The British Empire after 1924

After the World War One it became increasingly difficult for Britain to hold on to her Empire. It became clear that:

  • Britain could no longer afford an empire.
  • Britain had no right to rule people who did not want to be ruled by Britain.
  • Britain realised that the Royal Navy was not strong enough to protect all the Empire anywhere in the world.

The right to rule yourself

Mohandas Gandhi, outside Downing Street in 1931
Mohandas Gandhi

The Treaty of Versailles (1919) promoted 'self-determination', or the right to rule yourself. It was difficult for Britain to support this principle for other countries, but deny it to countries in its Empire:

  • Ireland rebelled between 1919 and 1921. In 1920‒1921 it was divided into Northern Ireland, which was part of the UK and the Irish Free State, a dominion like Canada. In 1937, it became more independent as Éire. In 1949, Éire became the completely independent Republic of Ireland and left the Commonwealth.

There was a strong independence movement in India:

  • The British government massacred a peaceful gathering at Amritsar in 1919.
  • Mohandas Gandhi led a non-cooperation movement which refused to obey British laws, eg the Salt March, 1930.
  • In 1935, the Government of India Act gave Indians control of everything except foreign policy.

The struggle for independence and decolonisation in Africa

During the Second World War, Africa had made a significant contribution to the war effort. The colonies of Britain helped greatly by providing troops and local resources for the Allied soldiers. This led to local industries being created and local towns and villages became more developed and better educated. Many people even joined trade unions, organisations which helped them to think about their rights when they were working. As a result, many Africans under colonial rule began to think about their rights as people and felt that they deserved the chance to now rule themselves. They saw that they had become important contributors to the war and had developed enough to now have their own government.

Britain faced economic problems because of the cost of the war and it was becoming harder for them to run the Empire. They now had trade agreements with other countries, such as those in Europe and the United States and so did not rely so much on the markets provided by Africa. Therefore, the Empire was beginning to cost more than it was making. What is more, President Roosevelt was trying to encourage Britain to give freedom to its colonies in Africa. Instead of granting them full freedom, Britain began to introduce democracy to local areas within the colonies.

Eventually, nationalists in the African colonies felt that enough was enough and started protesting and rioting against the British. Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya and Kwame Nkrumah in the Gold Coast (now Ghana) led these protests. With all of their money problems, Britain could simply not afford to deal with this as well. Eventually, independence was granted to these colonies and, between the 1950s and 1980s, Britain lost control of all of its colonies in Africa.

The Commonwealth and the European Economic Community

The British Empire was dismantled and replaced by a voluntary organisation of former colonies called the Commonwealth:

  • In 1926, the British government agreed the Balfour Declaration – that Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were completely independent countries, "freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth of Nations".
  • In 1947, India and Pakistan were given independence.
  • In 1960, British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan admitted there was a "wind of change" in Africa. Most of Britain's African and Caribbean colonies achieved independence in the 1960s.
  • In 1973, Britain joined the European Economic Community and became part of a trading community based on free trade between the countries of Europe.
  • In 1997, Britain formally handed Hong Kong back to China.