The Incoherence of Empire. Or, the Pitfalls of Ignoring Sovereignty in the History of the British Empire

Jon Wilson* (Corresponding Author), Andrew Richard Dilley

*Corresponding author for this work

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This article argues for an essentially political definition of empire with sovereignty at its core, which recognises that British assertions of sovereignty were multiple, mutually contradictory and thus, taken together, incoherent. Tracing the history of conflict between different archetypes of sovereign authority we argue that imperial crises occurred when empire’s different ideas were forced to speak to one another, during world war, for example. The emphasis here on sovereignty and incoherence contrasts with conceptions of the history of the British Empire which assert to the contrary that empire was a coherent entity. Such coherence can, we argue, only be maintained by treating empire as a metaphor for broader conceptions of power and thus collapsing the history of empire into other totalising meta-concepts such as global capitalism or western cultural dominance. Recognition of the incoherence of imperial sovereignty offers new, more nuanced, readings of central concerns in the literature such as imperial violence and the economics of empire.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages27
JournalTransactions of the Royal Historical Society
Early online date10 Jul 2023
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jul 2023

Bibliographical note

Acknowledgements: This article has been a long time in the making. We would like to thank participants at a workshop on an earlier draft at the University of Aberdeen in 2016, David Edgerton, Mike Kenny, Harshan Kumarasingham and anonymous reviewers for TRHS for comments. Andrew Dilley’s contribution was supported in early phase by an AHRC Early Career Fellowship (AH/M00662X/1).


  • British
  • empire
  • sovereignty
  • law
  • constitutions
  • imperialism
  • colonialism
  • incoherence
  • decolonisation


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