Trying to Make Decolonisation Look Good
- Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-68 by Ronald Hyam
Cambridge, 464 pp, £17.99, February 2007, ISBN 978 0 521 68555 9
- The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire by Peter Clarke
Allen Lane, 559 pp, August 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9830 6
- Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper
Allen Lane, 673 pp, £30.00, January 2007, ISBN 978 0 7139 9782 8
Gosh, how civilised it was. ‘At last, without convulsion, without tremor and without agony, the great ship goes down.’ The ‘great ship’ was the British Empire; the words are those of the imperial historian Jack Gallagher. Noel Annan believed that the ‘peaceful divestment of the empire’ was ‘the most successful political achievement of Our Age’. The main actors on the British side all came out of it pretty chuffed, too. They must have been encouraged in this feeling by the crowds that cheered Lord Mountbatten on India’s Independence night, 14-15 August 1947, and unharnessed the horses from his vice-regal coach to drag it around New Delhi themselves, to the amazement of one journalist: it was as if ‘this nation had become more pro-British than it had ever been since the British came.’ That was immensely gratifying; especially as making their ex-subjects more pro-British was one of the primary aims of the decolonisation strategy, from the moment the empire’s days were seen to be numbered, which was quite early on.
Well, there is something in this – the ‘euthanasia’ scenario, as Ronald Hyam calls it. It is true that most British politicians, and even colonial servants, quickly came round to ‘accepting the inevitable pleasantly’, as Attlee wished them to. They even accepted that the inevitable was likely to come sooner than they originally anticipated or might have liked. If asked to choose, they thought that ‘in the long run giving too much and too soon will prove to be wiser than giving too little and too late’ (Lord Soulbury). That was why there was as little ‘convulsion’ as there was. Many transfers were peaceful and orderly. In Britain, very few people seemed at all fazed by the process, aside from the usual suspects: ‘Empire Loyalists’, old Tory backwoodsmen and young Tory backwoodspeople like Enoch Powell, whose idiosyncratic response to the loss of his beloved India was to erase the empire from his memory, quite literally. (He later argued that it had never existed.) Even Churchill, Hyam claims, was not really interested in the empire, except as a rhetorical device; certainly by comparison with the far more portentous international issues that emerged in the 1950s – the Cold War, the nuclear bomb and so on.
Some people professed to see decolonisation as the culmination of British imperialism, rather than as a reverse; the ‘logical conclusion’, as Hyam puts it, ‘of the policy of successive governments’, going back possibly to 1839 and the Durham Report on Canada. It was Macaulay who, around that time, said that if the British idea of ‘liberty’ took such a hold in India as to lead it to seize the country for itself, this would be ‘the proudest day in English history’. ‘The transfer of power,’ the Colonial Office proclaimed in 1950, ‘is not a sign of weakness or of liquidation of the Empire, but is, in fact, a sign and source of strength.’ Obviously, the Commonwealth, on which many liberal-imperialist hopes were still pinned, was a comfort here. So was Harold Wilson’s idea (later taken up by Tony Blair) that Britain’s past imperial experience gave her unique tools and skills that could still be used to solve world problems; Britain was said to possess cultural sensitivities, for example, that the US conspicuously lacked. Attlee, too, thought the Americans could learn from Britain on matters of race. Macmillan had the idea that the British might continue to rule through the Americans, like the Greeks in the later Roman Empire: ‘They ran it because they were so much cleverer than the Romans, but they never told the Romans this.’ (That is in Peter Clarke’s book.) He won’t have been serious; but the levity of the remark suggests that the fall of the empire wasn’t upsetting him too much.
The inevitability of the end of empire was accepted mainly because it was so blindingly obvious to all save the most abject blimps. (They may have included some leading politicians – Churchill initially, and Ernest Bevin.) The disparity between Britain’s postwar situation and her colonial responsibilities was just too huge. Hyam spends some time debating which was the key factor: colonial nationalism, economic constraints, lack of ‘will’ to carry on or international pressures (US, USSR, the UN), before settling on the last of these. In general, he is dismissive of the colonial nationalist contribution. ‘The important question perhaps,’ he suggests, ‘is how the British government arrived at the point where they were prepared to open the door to whoever knocked.’ Well, perhaps they had always been at that point. Another way of looking at it is that the empire had been ‘overstretched’ for a long time: run on a shoestring and with very few personnel, inadequately defended by a second-rate military, and with little domestic commitment to it, especially if it involved sustained repression. Its eventual collapse should thus come as no surprise. (Hyam puts the beginning of the end in 1918. I’d go back even further.) All it needed – all it would have needed at almost any time in the previous hundred years – was a serious ‘Western’ challenge, and a wholesale withdrawal of the indigenous collaboration that had helped sustain the empire: that, rather than Britain’s subjects actually ganging up against her (though they did that too). Imperialists, who were by and large a gloomy bunch, had warned of this for decades, and this may be why they rolled over so easily.
It is also why Britain started concentrating, perhaps earlier than other nations, on the essential task that remained: not resisting decolonisation, but making it look good. There were several aspects to this. First, they needed to get something out of it: ‘informal’ ties, like trade and defence treaties, to replace the old ones, and the continuing goodwill of their former subjects, if only to prevent them turning to Moscow or Beijing. (The Cold War was a vital part of the context here.) Second, they had to avoid the impression of ‘scuttle’, of abandoning their responsibilities at the first sign of difficulty: a charge that was constantly levelled at Labour governments by the Conservatives, including Churchill (rhetorically). (In fact, in power the Tories proved equally scuttly – an indication, perhaps, of how inexorable the trend was.) They needed to persuade people they were in control of the process; to which end it would help enormously if they could argue that it, or something very like it, had been intended all long. It was here that the traditions going back at least as far as Macaulay of devolution to ‘white’ colonies, and ‘trusteeship’ in the others – the latter a genuine strain in British colonial policy, if sometimes a rather tenuous one – came in useful. But they also presented a problem. If Britain had been planning for this all along – if her imperialism really was fundamentally a nurturing, educative process, as the ‘trust’ trope implied – then there should have been something to show for it by the 1950s and 1960s, to justify the judgment that these countries were now ‘mature’ enough to be given ‘latch-keys, bank accounts and shotguns’. (These were the words notoriously used by Herbert Morrison when he rejected the idea of self-government for some colonies in 1943: it would be like giving these things, he said, to ‘a child of ten’.) Britain needed to have completed the job.
But that emphatically wasn’t the situation in most colonial territories. Before 1938, and excepting South Asia, ‘Britain’s colonial record’ in the fields of economic and political development ‘can only be described as deplorable’ (Hyam). This was partly because the people in charge believed they had far more time than turned out to be the case, though it is difficult to see many signs of planning for independence even in the long term. It would take a mammoth effort to catch up. In 1938 some urgency began to be injected by a new colonial secretary, Malcolm MacDonald. ‘It is in my view imperative that, at a time when the “colonial question” is being ventilated at home and abroad,’ he wrote, ‘we should ourselves be as far as possible above reproach.’ He had a considerable effect. But it was not enough. Almost none of the nations that emerged from the decolonisation process in the 1950s and 1960s could be convincingly presented as having been adequately ‘prepared’. (Malaya and Singapore were an exception, partly because of their front-line position in the fight against Communism, which gave Britain a little more time, backed by the US.) Towards the end, Britain was letting some extraordinary regimes take over: Swaziland, for example, was run by a king who disliked elections on the grounds that they only bred subversives and other ‘hyenas urinating upwind to stampede the cattle below’.
There are other difficulties with the ‘great ship going down’ view. It may have been a matter of ‘euthanasia’ for the mother empire; but it was far less painless for the ‘children’ whose births were killing her – many of them premature, unhappy (after that first intoxicating breath of freedom) and malformed. Most of the malformations can be directly attributed to imperialism: the artificial boundaries between ethnic groups, for example; the agricultural monocultures encouraged (or forced) with an imperial economy in mind; and the waves of immigration that independent peoples might have put a stop to. (Jews into Palestine is the obvious example; though Hyam and Clarke place a lot of the blame for that on Truman, and both wax indignant over America’s hypocrisy here, in insisting that Britain admit more refugees into Palestine while adopting rigid quotas itself.)
In some ways the British outlook on the religious and racial issues that were involved can be admired. One of the virtues of the British Empire and Commonwealth, its idealists claimed, was its racial inclusiveness; which is why Britain did not object – was, rather, relieved – when apartheid South Africa left the club in 1961. The Commonwealth, Lord Home wrote to Macmillan just before this happened, ‘would undoubtedly be happier and closer-knit were the ugly duckling out of the nest’. (He had obviously forgotten the dénouement of the story of the ugly duckling.) Many late imperial ‘mistakes’ were due to an underestimation of national, ethnic and religious loyalties, which were probably bound to count for more when the imperial umpire was removed. South-East Asia was a vivid racial mix while Britain was dominating all races, but could be a bloody one when all those races had to jockey for position. This was why Britain was so reluctant to partition first India and then Palestine; waxed so lyrically about ‘multiculturalism’; and devised all those plans for ‘partnership’ – the buzzword of the 1960s – between blacks, whites and Indians in east central Africa, which in the end came to nothing. Of course, there was a cynical element to the last of these. Hyam calls talk of ‘partnership’ in the ill-fated Central African Federation, for example, ‘a fraud’. On the other hand, there is undoubtedly something touchingly idealistic about the notion of black and white, Jews and Arabs, Muslims and Hindus, Chinese and Malays, Shias and Sunnis, Latvians and Russians (and so on) living together in amity; and a sadness in the thought that the only way to guarantee this in certain circumstances might be under an imperial yoke.
British imperialists, however, did tend to idealise. This is evident in many of the official documents that form the basis of Hyam’s fine study (some of it recycled from volumes of these documents which he edited), and inevitably colour his perspective too. Most Whitehall officials – with all their faults, the worst probably their tendency to patronise – were good and well-intentioned men (nearly always men, of course), sympathetic, undogmatic and with a broader, more philosophical view of both the world and the future than, for example, the political diarists on whom Peter Clarke mainly bases his study.
Clarke’s book, The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire, is a curiosity; not really a book about the end of the British Empire (if it were, it would go a lot further back, forwards and sideways), it considers three years (1944-47) of Anglo-American relations in terms of a number of issues, not all of them imperial, viewed through the eyes of those on both sides who negotiated them (and wrote diaries), plus a couple of pretty extremist newspapers (the Daily Mail and the Chicago Tribune). It repeats but also fascinatingly elaborates and illustrates the argument that Churchill’s imperialism got up the Americans’ noses, strengthening their resolve not to help Britain in any way that would sustain its empire; which is ironic, whether Churchill was a keen imperialist (as he always seemed to be), or as ‘rhetorical’ about the empire as Hyam suggests. But of course the Anglo-American spat is only one factor behind the ‘end of empire’.
This is a highly interesting book, and full of ammunition for those who want to undermine the myth of a ‘special’ (or at least, a specially fair) relationship between Britain and the US in the mid-20th century; but the title is seriously misleading. Perhaps it is intended for an American readership, for whom Britain’s imperialism is the only interesting thing about the country in this period, as it was for Roosevelt and Truman. I was interested to learn from a footnote in Hyam’s book that when Attlee’s memoirs were published in America in 1978, the title was changed from A Prime Minister Remembers to Twilight of Empire; I guess for the same reason. (The Americans wouldn’t have been all that interested in the welfare state.) So far as the break-up of the empire is concerned, Clarke’s work doesn’t really get to the bottom of it, mainly because the day-to-day politicking of politicians, and the writing up of it in diaries immediately afterwards, doesn’t conduce to bottom. Colonial and India Office reports and memos, on the other hand, have plenty.
Still, there is something lost even here. What one misses in Hyam’s account – wide-ranging and magisterial though it is (and sometimes provocative) – is a sense of how the final years of the empire felt on the ground: among district officers, British (and ‘native’) soldiers, policemen, freedom fighters and other locals (including women). We know that their take on it wasn’t always as the worthy CO men would have liked it to be. Hyam mentions most of the worst atrocities (like those in Kenya), and gives some examples of the endemic racism all over the empire that high officials generally deplored but could not eradicate – viewing ‘natives’, as Orwell put it, as ‘a kind of undifferentiated brown-stuff’. He also suggests, however, that much of this was kept from those officials, for reasons he does not quite understand: ‘It is surprising how little ministers and officials in London seem to have known – or wanted to know – about discreditable incidents … My impression is that they knew far less about misbehaviour overseas than their predecessors had done.’ (On another occasion he mischievously suggests – this is one of his provocations – that maybe they couldn’t see why such a fuss was made about beating natives, because they had all been ‘routinely caned at their public schools and even enjoyed it as sexually exciting’.) This is why Britain’s Declining Empire must be seen as telling – or at least getting to the bottom of – only one side of the story. Hyam would probably acknowledge this.
‘The end of empire is not a pretty thing if examined too closely,’ as Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper put it in their two-volume history of Britain’s colonial wars in India and South-East Asia from the 1940s to 1963, which forms the perfect complement to Hyam’s work.[*] It was clearly not as pretty as that ‘great ship goes down’ image implies, certainly for those on board. It seems uglier in this account than in most others because of the authors’ insistence on describing these events at ground, and even underground, level – what they call the ‘darker underside’. Another effect of this (and part of its purpose) is to shift the perspective from which most Britons (though not Americans) view World War Two, from the European fronts to the ‘Great Asian War’ that Bayly and Harper see as raging from 1937 to 1975, and which might well be more significant in the long term, especially if Asia continues to rise in terms of world power. This is what makes these volumes so original and compelling, and the picture they draw so very different from assumptions in Whitehall, or in the saloons on the liners that took Britain’s supplicants for American charity back and forth across the Atlantic in the late and immediately post-European war years.
The war in Asia showed up the pretensions of British imperialism for what they were. For a start there was the infamous loss of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942, the colony collapsing like the house made of straw. (Apparently, the story that the guns in Singapore could only point out to sea, and couldn’t be turned round to face the Japanese land invasion, is only partly true; they could be turned, but didn’t have the right shells to use against an army.) The primary obligation of any government, surely, is to protect its subjects. This the British regimes in South-East Asia signally failed to do, fatally undermining their legitimacy. Even where British administrations remained, they proved incapable of fulfilling their basic duties, as in Bengal in 1943, where imperial neglect, incompetence and occasionally sheer malevolence contributed significantly to the huge death toll in the great famine of that year. Leo Amery, the secretary of state for India at the time, at first tried to put the blame on the Indians, for over-breeding. In fact, it was a largely government-made tragedy, comparable in its effects (three million deaths) to the Nazi Holocaust (six million). (Bayly and Harper use this word for it. Hyam doesn’t mention it; but neither did I, in my own books, until recently: it is another of those ‘hidden’ things.) One can only marvel at the nerve of those who condemned the erstwhile subjects whose response to this situation was to exploit it in order to fight British colonialism, as ‘traitors’ to the ‘King-Emperor’. A defence witness at the trial of one Singapore resident charged with treason compared the Japanese regime that took over there to ‘a stepfather after the real father, the British, left their children behind. The stepfather was brutal … Now, alas, the real father has returned and is blaming these leaders for obeying their stepfather.’ The analogy is (literally) patronising, which may be why the (Japanese) witness chose it – he knew it would strike a chord with the British. But the point seems a fair one. What – as the nationalists might have asked, and did ask, in other ways – had the king-emperor ever done for them?
Very little, is the answer in the cases of most of these colonies. Britain had not been in South-East Asia very long as a proper colonising presence – only 56 years in Burma. Government was spread thin. Over large areas it worked indirectly – through local sultans and rajahs, for example, or by allowing the hill ‘tribes’ their head. ‘There was a curious insubstantial quality to Britain’s Asian empire … The British governed, but they did not, strictly speaking, rule.’ In the Malay States it was done ‘by smoke and mirrors’. For military backup they depended hugely on local soldiery, and on the Indian Army, which was predominantly ‘native’. Much of this also applied to India itself, especially the ‘princely states’. Britain didn’t do much in most of this vast region, therefore, beyond trying to stay put. There was not much fatherly ‘trusteeship’ there.
And that’s before taking into account the qualities of many of the fathers themselves. British Malaya, Bayly and Harper claim, ‘was built on a viciously insidious form of apartheid’. Ordinary British and Australian soldiers were banned from their clubs on grounds of class; non-whites were banned too. The British were ‘mean-spirited’, and could be brutal, for example in crushing labour unrest. They dealt in stereotypes: ‘the Tamil was childlike and needed discipline’; the Chinese secretive; Malays work-shy and so on. Nationalism was put down to ‘adolescent’ or sheep-like behaviour, criminality, intimidation, or, in one case (in a pep talk to British soldiers by an old Burma hand), constipation. Words like ‘extremist’, ‘fanatical’ and ‘terrorist’ were routinely hurled at it from the mid-1940s onwards, thus betraying ‘a fundamental lack of comprehension’. Many of the British were arrogant and culturally insensitive. When Lady Diana Cooper took off her shoes before entering the great Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon, as you were supposed to do, she claimed she was upbraided by the governor, the terrible Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, for dealing ‘such a blow to white prestige that the British might lose Burma’. (Hyam has some harsh words for Dorman-Smith: ‘aloof and blimpish … typical of a certain type of ineffably awful Old Harrovian’.) Rubber planters had a particularly poor reputation in Britain, which they tended to resent, but was clearly deserved. Of course there were exceptions, some of them very exceptional indeed, like those maverick ex-imperial civil servants who ‘went native’ and radical, such as J.S. Furnivall (a leading actor here); and even some of the newer recruits, who no longer had the ‘dependable’ backgrounds of the previous generation – old ‘Indian families’, public school and the like – and so lacked a ‘natural allegiance to the empire’. One of them, Sydney Bolt, a Communist, saw his function as being to ‘bore into the Raj from within’. Assam tea-planters (mainly Scots) also seem to have been good eggs. In general, however, the ‘government’ of Britain’s eastern empire on the eve of the Japanese attacks doesn’t come out of these accounts too well.
Luckily for Britain in the short term, the Japanese proved even more brutal, ensuring that at least as many of Britain’s colonial subjects helped the Allies against them as vice-versa. But it generally wasn’t for love of the Brits, even if there were some exceptions. At one point in the war, for example, Indian Army troops were entertained with this ditty, sung by Manipuri dancing girls:
We love the British Empire,
We love it very much,
It gives us peace and happiness,
It gives us clothes and such.
But that could have been for the benefit of the officers in the audience. Obviously, most of the British welcomed the empire back, as did many of the Eurasians they so despised. There were also the old feudal rulers the British had propped up in Malaya and elsewhere; but even they could no longer count on the support of their subjects, for exactly the same reason that the British couldn’t. By failing to protect them, the rajas had ‘committed derhaka’ – treason – ‘against the people’, so justifying popular rebellion. (Even being divinely ordained was no protection.) Otherwise, scarcely anyone in Asia wanted the British to stay after they had seen off the Japanese. One reason was that they seemed to have shed none of their arrogance. ‘I can hardly believe,’ wrote one official turned away from the Naafi in postwar Singapore because he was Chinese, ‘that racial discrimination still exists.’ One young army captain (later Dirk Bogarde) recalled, on his arrival in Calcutta in 1945, seeing an Indian porter being beaten by ‘a fat, ginger-haired, moustached, red-faced stocky little major … Screaming. Thrashing at the cringing Indian with his swagger cane … My first sight and sound of the Raj at work.’
Apparently, little had changed. Assaults on women by drunken British and Indian soldiers added to the locals’ anger; one Kuala Lumpur newspaper professed to see no difference between these and the ‘Japanese Fascists’ outrages’. ‘If the populace were happy to see us,’ as one British officer in Kuala Lumpur put it in September 1945, ‘they proved adept at concealing their emotions.’ A man called Chin Peng recorded his own resentment, that ‘we are letting them back unimpeded to reclaim a territory they have plundered for so long.’ Some of that resentment struck home. Eric Stokes, later a distinguished historian of India, complained in 1945 that walking around Calcutta in uniform he was made to feel ‘rather like a Nazi officer must have felt walking along a Paris boulevard’.
This added to Britain’s difficulties. It would have to rely on men like Stokes to stand any chance of holding on to the empire. But very few ordinary British soldiers had much enthusiasm for fighting wars in other people’s countries, especially hot, steamy, disease-ridden ones like parts of Burma and Malaya, just to keep the empire going – or, as one Scots Guards officer was heard to say in 1950, ‘to chase bare-arsed niggers around’. That wasn’t why they had joined the forces. Many of them empathised with the nationalists. ‘I am all in favour,’ one soldier wrote from India in 1945, ‘of giving India her freedom if these chaps I have mixed with and spoken to are an example of her qualities.’ This, of course, is one of the characteristics of a conscript army: it tends to be more broadly representative of metropolitan society, and more left-wing. Morale was poor. There were mutinies. Local troops were also unreliable. The great Indian Army, which had done so much of the hard policing work in Britain’s imperial outposts, became unavailable after Indian and Pakistani independence in 1947, though Britain did manage to cream some Gurkhas off. The US was an uncertain ally when it came to propping up the empire, at least before Communism hove into view, and then only until the process of non-Communist nation-building could be completed. American suspicion of Brits generally was profound, and not entirely based on ignorance and misunderstanding – though there must have been a little of that in General Joseph Stilwell’s dismissal of the lot of them in 1945 as ‘pig-fuckers’. (‘Vinegar Joe’ features in all these accounts, mainly because of juicy quotes like this. On another occasion he referred to Mountbatten, Britain’s last – and liberal – viceroy, as a ‘childish pisspot’. ‘One knows what he meant,’ Hyam comments.)
This was the ‘open door’ against which nationalists merely had to push in the post-war period in order to be ‘granted’ self-government. But it wasn’t always as simple as that, for either side. For Britain there still remained the crucial imperative to make it ‘look good’. In South-East Asia that meant ensuring that the successor states were pro-Western. This explains the huge military and political investment in Malaya, which was successful in this sense, but also gave rise to some of the worst excesses of imperialism in its final stages. These included state terrorism (Sir Henry Gurney, the high commissioner, justified British army policy there on the grounds that the Chinese were ‘notoriously inclined to lean towards whichever side frightens them more and at the moment this seems to be the government’); gunning down insurrections; forced resettlements and collective detentions on the Boer War ‘concentration camp’ pattern, later repeated in Kenya; a ‘police state’ regime (Bayly and Harper’s description); and a number of what must count as atrocities, one of which in particular, Batang Kali, was hushed up at the time, but was later compared to My Lai. ‘It is most important,’ Gurney wrote in justification of the cover-up, ‘that police and soldiers who are not saints, should not get the impression that every small mistake is going to be the subject of a public inquiry or that it is better to do nothing at all than to do the wrong thing quickly.’
For the locals, of course – those battened down in the cabins and holds of the great ship as it foundered – the door (or battens) inevitably appeared stiffer to open here than it did in some other places, partly due to the efforts of Gurney and those like him. This is where Bayly and Harper are at their best, in describing these complex wars against two kinds of imperialism – British and Japanese – from the viewpoint of the ‘brown-stuff’: the ‘forgotten’ British armies in Burma and Malaysia, treated brownly by the local white communities; the Indian and local ‘native’ battalions that fought alongside them, usually in more leading roles; the Japanese themselves; the nationalists who struggled against Britain; and sundry other large groups of people whose mere size probably entitles them to be classed as ‘armies’, that is prisoners of war, forced labour gangs, ‘comfort women’, women more generally, the starving victims of imperialism (partly) in Bengal, fleeing refugees, and so on. To very few of these millions of people – and to very few of the Kikuyu in Kenya, or blacks in other parts of southern Africa, or for that matter many of the whites – did the boat appear to be going down ‘without convulsion, without tremor and without agony’. Nor do the nationalists whose often heroic efforts Bayly and Harper describe in such impressive (sometimes relentless) detail appear to have been aware of how easy it really was, after the British had thrown in the towel.
This doesn’t alter the fact that decolonisation did go surprisingly smoothly, for Britain; especially with the gloss that was put on it at the time. This was Britain’s major success: to persuade its own people, at least, that it was so much more civilised when it came to shedding colonies than, for example, France in Algeria (despite Kenya), and less obstinate than Portugal (in spite of Rhodesia). In fact, the process was usually messy, often bloody, and very rarely in Britain’s control. This belied the quite genuine ‘trusteeship’ instincts and ambitions of the top colonial officials in Whitehall and sowed the seeds of trouble thereafter. ‘Nowhere down the length of the [South-East Asian] crescent,’ Bayly and Harper conclude, ‘did relinquished or devolved British authority pass quietly into the hands of homogeneous nation-states. The divisions of colonial politics were to scarify the region for two generations.’ People should reflect on this, before feeling too much nostalgia for the British Empire, or setting it up as a model for America today.
It’s a risky business, taking on an imperial mission with a view to leaving something good behind. That was always Britain’s rationale, the thing that supposedly distinguished its empire (like its successor, the American empire) from most previous ones, and which should disqualify the argument that you sometimes find being made in support of it, that ‘things were better under it than they are now.’ Of course, this wasn’t the major motive of most British imperialists, which is one reason their empire didn’t on the whole turn out like that. A second is that it was, and always had been, far too weak and flawed for its (supposed) liberal purpose: maintained largely through bluff, collaboration and occasional brutality (especially when its legitimacy was questioned, which is the reason atrocities built up in those final days); constantly having to trim, compromise and ‘appease’ in order to avoid crises; run on the cheap by a minimal staff whose altruistic dedication (in very many instances) never quite outweighed their lack of imagination, illiberalism and rough, racist edges; and hardly supported at all by the mass of the population in Britain, unless they could be persuaded that it was a wholly altruistic venture, and hence emphatically not when they went out as soldiers to India or Burma (as Captain Bogarde did) and saw what it was really like on the ground. You need much more than this to establish liberal successor states that will do you proud. No empire has ever succeeded in doing much better than merely keeping things going. India, Malaya and Singapore may be the nearest Britain got to this, the first chiefly by its own efforts and the others mainly because by the 1950s liberal (or liberalish) imperialism was the only sort Britain had left. (Even so, both still have some damaging postcolonial legacies.) Seen from this perspective decolonisation was a damn disaster. That must affect our judgment of the British Empire itself. Even if things had been better under it, which is arguable, it wouldn’t justify an imperialism whose aspirations were so much higher.
[*] The first volume is Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan (Penguin, 554 pp., £10.99, August 2005, 978 0 14 029331 9).