Porter on Decolonization

In the Aug 2, 2007 issue of LRB, Bernard Porter had a review essay, Trying to Make Decolonisation Look Good, covering Ronald Hyam’s Britain’s Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-68, Peter Clarke’s The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire and Sir Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper’s Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire. The review is behind LRB’s subscription wall but dear friend J. sent me a pdf.

I highly recommend it – both for its broad historical summary of the political attitudes in Britain about ending the empire and for the very pointed critiques of historiography [including his own culpability]. In the interest of my fellow SAists, I am posting, at least the first third of the essay below the fold which deals more broadly with the subject of the end of the British Empire after WWII and his conclusion which is, of course, of particular interest to all of those witnessing the throes of the American empire in Iraq. The couple of footnotes are mine – with some small nitpicks.

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 withdrawal1 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. 2


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.

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.

  1. This reminds me of the apocryphal (I think..) statement from Gandhi about “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate” because it sets up a bizarre logical world. If, as Porter has argued in his own work, so few of Britain’s citizen had to agree to sustain an empire than why the necessity that every single Indian must disagree for the empire to fail? []
  2. I think that’s stretching it a bit – in many directions: One can easily argue against the notion that these categories, Hindus, Muslims, Shia, Sunni are inherently confrontational or historically uniform – and many have argued that at least they are even products of colonialism itself and that the differences – such as they are – are actually a result of imperial rule itself. []

Author: sepoy

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