Watching the sun set - The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire

In July 1944, Winston Churchill, the prime minister of Great Britain, proposed a meeting of the Big Three, the Anglo-American-Soviet triumvirate that was presently to be victorious in the war against Nazi Germany. His idea was that he, Roosevelt and Stalin should each sail in his own battleship to an anchorage off Invergordon in Scotland, where each would be provided with his own mansion on shore, and the King of England could entertain them all at Balmoral.

Just a year later, we see Churchill, by then no longer presiding over His Majesty's government, saying goodbye to Field Marshal Lord Wavell, the viceroy of India, who has been in London trying to arrange the handover of power to his Indian subjects. "Keep a bit of India", are Churchill's wistful last words to him - all he can say, as the British prepare to dissolve the empire he himself had famously surmised might last a thousand years.

The two passages superficially summarise the message of Peter Clarke's work. In the first the British empire is apparently still in the full flush of pomp and confidence, led by a charismatic genius, thinking in battleships; in the second it is reduced to bathos, its now impotent champion figuratively closing the door as the pro-consul returns, panoplied but forlorn, to his duties. In between, as this long book majestically demonstrates, the empire tortuously, deceptively and often misleadingly progresses towards extinction. "Buggering on" is how Churchill himself once described it.

And it is above all his story, as the truest personification of the empire - inspiring, fallible, maddening, foolish, visionary, lovable and often misleading. It is a tale less tragic than pathetic. At its start Churchill is genuinely heroic, properly representing a nation in arms, and recognising already that it was likely to be Britain's finest hour. Halfway through we see him struggling to maintain its status as the two gigantic allies inexorably assume control of the war - they never did bring their battleships to Scotland, but instead met at Yalta, where Churchill made do with a 22-year-old passenger liner. And by the end he has been dismissed from office by his own electorate, battered by the long struggle and apparently more interested in the past and future than in the present.

The pathos, however, lies not in himself - he never seems personally pathetic - but in his times, and the Shakespearian fascination of Clarke's narrative concerns the nature of history. The British empire's principal enemy was its principal friend. Even at their most generous, Americans of all parties were essentially hostile not to Britain itself, but to its imperial pretensions. Even Lend-Lease, which Churchill characterised as the most selfless act in history, turned out to be a sort of Pyrrhic gift, and an inescapable theme of the book is American suspicion of British imperialist motives, expressed in the squabbling of generals, the malice of Zionists and the constant nagging of isolationist newspapers.

Little by little in these 560 pages, as the war ends and the uneasy peace begins, we watch the British presence pale, and British influence weaken. Professor Clarke's thousand days are approximate - his first chapter is set in September 1944, his last chapter takes us to August 1947, and in fact the empire struggled on into the 1960s. It is true, though, that in the couple of years between VE Day and the day of Indian independence, the imperial sun palpably set. Palestine and Mau-Mau, Suez and the groundnut scheme, even the death of Churchill himself - these were like the repetitive closing chords of a Beethoven symphony that tantalisingly recur when we have long known how it is going to end.

If that one incomparable character dominates the story, an extraordinary gallery of less striking players strut their hours in it: Roosevelt and Gandhi and Bevin and Montgomery and Uncle Joe Stalin; the austere Stafford Cripps, the hatchet-faced Molotov, Truman of Kansas City; rock-like General Marshall, the irrepressible General Patton. And all around them too, their responses swept here and there by propaganda, atavism and the fortunes of war, the cannon-fodder millions of the belligerent states.

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