No empire has been larger or more diverse than the British Empire. At its apogee in the 1930s, 42 million Britons governed 500 million foreign subjects. Britannia ruled the waves and a quarter of the earth's surface was painted red on the map. Where Britain's writ did not run directly, its influence, sustained by matchless industrial and commercial sinews, was often paramount.
Yet no empire (except the Russian) disappeared more swiftly. Within a generation this mighty structure sank almost without trace, leaving behind a scatter of sea-girt dependencies and a ghost of empire, the British Commonwealth of nations. Equally, it can be claimed that Britain bequeathed its former colonies economic foundations, a cultural legacy, a sporting spirit, a legal code and a language more ubiquitous than Latin ever was.