The Challenge of Decolonization in Africa
Benjamin Talton – Temple University
Through the process of decolonization that began, in most African territories, at the close of World War II, African leaders gained greater political power under European rule. In the decades that followed independence, they worked to shape the cultural, political, and economic character of the postcolonial state. Some worked against the challenges of continued European cultural and political hegemony, while others worked with European powers in order to protect their interests and maintain control over economic and political resources. Decolonization, then, was a process as well as a historical period.
Yet the nations and regions of Africa experienced it with varying degrees of success. By 1990, formal European political control had given way to African self-rule—except in South Africa. Culturally and politically, however, the legacy of European dominance remained evident in the national borders, political infrastructures, education systems, national languages, economies, and trade networks of each nation. Ultimately, decolonization produced moments of inspiration and promise, yet failed to transform African economies and political structures to bring about true autonomy and development.
The Year of Africa
"Most of our weaknesses," declared Kenneth Kaunda, first president of Zambia, in a March 1966 speech, "derive from lack of finance, trained personnel, etc., etc., etc. We are left with no choice but to fall on either the east or west, or indeed, on both of them." What Kaunda does not state is that the weaknesses that he speaks of were, first and foremost, products of European colonial strategies and, second, the failure of all but a few of his colleagues in other independent African nations to fully serve the interests of their people through brave and innovative development programs.
When decolonization began, there were reasons for optimism. The year 1960 was heralded throughout Africa and the West as "the Year of Africa" for the inspiring change that swept the continent. During that year, the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa shook the world to awaken to the horrors of white minority rule as South African police fired into a crowd of peaceful black protesters, killing sixty-nine in full view of photographers and reporters. Also in 1960, seventeen African territories gained independence from the strong arm of European colonial rule. These seventeen nations joined the United Nation's General Assembly and gave greater voice to the non-Western world.
Fully recognizing the potential for the remarkable change that African independence could bring to global politics, on February 3, 1960, Harold Macmillan, prime minister of Great Britain from 1957 to 1963, delivered his famous speech, "Wind of Change," to the South African parliament. "The growth of national consciousness in Africa is a political fact," Macmillan said, "and we must accept it as such. … I believe that if we cannot do so we may imperil the precarious balance between the East and West on which the peace of the world depends." He cautioned Western nations to change their behavior toward Africa to prevent the continent from falling under the sway of the East.
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The Cold War
It was this fear of Soviet influence in Africa, particularly on the part of the United States, that created such a major problem for African nations. Western powers viewed African independence through the lens of the Cold War, which rendered African leaders as either pro-West or pro-East; there was little acceptable middle ground. Naïvely, most African leaders believed that they could navigate the political land mines of the Cold War through political neutrality. Along these lines, in his speech on the occasion of Kenya's independence from Britain in 1963, Prime Minister Jomo Kenyatta (in power from 1964 to 1978) declared:
The aim of my government which starts today is not to be pro-left or pro-right. We shall pursue the task of national building in friendship with the rest of the world. Nobody will ever be allowed to tell us, to tell me: you must be friendly to so-and-so. We shall remain free and whoever wants friendship with us must be a real friend.
Nonetheless, as Africans declared themselves nonaligned, pro-West, or Marxist sympathizers, Cold War politics deprived them of the freedom to truly shape their political paths. Combined with the strong residue of the colonial political structure, African leaders designed their internal and external politics mindful of the Western powers' vigilance against socialist or communist influences.
Although Western European powers granted aid to African nations, they also coerced governments to support their agendas and instigated and aided coups against democratically elected governments. They also fomented civil unrest to ensure that governments friendly to their Cold War agenda remained in power and those that were not were removed by political machinations or assassination. In the Congo, for example, Joseph Mobutu took a strong anti-communist position and was subsequently rewarded by Western powers. It mattered little that in 1960 he helped orchestrate the coup that removed and ultimately brought about the murder of Patrice Lumumba, was among the most anti-democratic leaders on the continent, and siphoned Western aid and revenue from the nation's natural resources into personal accounts. Mobutu's rise to power and economic and political damage to Congo in the process—with the help of his Western allies—demonstrates that the politics of the Cold War, more than anything else, defined the successes and failures of African decolonization.
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In the 1960s, Frantz Fanon, the anti-colonial intellectual and psychoanalyst, among others, described neo-colonialism as the continued exploitation of the continent from outside and within, together with European political intervention during the post-independence years. One of the many questions that African leaders faced was whether continued economic and political interaction with former colonial powers threatened their autonomy and political viability. The ex- colonizers wanted to retain their former colonial territories within their sphere of influence. This continued relationship, Fanon argued, benefited African politicians and the small middle class but did not benefit the national majorities. The result was tension between the ruling classes and the majority population.
In 1964 he wrote in Toward the African Revolution: "Every former colony has a particular way of achieving independence. Every new sovereign state finds itself practically under the obligation of maintaining definite and deferential relations with the former oppressor." With regard to the Cold War he continued:
This competitive strategy of Western nations, moreover, enters into the vaster framework of the policy of the two blocs, which for ten years has held a definite menace of atomic disintegration suspended over the world. And it is surely not purely by chance that the hand or the eye of Moscow is discovered, in an almost stereotypical way, behind each demand for national independence, put forth by a colonial people.
Early in the decolonization process, there were fleeting moments in which the emerging African and Asian nations did seek to shift the political paradigm away from the Cold War's East-West dichotomy. Foremost among these initiatives was the 1955 Bandung Conference, held in Bandung, Indonesia, from April 18 to 24, 1955. Representatives from twenty-nine Asian and African countries gathered to chart a course for neutrality in the Cold War conflict. The attendees agreed that to avoid being trapped within a Western or Soviet political orbit, developing nations must not rely on the industrialized powers for economic and political aid. Therefore, they vowed to work together by pooling their developmental and technological resources to establish an economic and political sphere, a third way, to counterbalance the West and the Soviet Union.
However, it was a challenge for African nations to forge international links beyond words on paper: few national networks of administration, communication, or transportation within their borders operated consistently and effectively. In addition, the senior administrators who ran the colonies were removed with European rule, to be replaced by Africans with far less experience. Moreover, the political system that African leaders inherited was structured to benefit the evolving ruling classes with little regard for the needs of the people. There were few real efforts beyond the political speeches of Kwame Nkrumah—Ghana's first president, in power from 1957 to 1966—and the words of the founding charter of the Organization of African Unity to look beyond these accepted borders toward pan-Africanist or even regional confederations.
Moreover, the failure to dismantle the internal political structures imposed by European colonial regimes allowed ethnic and regional-based political competition (which acted as such a strong obstacle to national unity and progressive rule) to remain at the core of local and national political structures. Generally, the absence of national identities and political movements facilitated the continued intervention of the former colonial powers in Africa's internal affairs.
In addition, with few exceptions, European powers continued to dominate the economic affairs of the former colonies. Under European rule, people were forced to grow cash crops. This practice continued after independence, and the farmers remained vulnerable to the vagaries of the world market. A fall in world prices created political instability. This was the case in Ghana in the 1960s when the price of cocoa collapsed, and in Rwanda in the 1980s, when the price of coffee fell. The former contributed to Nkrumah's fall from power in 1966, and the latter to civil war and ultimately genocide in the early 1990s.
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Pan-Africanism and Socialism
The most outstanding post-independence leaders were cognizant of the challenges of the Cold War and ongoing European economic and political influence and sought remedies to ensure the autonomy and development of their nations. Few pursued initiatives that transformed their nations into bastions of economic and political stability. Nonetheless, they worked steadfastly to dismantle the colonial political structures and replaced them with systems that reflected the history, culture, and needs of the people.
In addition to launching a bold and expansive, if economically unviable, industrializing program, Kwame Nkrumah believed in the political and economic unification of the African continent. A federally unified state, he argued, would allow Africa to pool resources to rebuild the continent for the benefit of its people as opposed to multinational corporations. In I Speak of Freedom, Kwame Nkrumah wrote: "It is clear we must find an African solution to our problems, and that this can only be found in African unity. Divided we are weak; united, Africa could become one of the greatest forces for good in the world."
From a Western standpoint, Nkrumah forged alliances that increasingly placed him in the camp of the Eastern Bloc. Western governments understood Nkrumah's agenda to be socialist and worried about his influence on other African leaders. There are debates about the forces behind the coup that overthrew him in February 1966, but there is strong evidence from the State Department Archives that the United States was interested in removing him from power and that they worked to manipulate the international cocoa price to fuel dissatisfaction with his regime.
Julius Nyerere, first president of Tanzania from 1964 to 1985, argued for shifting the political paradigm away from the European models inherited from the colonial era and toward indigenous Africans forms. In particular, he advocated for African socialism, which more closely aligned with the communal practices of "traditional" African societies. In his Arusha Declaration, published in February 1967, Nyerere declared African socialism as the model for African development. Contrary to the Western model of economic development, Ujamaa socialism, and African socialism generally, emphasized collective responsibility and advancement in place of the individual:
It is stupid to rely on money as the major instrument of development when we know only too well that our country is poor. It is equally stupid, indeed it is even more stupid, for us to imagine that we shall rid ourselves of our poverty through foreign financial assistance rather than our own financial resources...
From now on we shall stand upright and walk forward on our feet rather than look at this problem upside down. Industries will come and money will come, but their foundation is the people and their hard work, especially in agriculture. This is the meaning of self-reliance.
Self-reliance and the freedom to aggressively pursue an autonomous global political position proved elusive in an era in which the West defined its friends by their perceived position within the Cold War divide. Unique among the overtly socialist leaders in Africa, Nyerere enjoyed political longevity and friendly relations with Western and Eastern Bloc nations. Yet throughout the 1970s the Tanzanian economy, and Nyerere's Ujamaa socialism for that matter, failed to produce the economic and political benefits that it espoused.
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Tragedy in Congo
In Congo, Patrice Lumumba, its first prime minister, also battled the forces of the Cold War but with more tragic consequences. On Independence Day, June 30, 1960, Lumumba delivered a speech in the presence of the king of Belgium, denouncing the atrocities of colonial rule and declaring that Congo would establish an autonomous government and an economy for the people:
We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make of the Congo the center of the sun's radiance for all of Africa.
We are going to keep watch over the lands of our country so that they truly profit her children. We are going to restore ancient laws and make new ones which will be just and noble...
And for all that, dear fellow countrymen, be sure that we will count not only on our enormous strength and immense riches but on the assistance of numerous foreign countries whose collaboration we will accept if it is offered freely and with no attempt to impose on us an alien culture of no matter what nature...
The Congo's independence marks a decisive step towards the liberation of the entire African continent.
Western powers viewed Lumumba as dangerous and vulnerable to falling under Soviet sway, and they quickly collaborated on a plan with the United Nations' assistance to undermine him. He served as prime minister for fewer than seven months before he was deposed and assassinated as part of a plot drawn up by the United States, Belgium, and their allies within the Congo. Because Western powers feared that the country's resources would be nationalized or, even worse, be made available to the Soviet Union, they thought it necessary to have a pro-Western government installed, regardless of its legitimacy within the Congo or its commitment to democracy and development.
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Proxy War in Angola
The United States' deep investment in destabilizing the democratically elected, post-independence government of Angola is arguably the most profound example of Western influence and its destructive consequences for Africa. In 1975 Angola gained its independence from Portugal, and three nationalist groups subsequently fought for control of the government: the MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola), led by President José Eduardo dos Santos and backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union; UNITA (National Union for the Total Independence of Angola), led by Jonas Savimbi and backed by South Africa and the United States; and the FNLA (National Liberation Front of Angola), backed by Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko (he had changed the name Congo to Zaire in 1971.)
Cuban and Soviet support for MPLA, including Cuban troops led by Che Guevara, forced Zaire and South Africa to withdraw their forces, which allowed the democratically elected MPLA to organize a government. Savimbi and UNITA became the rebel opposition but enjoyed little support beyond Savimbi's Ovimbundu ethnic group and financing from the United States. The basis for American support for UNITA was that Savimbi declared himself an avowed anti-Marxist, in contrast to the nominally Marxist MPLA. Between 1986 and 1991 the United States spent $250 million on a covert operation in Angola and aid to Savimbi. In a 1986 meeting at the White House, U.S. President Ronald Reagan declared Savimbi a "freedom fighter" for his struggle against dos Santos and the MPLA. Yet in 2002, when news of Savimbi's death reached Luanda, the Angolan capital, people poured into the streets shouting, "The terrorist is gone!"
It was only with Savimbi's death that fighting ended between the MPLA government and UNITA. The twenty-seven-year civil war caused so much destruction to the nation that UNICEF declared Angola the worst place in the world to be a child. Angola stands as a harsh illustration of the direct consequence of civil war, Cold War politics, and failures in African leadership.
Between the early 1950s and the mid-1970s, as African leaders south of the Sahara took direct control of their economies, political institutions, and resources, they entered the brutal trap of Cold War–era global politics. European economic and political influence remained deeply entrenched in Africa throughout the period because of their strategic interests in maintaining unobstructed access to Africa's natural resources and in supporting governments friendly to Western political interests. More important, there was an acute failure of African leadership in many of the newly independent African nations as Western aid and a focus on anti-communism paved the way for political corruption and self-interest among African leaders. Decolonization, therefore, released Africans from their status as colonial subjects but failed to rid African nations of the sway of their former colonial rulers, other Western powers, and a culture of political and economic exploitation and corruption.
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De Witte, Ludo. The Assassination of Lumumba. New York: Verso, 2002.
Fanon, Frantz. Toward the African Revolution, trans. Haakon Chevalier. New York: Grove Press, 1964.
Gleijeses, Piero. Conflicting Missions: Havana, Washington, and Africa, 1959–1976. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.
Le Seuer, James D., ed. The Decolonization Reader. New York: Routledge, 2003.
Nkrumah, Kwame. Africa Must Unite. London: Panaf, 2006.
———. I Speak of Freedom. London: Zed Books, 1973.
Nzongola-Ntalaja, Georges. The Congo: From Leopold to Kabila. New York: Zed Books, 2002.
Springhall, John. Decolonization Since 1945: The Collapse of European Overseas Empires. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001.
Worger, William, Nancy Clark, and Edward Alpers, eds. Africa and the West: A Documentary History from the Slave Trade to Independence. Phoenix, Ariz: Oryx Press, 2001.
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Addressing the House of Commons in July 1943, the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Oliver Stanley, declared that his Government was ‘pledged to guide Colonial people along the road to self-government within the framework of the British Empire’. At the time Mr Stanley made his statement, the majority of Britain’s South East Asian empire was under Japanese occupation. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State made it clear that following the war, the British Government would endeavour to maintain the empire whilst allowing territories to govern themselves, perhaps in similar circumstances to those enjoyed by the Dominions. Just eight years later, the then Secretary of State made a similar statement to the Commons, albeit referring to ‘self-government within the British Commonwealth’, a telling distinction given the events and processes that developed in the aftermath of the War. The rapid transformation of Britain’s colonial empire in 1945 to a ‘Commonwealth of Nations’ of dwindling relevance by the 1970s is particularly curious when one considers John Darwin’s observation that ‘before 1939 it was usual to suppose that even if the pattern of rule in the colonial world was modified, ultimate European control would continue indefinitely almost everywhere.
With this in mind, this essay will discuss the nature of decolonization that occurred throughout the British Empire in the post-WW2 era, with the intent of understanding the extent to which this process was voluntarily aided by British policy. It will do this by systematically analysing the decline of Britain’s imperial domination in three regions of significance; Asia, Africa and the Middle East, and will illuminate the various ways in which decolonization was often contradictory to Britain’s interests. It will then consider the intrinsic link between Britain’s colonial empire and notions of British world power, in an attempt to understand Britain reliance on its imperial presence to maintain global power and influence, and as such the extent to which decolonization eroded its claims to be the world’s ‘third great power’.
‘The largest capitulation’: Britain’s Asian Empire
Initially, the transfer of power in India appears to validate the notion that Britain embraced decolonisation as a voluntary process. Less than two years after gaining power, Clement Atlee’s government had already announced a date upon which the Raj, the ‘jewel in the crown’ of Britain’s empire, was to be terminated in favour of an independent Indian state. This hurried retreat, unsurprisingly described by Churchill as a ‘scuttle’, was complete by August 1947. The most prestigious of Britain’s colonial possessions had been hurriedly liquidated in an act that signified Britain’s unwillingness to maintain its imperial burden.
This is, of course, a rather inaccurate account of the end of British rule in India. Indeed, the transition was rushed, and Atlee’s government had made a clear declaration of its intent to relinquish British control over the subcontinent. Arguably, however, this was done out of necessity rather than choice. The immense growth in nationalist sentiment in India throughout the Second World War effectively guaranteed that immediate Indian independence was a fait accompli. As David Sanders notes, Atlee’s government ‘had recognized that the Raj could not be preserved in the face of continued and growing nationalist-inspired civil disorder.’ Given Britain’s enhanced defence obligations in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, Atlee held that ‘in view of our commitments all over the world we have not the military force to hold India agst [sic] a widespread guerrilla movement or to reconquer India’, and that ‘we should have world opinion agst [sic] us and be placed in an impossible position at UNO [United Nations Organisation].’ Fundamentally, Britain’s position in India following 1945 was untenable. Britain lacked neither the manpower nor the political support to hold India against its will any longer. Ronald Hyam’s statement that ‘the transfer of power in India must be considered a geopolitically prudent response to the realities of declining power’ reflects the realism of the situation. Britain, put simply, had no other choice. It would therefore be quite inaccurate to state that India was voluntarily ‘given up’.
Much like in India, the impact of the Second World War on the colonies of South East Asia was profound. As previously mentioned, Japanese forces had by 1942 effectively confiscated Britain’s South East Asian possessions. Burma, Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo all fell victim to Japanese conquest and occupation. Churchill famously described the fall of Singapore (the so called ‘Gibraltar of the East’) as ‘the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history’. Though Japan’s gains were indeed a strategic disaster for the British during the war, the effect they had on Britain’s ability to govern its Asian territories is of greater long-term significance. Indeed, ‘the cataclysmic blows struck by the triumphant Japanese in Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, and Burma grievously undermined the myth of European invincibility.’ The pretense of prestige on which Britain’s rule so heavily relied was destroyed.
Despite the collapse of the foundations of Britain’s rule in South East Asia, London remained committed to a colonial presence in the region. Malaya was of particular importance to the British for its dollar-earnings, as was Singapore for its strategically located naval base. On taking office as Governor-General of Malaya in 1946, Malcolm MacDonald spoke of the need to ‘retain full trust in British leadership in this region which is the main base of the British position in the Far East’. The Malayan Emergency, a bitter guerrilla war fought against communist forces of the Malayan National Liberation Army from 1948, demonstrates Britain’s will to preserve its economic and strategic assets in the region. The communist threat in Malaya was particularly pertinent given the onset of the Cold War, in which South East Asia was a crucial arena, and ‘the insurgency served to sharpen British perceptions of the wider international significance of South East Asia to the general government aims of raising dollars and containing communism’. Though independence was granted in 1957, Britain continued to guarantee Malaya’s security with a defence treaty, allowing it to continue basing troops and equipment in this strategically important region. A somewhat diluted version of this treaty remains in force today. Given Britain’s desperate need for Sterling area Dollar earnings, the importance of strategic military bases and a desire to contain communism, it is clear that the end of Empire in the Far East was inconsistent with Britain’s interests and therefore far from voluntary.
‘Wind of Change’: British Decolonization in Africa
As in Asia, the impact of the Second World War was of great significance in determining the pace and nature of the decolonization process. An undeniable growth in nationalistic feeling and political literacy was the first and foremost outcome of the conflict, as ‘African political consciousness had been stimulated by the war, and the white man’s prestige destroyed as an instrument of government’. The changing nature of world opinion was in itself another tide against which the British were swimming, in particular the anti-colonial outlook of many states in the aftermath of the Second World War, and their ability to amplify these views through the recently established United Nations.
Notwithstanding the growth of nationalism and the changing international context, Britain had, in the immediate aftermath of the war a least, two primary reasons for desiring the preservation of its colonial supremacy on the African continent. The first incentive was London’s desire to utilise its colonial possessions as a means to aid economic recovery. A.V. Alexander, the Minister of Defence in 1949, spoke of achieving ‘the most rapid development practicable of our overseas possessions, since without such Colonial development there can be no major improvement in the standard of living of our own people at home’. Thus, in the tropical African colonies, ‘Britain’s interests were as vital as ever, or more so’, and ‘this more intensive exploitation of her colonies by Britain tightened her grip on them’. Ernest Bevin, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs 1945-51, saw an intensification of exports from Britain’s African colonies as a means with which Britain could reduce its financial dependence on the United States. Britain’s second motivation to retain its colonial possessions in Africa was a concern that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) would take Britain’s place as the preeminent power on the continent, considerably enhancing the perceived communist threat. Following Sudan’s independence in 1956 a British official spoke of the importance attached by the USSR to the new state as the ‘gateway for the offensive against Black Africa which they are now visibly preparing’. This was a view shared by Britain’s usually anti-colonial Cold War ally, the United States. Even before the end of the Second World War, the Director of the Office of Near Eastern and African Affairs at the US Department of State had realised that in facing the spread of communism ‘the continuance of the British Empire in some reasonable strength is in the strategic interests of the United States’.
When one considers the intense pressures on Britain to decolonize, particularly the forces of nationalism and international opinion discussed above, it was inevitable that by 1960 Britain had to begin the process of African decolonization. Famously, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan declared during his tour of British Africa in 1960 that ‘the wind of change is blowing through this continent and, whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact’. Although Britain’s African territories were by this time no longer economically vital to London, they remained important elements in the geostrategic struggle for influence between East and West. Though the maintenance of Colonial rule was initially seen as a way in which Britain could prevent the spread of communism in Africa, this strategy had the potential for unintended consequences. As pointed out by members of Whitehall’s Africa Committee in 1959, ‘If Western governments appear to be reluctant to concede independence to their dependent territories, they may alienate African opinion and turn it towards the Soviet Union’. Thus, British policy makers of the 1960s were evidently more accepting of the need to decolonize than their predecessors in the 1940s and 1950s. However, that constitutional independence appeared inevitable did not result in the British ‘throwing in the towel’ and terminating their African imperial presence entirely. Indeed, as David Reynolds states, ‘the British expected, as elsewhere, that formal empire would be replaced by informal influence, sealed by economic ties and defence treaties’. Britain’s optimism, in vain it now seems, that the Commonwealth would provide a vehicle with which it could maintain influence in its former colonies is a clear illustration of London’s desire to maintain an informal imperial relationship with its past dependencies. It is therefore difficult to agree with the contention that British decolonization in Africa was voluntary, but rather a reluctant response to the growing pressures of various forces, chief among them nationalism and international opinion.
The End of Britain’s Informal Empire: The Middle East
Writing in September 1945, Baron Altrincham declared in a Colonial Office memorandum on British policy in the Middle East that ‘as a funnel of communication between the western, eastern and southern peoples of the British Commonwealth…we cannot allow any other Power to dominate and must preserve for ourselves the maximum friendship and goodwill’. Altrincham went on to assert that the region was ‘no less vital to Britain than Central and South America to the United States’. The Government of the day concurred with this view, with Ernest Bevin stating in 1949 that ‘the Middle East is an area of cardinal importance to the UK…Strategically the Middle East is a focal point of communications, a source of oil, a shield to Africa and the Indian Ocean, and an irreplaceable offensive base’.
With these statements in mind it is clear that, discounting the unceremonious withdrawal from Palestine in 1947-48 (a so called ‘impossible situation’), Britain was fully committed to maintaining its role as the preeminent imperial power in the Middle East in the post-war era. This policy took on many guises, including London’s attempted use of the Baghdad Pact defence organisation as a vehicle with which it could preserve its regional influence in the mid-1950s. The Suez Crisis of 1956, popularly perceived as the watershed moment with which Britain’s regional supremacy ebbed, was arguably not as significant as generally professed. As Simon Smith asserts, ‘Britain was prepared neither to relinquish its residual interests in the region, nor become subservient to the United States. For its part, America continued to perceive a significant role for the British in the Middle East’. Post-Crisis, Britain’s defence commitments ‘East of Suez’ actually took on a more prominent role in British defence strategy; Minister of Defence Harold Watkinson informed the Commons in 1962 that the base in the Colony of Aden would soon be one of three global locations where British forces would be concentrated. There is therefore little evidence to suggest a waning in Britain’s commitment to its ‘informal empire’. It had conducted a military operation in 1961 to defend newly-independent Kuwait, and was covertly operating forces in Yemen throughout the 1960s in an attempt to prevent the Nasserite Civil War there from spilling over into its Protectorate, the Federation of South Arabia.
Britain’s eventual retreat from the Middle East, announced in January 1968 and complete by 1971, was, as Wm Roger Louis argues, an economic necessity rather than an intentional act. As he summarises, ‘the decision to end the British presence in the Gulf in a narrow sense was the direct consequence of the collapse in Aden and the simultaneous sterling crisis’, and that ‘The British did not plan to leave the Gulf because they wanted to, or for reasons concerning the Gulf itself.’ The abrupt nature of this policy decision is reflected by the fact that just two months before the announcement of withdrawal, the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs had travelled to the Middle East to reassure the Rulers of the Trucial States that ‘the British presence would continue as long as it is necessary to maintain peace and stability in the area’. The devaluation of Sterling by nearly 15% (from $2.80 to $2.40) necessitated the reassessment of Britain’s global defence commitments, resulting in the realisation that Britain simply could no longer afford to defend the Sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf and so had no choice but to terminate its treaty obligations to them. Put simply by Phillip Darby, ‘ultimately lack of resources rather than intellectual rejection ensured its [Britain’s role East of Suez] abandonment.’ Given its strategic importance for both British defence policy and the desire for energy security, it would be plausible to suggest that the Middle East was the region in which Britain was most reluctant to decolonize.
Decolonization and the Decline of British World Power
Thus far, this essay has illuminated the various ways in which the process of decolonization within the British Empire often ran counter to London’s desires and interests. In Asia, Britain was forced to concede Malaya and Singapore, despite the evident economic and strategic advantages the two territories provided. In Africa, Britain reluctantly granted independence to its colonial possessions in face of the perceived threat of a Soviet-backed communist subversion of the Continent. In the Middle East, Britain was usurped from its last remaining (and so vital) strategic hub by the compulsion of economic crisis.
It is important to keep in mind that the case studies discussed in this analysis were not isolated events, but in fact components of the wider, global process of British decolonization. The decolonization process was occurring simultaneously with another phenomenon, that of ‘British decline’. The two developments were, of course, intrinsically linked, given that Britain’s imperial system was the foundation of its world power. As Bevin declared in a memorandum curiously titled ‘The threat to Western civilisation’:
‘It should be possible to develop our own power and influence equal to that of the United States of America and the USSR. We have the material resources in the Colonial Empire, if we develop them, and by giving a spiritual lead now, we should be able to carry out our task in a way which will show clearly that we are not subservient to the United States of America or to the Soviet Union.’
This is a far cry from what one might expect of a Government eager to liquidate its overseas possessions. Undoubtedly, Britain’s ability to act as the world’s ‘Third Power’ was chiefly reliant on its global empire, and the economic and strategic returns this empire provided. It is inconceivable that a small island nation like Britain would have been able to compete with the continental superpowers that emerged from the Second World War without its imperial connection. The preservation of empire was therefore crucial to ensure the continuance of Britain’s relevance in the emerging sphere of superpower rivalry. Britain’s post-war government was therefore convinced of ‘the need to uphold Britain’s material interests in the world’, including ‘the preservation of the empire in some form or another’. The nexus between Britain’s world power and its imperial system was as relevant at the culmination of the decolonization process as it was in the 1940s. When discussing the 1965 Defence Review which recommended a reduction in imperial defence commitments, Gordon Walker wrote to the Prime Minister that ‘the problem is whether we are an island off the north-west corner of Europe or a world power’. Without question, the process of decolonization eroded Britain’s pretense of ‘world power’ status. Lacking economic clout or the strategic bases essential to independently project global military power, Britain was compelled to accept relegation to the status of a European middle power. Given the fact that successive British governments were committed in the post-war era to the maintenance of British power and influence were possible, it is inconceivable to suggest that London voluntarily deconstructed the very system on which it was reliant to retain its assertions to world power.
Conclusions on British Decolonization
It has not been the purpose of this essay to explain the decolonization process, nor to identify its causation. Rather, it has intended to provide a general introduction to the economic and strategic imperatives which determined the importance to Britain of maintaining its empire and consequently the reluctant nature of British withdrawal. However, given the significance of the driving forces of the decolonisation process, Britain often had little choice but to concede that the constitutional independence of its dependencies was inescapable. The loss of prestige, on which British rule so often depended, signaled the beginning of the end of Britain’s Asian empire, resulting in the loss of key economic and strategic assets in the dawning of the Asian Cold War. Nationalism, international opinion and the risk of Africa emerging as a Cold War battleground complicated British African policy, but meant independence was a fait accompli. The Middle East, ‘the last province of the Pax Britannica’, witnessed an unwilling departure forced by economic necessity. Fundamentally, Britain’s options were limited.
This is not to say that Britain was desperate to cling onto every colonial possession, every island, every enclave and every atoll that it had annexed. To be sure, there will have been a number of colonial territories in which Britain had little or no economic or strategic interests and so little desire to retain. Rather ironically, a few of the small islands making up the remnants of the British Empire, the renamed ‘British Overseas Territories’, may provide appropriate examples. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that decolonization in many places ran counter to British interests and the desires of the government in London. If we imagine a world devoid of nationalism, anti-colonial international opinion or even the impact of the Second World War, it is difficult to envisage Britain willingly liquidating its colonial possessions and, as we have seen, its vestige of world power status. This was a reluctant retreat indeed, and far from voluntary.
Ashton, S., Louis, Wm. British Documents on the end of Empire, Series A Volume 5: East of Suez and the Commonwealth 1964-1971 – Part 1: East of Suez (London, The Stationary Office, 2004).
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Written by: Jonjo Robb
Written at: Aberystwyth University
Written for: Dr. James Vaughan
Date written: December 2014