For many years Britain was seen as the crucible of the modern world. This small, cold and wet island was thought to have been the first to develop representative politics, the idea of the individual, the nuclear family, capitalism and an industrial economy, a bureaucratic and impersonal state, rapid transport, mass cities, mass culture and, of course, an empire upon which the sun famously never set. And yet, despite this precocious modernity, imperial Britain remained a deeply traditional society unable to rid itself of archaic institutions like the monarchy, the aristocracy and an established church. The class examines this paradox. It asks how this peculiar combination of the modern and archaic produced a ‘liberal’ version of modernity that appeared to enable Britain to avoid many of the social and political instabilities that plagued other countries in the transition to modernity. It was the peculiarly precocious and peaceable nature of imperial Britain’s modernity – its combination of rapid economic liberalization and growth with relative political stability - that made many consider it an exemplary world historical model all should follow or avoid.
The peculiar and paradoxical way in which imperial Britain became modern provokes a series of questions: If Britons thought of themselves as an essentially liberal people, bringing trade, prosperity, democracy and civilization to the rest of the world how did they also come to be associated with tradition, immense poverty, and imperial violence and exploitation? How did this liberalism lay the foundations for the enormous growth of Britain's welfare and security state in the twentieth century? How did the end of empire transform Britain into a culturally dynamic, multi-racial and multi-faith society? How is Britain's sense of itself still informed by its imperial history, or its relationships to America and Europe?