Britain may have emerged victorious from World War Two, but at what cost to its global empire?
By Dr John Darwin
Last updated 2011-03-03
Britain may have emerged victorious from World War Two, but at what cost to its global empire?
The collapse of British imperial power - all but complete by the mid-1960s - can be traced directly to the impact of World War Two.
The catastrophic British defeats in Europe and Asia between 1940 and 1942 destroyed its financial and economic independence, the real foundation of the imperial system.
Britain had survived the war, but its wealth, prestige and authority had been severely reduced.
It also erased the old balance of power on which British security - at home and abroad - had largely depended.
Although Britain was one of the victorious allies, the defeat of Germany had been mainly the work of Soviet and American power, while that of Japan had been an almost entirely American triumph.
Britain had survived and recovered the territory lost during the war. But its prestige and authority, not to mention its wealth, had been severely reduced.
The British found themselves locked into an imperial endgame from which every exit was blocked except the trapdoor to oblivion.
An early symptom of the weakness of the empire was Britain's withdrawal from India in 1947.
During World War Two, the British had mobilised India's resources for their imperial war effort. They crushed the attempt of Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress to force them to 'quit India' in 1942.
Nonetheless, in an earlier bid to win Congress support, Britain had promised to give India full independence once the war was over.
Britain hoped that a self-governing India would remain part of the imperial defence.
Within months of the end of the war, it was glaringly obvious that Britain lacked the means to defeat a renewed mass campaign by the Congress. Its officials were exhausted and troops were lacking.
But the British still hoped that a self-governing India would remain part of their system of 'imperial defence'. For this reason, Britain was desperate to keep India (and its army) united. These hopes came to nothing.
By the time that the last viceroy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, arrived in India, Congress and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru had begun to accept that unless they agreed to partition, they risked a descent into chaos and communal war before power could be transferred from British into Indian hands.
It was left to Mountbatten to stage a rapid handover to two successor governments (India and Pakistan) before the ink was dry on their post-imperial frontiers.
The huge sense of relief at a more or less dignified exit, and much platitudinous rhetoric, disguised the fact that the end of the Raj was a staggering blow for British world power.
Britain had lost the colony that had provided much of its military muscle east of Suez, as well as paying 'rent' for the 'hire' of much of Britain's own army.
The burden of the empire defence shifted back to a Britain that was both weaker and poorer than it had been before 1939.
Britain was overshadowed by two new superpowers, the United States and Soviet Union.
For these reasons, it may seem strange that the loss of India did not lead to a drastic reappraisal of Britain's world interests and a 'timely' decision to abandon its far-flung commitments from the Caribbean to Hong Kong.
Britain was now overshadowed by the United States and Soviet Union, its domestic economy had been seriously weakened and the Labour government had embarked on a huge and expensive programme of social reform.
In fact British Prime Minister Clement Attlee and his cabinet colleague Ernest Bevin, who dominated Labour's foreign policy at the time, drew quite the opposite conclusion with regards to the future of Britain's oversees interests.
Attlee and Bevan believed Britain's economic recovery and the survival of sterling as a great trading currency required closer integration with the old 'white' dominions, especially Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
The 'sterling area', which included the empire, Commonwealth (the main exception was Canada) and some other countries, accounted for half of the world's trade in the early post-war years.
British leaders had no doubt that Britain must uphold its status as the third great power.
The British were also determined to exploit the tropical colonies more effectively due to the fact that their cocoa, rubber and tin could be sold for much-needed dollars.
Nor was it simply an economic imperative. Britain's strategic defence against the new Soviet threat required forward air bases from which to bomb Southern Russia - the industrial arsenal of the Soviet Union. That meant staying on in the Middle East even after the breakdown of British control in Palestine and its hasty evacuation in 1948.
In Egypt, Iraq, Jordan and the Gulf, the British were determined to hang on to their treaties and bases, including the vast Suez canal zone. They wanted help from Australia and hoped for Indian support against Soviet influence in Asia.
Across the whole spectrum of party opinion, British leaders had no doubt that Britain must uphold its status as the third great power, and that it could only do so by maintaining its empire and the Commonwealth link. Europe, by contrast, they saw as a zone of economic and political weakness. It was Britain's overseas assets that would help to defend it.
In the 1950s, British governments struggled to achieve this post-war imperial vision. They had already reinvented the Commonwealth in 1949 in order to let India remain a republic, overturning the old rule that the British monarch must be head of state in a Commonwealth country.
They accepted the need to grant increasing self-government and then independence to some of their most valuable colonies - including Ghana and Malaya in 1957 - on the understanding that they remained in Britain's sphere of financial and strategic influence.
The British governments took up the challenge of anti-colonial revolts in Malaya, Kenya and Cyprus. They invested heavily in up-to-date weaponry and fretted over the slowness of the British economy to resume its old role as the great lender of capital.
The 1956 Suez Crisis was a savage revelation of Britain's financial and military weakness.
By the end of the decade, things were not going well. Staying in the Middle East had led step-by-step to the confrontation with President Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and the disastrous decision to seek his overthrow by force in collusion with Israel.
The 1956 Suez Crisis was a savage revelation of Britain's financial and military weakness and destroyed much of what remained of Britain's influence in the Middle East.
In the colonial territories, more active interference in social and economic matters, with a view to speeding the pace of development, had aroused wide opposition and strengthened nationalist movements.
It was becoming much harder for Britain to control the rate of political change, especially where the presence of settlers (as in Kenya and the Rhodesias) sharpened conflicts over land.
Britain's position as the third great power and 'deputy leader' of the Western Alliance was threatened by the resurgence of France and West Germany, who jointly presided over the new European Economic Community (EEC).
Britain's claim on American support, the indispensable prop of imperial survival, could no longer be taken for granted. And Britain's own economy, far from accelerating, was stuck in a rut.
With conditions as they stood, it was now becoming increasingly difficult to maintain even the semblance of British world power. In the 1960s, British governments attempted forlornly to make bricks without straw.
Britain tried and failed twice to enter the EEC, hoping partly to galvanise its stagnant economy, partly to smash the Franco-German 'alliance'.
Britain was finding it too costly to protect its remaining colonies.
To avoid being trapped in a costly struggle with local nationalist movements, Britain backed out of most of the remaining colonies with unseemly haste. As late as 1959, it had publicly scheduled a degree of self-government for Kenya, Uganda and Tanganyika. All became independent between 1961 and 1963.
British leaders gamely insisted, and no doubt believed, that Britain would remain at the 'top table' of world power - a status guaranteed by its nuclear deterrent and its continuing influence in the ex-colonial world, and symbolised by the Commonwealth which the ex-colonies had joined.
The situation did not go as planned. Britain's failure to stop the white settler revolt in Southern Rhodesia in 1965 was a huge embarrassment and drew fierce condemnation from many new Commonwealth states.
In South East Asia, protecting the new federation of Malaysia against Indonesian aggression became more and more costly.
Meanwhile the British economy staggered from crisis to crisis and the burden became unsustainable. Devaluation of the pound in November 1967 was followed within weeks by the decision to withdraw Britain's military presence east of Suez.
When Britain finally entered the European Community in 1973, the line had been drawn under Britain's imperial age.
But the ending of an empire is rarely a tidy affair. The Rhodesian rebellion was to last until the late 1970s, Britain fought a war to retain the Falkland Islands in 1982 and Hong Kong continued, with tacit Chinese agreement, as a British dependency until 1997.
Britain experienced a large inflow of migrants - a legacy of its imperial past.
The British at home had to come to terms with an unforeseen legacy of their imperial past - the large inflow of migrants, mostly from South Asia.
In the 21st century, old imperial links still survive, particularly those based on language and law, which may assume growing importance in a globalised world.
Even the Commonwealth, bruised and battered in the 1960s and 1970s, has retained a surprising utility as a dense global network of informal connections, valued by its numerous small states.
As the experience of the empire recedes more deeply into Britain's own past, it has become the focus of more attention than ever from British historians.
The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire by J. Gallagher (Cambridge University Press, 1982)
The Oxford History of the British Empire: the Twentieth Century by J.M.Brown and W.R.Louis (eds) (Oxford University Press, 1999) esp. Chs. 3, 4, 14, 15, 18.
India and the British Empire
Escape from Empire: The Attlee Government and the Indian Problem by R.J.Moore (Oxford University Press, 1983)
Nehru: a Political Life by J.M.Brown (Yale University Press, 2003)
The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan by A.Jalal (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
The Political Economy of the Raj 1914-1947: the Economics of Decolonisation in India by B.R.Tomlinson (Macmillan, 1979)
The British Empire after India
European Decolonisation 1918-1981: a Survey by R.F.Holland (Macmillan, 1985)
Britain and Decolonisation: the Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World by J.Darwin (Macmillan,1988)
Britain and Empire: Adjusting to a Post-Imperial World by L.J.Butler, (I.B.Tauris, 2002)
Anti-Colonialism in British Politics: the Left and the End of Empire, 1918-1964 by S.Howe, (Oxford University Press, 1994)
Emergencies and Disorders in the European Empires after 1945 edited by R.F.Holland, (Frank Cass, 1994).
Britain's Moment in the Middle East 1914-1956 by E.Monroe, (Chatto and Windus, 1963).
The British Empire in the Middle East 1945-1951 by Wm.R.Louis, (Oxford University Press, 1984)
Suez by K.Kyle, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1991)
The End of Empire in the Middle East by G.Balfour-Paul, (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus 1954-1959 by R.F.Holland, (Oxford University Press, 1984)
Histories of the Hanged: Britain's Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by D.Anderson, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005)
The End of Empire and the Making of Malaya by T.N.Harper, (Cambridge University Press, 1999)
Australia and the British Embrace: the End of the Imperial Ideal by S.Ward, (Melbourne University Press 2001)
Paradise Reforged: a History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the Year 2000 by J.Belich, (Allen Lane/Penguin, 2001)
British Culture and the End of Empire edited by S.Ward, (Manchester University Press, 2002)
The Commonwealth since 1950
Survey of Commonwealth Affairs: Problems of Expansion and Attrition 1953-1969 by J.D.B.Miller (Oxford University Press, 1974)
The Making of the New Commonwealth by R.J.Moore (Oxford University Press, 1987)
The Significance of the Commonwealth 1965-90 by W.David McIntyre (Macmillan, 1991)
It is now possible to read a wide range of the British Government documents relating to the end of empire. There are four multivolume sets dealing with the general policies pursued in London from 1945 to 1971. There are also 'country' volumes that cover the experience of particular regions and colonies including Egypt and the Middle East to 1956, Malaysia, the British West Indies, Central Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, Malaya, Malta and Cyprus. Details may be found at:
A small collection of contemporary material held at the National Archives can be viewed at:
John Darwin teaches imperial and global history at Oxford, where he has been a Fellow of Nuffield College since 1984. His original research was concerned with Britain's role in the Middle East at the end of the First World War, a period once seen as marking the onset of Britain's imperial retreat. Closer scrutiny suggested that the British were actually combining a form of imperial expansion (notably in Iraq) while trying to protect their strategic interest in Egypt from the assault of nationalism there. This research was published as Britain, Egypt and the Middle East: Imperial Policy in the Aftermath of War (1981). From that Darwin moved on to write a general account of Britain's loss of empire after 1945, published in 1988 as Britain and Decolonisation: the Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World. More recently he has worked on the Victorian empire as part of a longer project looking at the interplay of external and internal pressures in the politics of the British imperial system. His most recent book is an attempt to set the expansion of Europe and its empires in a global context stressing the resilience of the great Asian empires. This was published in April 2007 as After Tamerlane: the Global History of Empire.
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