktown, Va., in 1781, Keegan notes. Whatever the moral judgments about the creation of Empire II, says Keegan, the British were smarter about leaving the second time around. They avoided the French and Portuguese mistakes of fighting to control colonial peoples anxious to go their own way.
And with good results, in Keegan’s view. Canada, Australia and young democracies in Asia and the Caribbean share imperial histories and formation. India is the world’s largest democracy, South Africa the largest democracy on its continent.
“India was clearly the most important part of the empire, and many people at home had trade or family ties there. Still there was no major outcry, even among Conservatives, when India was given up,” Kent said.
At heart, the empire was a child of commerce, especially Hong Kong, a fragrant harbor big enough to shelter the whole Royal Navy and all the British opium runners it protected in the old days - and a spectacular city-state cash register today.
“Britain’s interest in Hong Kong does not end on June 30. Hong Kong is one of our biggest trading partners - we have more trade with it than with the whole of the rest of China,” Robin Cook, Britain’s foreign secretary, said before flying east for the ceremonies. “We also have a very real commitment to the 3 million people in Hong Kong (of 6.3 million) who will continue to be holders of British passports.”