Trying to Make Decolonisation Look Good

Bernard Porter

  • 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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] 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).