But in fact there are probably more British soldiers, sailors, airmen and diplomats scattered around the globe than at any time since the 1950s. In an understated fashion, the British military and political involvement abroad has spread and deepened since the end of the Cold War and the war against Saddam Hussein in 1991. If a Labour cabinet is sitting in Downing Street by next Christmas it will be interesting, to say the least, how it handles this inheritance.
Few politicians would have thought, in the late 1970s, that up to 13,000 British servicemen would one day be flying in to impose peace on a disintegrated Adriatic post-communist state - to the applause, moreover, of the liberal left. Yet the British commitment to the Implementation Force in former Yugoslavia commands bipartisan support in parliament, apart from the doubts of a few Tory isolationists.
In the Middle East, RAF crews patrol the skies over the Kurdish safe havens of northern Iraq and watch the airlanes of the Gulf, their presence a hangover from the battle to free Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. Some 30,000 Britons live in Saudi Arabia, members of what Douglas Hurd admiringly called the "British Diaspora", many of them involved in this country's largest ever arms deal, the controversial Al-Yamamah project. The Sultanate of Oman, in the disapproving words of Tehran radio, is practically a "school for imperialists". We are bound by treaty to the defence of Kuwait and enjoy influence with the rulers of every emirate and sheikdom in the Gulf.
In Africa the British run officially acknowledged training programmes or exercises with the armed forces of Kenya, Mozambique and South Africa, among others. Our covert or merely "unannounced" involvement elsewhere in Africa, the Middle East and south Asia may safely be presumed.
Events have not, therefore, vindicated Harold Wilson's decision in 1967 to withdraw most British forces east of Suez. Even when the flag comes down over Hong Kong, British forces will still be present in Brunei and on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia in support of the Royal Navy.
There is, of course, the Falklands garrison in the South Atlantic but elsewhere in the western hemisphere the armed forces are likely to have personnel at any time in Canada, the Caribbean and on patrol in the North Atlantic.
The span of these undertakings puts Britain on a par with France in the level of its overseas interests and aspirations. Under Francois Mitterrand's Socialist presidency, the French role abroad ranged from brazen interventionism to covert subversion. British intelligence has a superior range to the French, thanks to its arrangements with the US, Canada, South Africa, Australia and a select few Middle Eastern powers. But when the two countries' nuclear deterrent forces are put into the equation, their global poise seems remarkably similar - hence John Major's declaration of fraternal amity with Jacques Chirac and his refusal to condemn French nuclear tests in the south Pacific.
All of this comes at a price, of course, and any Labour government may have its doubts about - for example - the cost of such overseas engagements, the wisdom of a conspicuous friendship with the Saudi royal family or the desirability of British military links to dubious Third World governments.
One aspect of Britain's expanded role over which there is little choice is the growth of diplomacy. Churchill once remarked that "the reason for having diplomatic relations is not to confer a compliment but to secure a convenience" and the need for that convenience has increased according to the number of new nations born in the aftermath of communism.
We may have abandoned the sprawling cantonment that once housed Her Britannic Majesty's embassy to Afghanistan. The demure words of the Foreign Office List may inform us of "staff temporarily withdrawn from post" in the ruins of Mogadishu. The wistful may lament the closure of the consulate in Venice or mourn the demise of the odd ambassadorial yacht. But the number of actual embassies open for business has multiplied.
British envoys now man posts in Zagreb, Belgrade, Skopje and Sarajevo. The division of Czechoslovakia into two states doubled the need for representation there.
Touring the former Soviet Union, Malcolm Rifkind made his first stop as Foreign Secretary at the new embassy to the Ukraine in Kiev. Our man in Minsk has the task of tending to relations with Belarus. Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia demand an embassy each, as does Uzbekistan. Out on the vast borderlands of the Great Game, a rather lonely ambassador in Almaty, Kazakhstan, also watches over Bishkek, the lugubrious capital of Kyrgyzstan, a state whose intimate connections with the interests of the United Kingdom may not immediately seem apparent.
No doubt, then, that the Queen's modulated tones will crackle across the airwaves of the BBC World Service to diplomatic quarters almost as far flung as those over which Queen Victoria, her great-great grandmother, reigned.
Just in case any delusions of grandeur should creep in, however, spare a thought for Her Majesty's Ambassador and staff in Azerbaijan, a not untypical new post, who have only just moved out of Room 214, The Old Intourist Hotel, Baku.Reuse content