The Second Elizabethan Age 101: The Swan Song of an Empire
For 70 years, from 1952 until today, a new era of British History has been defined by one towering female figure, Queen Elizabeth II. For seven decades, the steadfastness of the Head of the British State has been only matched by the innumerable changes that occurred in British society and the transformation of British culture and identity. In this series of articles, the writer will examine some of the most important changes that took place in Britain in the context of the seventy year-long reign of the Queen.
The Second Elizabethan Age 101 will be divided into the following chapters of content:
1. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: A New Era
2. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: The Swan Song of an Empire
3. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: ‘’Beyond the Fringe’’ and the Transformation of Society
4. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: The ‘’Sick Man of Europe’’ and the Rise of Thatcherism
5. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Britain and Europe, a Difficult Relationship
6. The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Britain and the Future, a Dawn that Never Comes
The Second Elizabethan Age 101: Suez Crisis, the Swan Song of an Empire
During the course of human history, an event can have unforeseen repercussions that alter the existing order of the world. Empires, through time, always rise and always fall. The British Empire, during its heyday, was known as the "Empire which the sun never sets", as it controlled nations and huge populations all over the globe. In 1956 though, this era of British dominance and prestige came to an official end, beginning with the Suez Crisis and the military intervention of Britain, France and Israel against Egypt, when Gamal Nasser had decided to nationalize the company which controlled the Canal. This conflict, although short-lived, gave rise to a new world order which exists until this day. From now on, the global agenda was not created or implemented by London, but by the United States. Britain was turned into a political pariah, and its international status was a thing that belong to the past.
Even though the Suez Crisis cannot be compared to other events of the Cold War Era, like the Cuban Missile Crisis, its magnitude is undeniable. Since its independence from the Ottoman Empire, Egypt was an easy prey for the colonial powers of Europe. Its ideal strategic position and its richness in natural resources turned it into the perfect target. Soon, after the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, the British Government managed to become the main shareholder of the Suez Company which controlled the canal and, soon enough, British troops arrived in Egypt to maintain the much needed order for the proper function of this financial vein of the Empire (Sandbrook, 2015). Egypt was a colony in all but name and the subsequent rise of nationalism with Gamal Nasser at its head, turned the status quo upside down. After the nationalization of the Suez Canal, United Kingdom and France in a collusion with Israel used military force to roll back the decision of Nasser and mainly throw him out of office. Their main goals were not achieved and most of the international community, especially the United States, demanded a peaceful solution to the problem. The loss of moral high ground for Britain and the blunt aggression of the former colonial powers sealed the fate of the military operation (James, 1995).
Beyond military operations and international reactions, what needs to be pointed out is how the turn of events transformed a former Empire into a political supplicant which no longer had the power to dictate or form the international agenda. Furthermore, it would be unwise to single out an event like the Suez Crisis as the only factor that contributed to Britain’s global decline. If anything, Suez showed how the United Kingdom was now dependent on American aid (political and financial) in order to maintain its own agenda and pursue its own actions. The blow to Britain’s prestige also proved that the Empire could not run the world as it used to. The Empire’s decline was a slow process and in many ways Suez reminded the British public and politicians that their days of gunboat diplomacy were over (Peden, 2012).
Society in Britain during the 1950’s was in a mood of complacency and insularity. It can be argued that besides the financial and international consequences of the war in Suez, its lasting impact was inside society itself. Apathy gave way to anger and dismay and the sense of the glorious imperial past was followed by uneasiness towards the future of the nation. In the cultural scene, the dominant theme was the Angry Young Man: angry with the establishment, angry for the so few changes in the post-war era, angry with the country and sometimes angry with himself (Morgan, 2021). Social critique was aimed against the subsequent loss of passion and ideology caused by the financial affluence and the self-satisfaction during the times of the Conservative government, especially after 1955 (the end of rationing took place in 1954). One of the most known sub-culture group was born during that era, the Teddy Boys, originally called Edwardians because of the extravagant use of fabric and clothing of Edwardian times.
The young generations of the post-war era who grew up during the war, were faced with a whole new world, the world of the Cold War, of the atom bomb and the world of post-war prosperity. A generational gap created a sort of conflict between the world which was created and fought for by the parents and the world which was now inherited by children with full employment and a new sense of freedom. At the heart of this subculture, was not only anger, but mostly an identity crisis which was also created among other things, by Britain’s declining position in the world. The Teddy Boys were reminiscent of the summer of 1914 before the First World War and the loss of innocence but far from being only reminiscent of the past, they were mostly rejecting the way of life of their parents and the institutions which upheld pre-war ideals and deeply rooted injustices (Ross, 2018).
As post-war prosperity was dominant during the 1950’s, the financial affluence presented new opportunities to the middle as well as the working class. British people were now living better lives for the first time after the end of the war, but this sense of stability was not going to remain unchallenged (Morgan, 2021). The Suez Crisis unequivocally proved that Britain’s place in the world was now dependent on its relationship as a junior partner of the United States. The many challenges faced by people arriving from Commonwealth countries thanks to the British Nationality Act showed that racism and bigotry were well established in the social fabric of the country. The Notting Hill race riots of 1958 made evident that social cohesion was easily maintained and the youth subculture groups which emerged during this period were only the calm before the storm which was going to commence in the upcoming decade. Britain launched into the 1960’s searching for its own self and identity, but most importantly, searching for a viable future and its place in an ever changing world.
James, L. (1995). The Rise and Fall of the British Empire. Abacus.
Morgan, K. O. (2021). The Oxford History of Britain (21st ed.). Oxford University Press.
Morgan, K. O. (2021). The People's Peace: Britain since 1945. Oxford University Press.
Peden, G. C. (2012). Suez and Britain’s Decline as a World Power. The Historical Journal, 55(4), 1073–1096.
Ross, S. (2018). Youth culture and the post-war British novel: From Teddy boys to Trainspotting. Bloomsbury Publishing.
Sandbrook, D. (2015). Never had it so good: A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles. Hachette
Figure 1: McAvoy, T. (1956). An Egyptian girl preparing to fight the British. [Photograph]
Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/suez-crisis/6AFAc8AoTZawcQ
Figure 2: Unknown. (1956). Damaged tank and vehicles. [Photograph].
Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Suez_Crisis
Figure 3: Baron, G. (1956). Anthony Eden. [Photograph].
Retrieved from: https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/anthony-eden-baron/iwHiYQO7vsD7Fw
Figure 4: McKeown, J. (1954). A British Teddy Boy. [Photograph].
Retrieved from: https://allthatsinteresting.com/teddy-boy