Did we jump or were we pushed?

August 1, 1997

The British believe they bade a graceful goodbye to empire. But Peter Marshall (left) discerns weakness behind the grace, while Patrick French reveals how Britain relied on espionage to prop up its rule in India

Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1897 was a celebration of worldwide imperial power, symbolised by the contingents of troops from all over the empire parading through London. Fifty years later, British troops were withdrawn from the Indian subcontinent. In 1997, British administration ceased in Hong Kong, the last remaining significant colonial possession.

The neat symmetry of these dates seems to encapsulate the decline and fall of Britain's worldwide power, and transformation into a postimperial society. Yet the reality was more complex and ambiguous. The decline was an uneven process. The area under British rule actually grew in the early 20th century, significant loss of territory only occurring after the second world war. Concepts of imperial or postimperial Britain are elusive. What was the British people's commitment to empire, even in 1897. When did it cease? What does it mean to be postimperial? Do we now view empire with guilt, nostalgia or indifference?

The difficulty of explaining British attitudes was brought home in an interview earlier this year with a Hong Kong journalist. I pointed out that later that evening I would be going to a large dinner given by John Major to celebrate the independence of the peoples of the former British dominion in South Asia. What, my interrogator not unreasonably wondered, was a British government, still more a Conservative one, doing celebrating so crushing a British defeat?

I conceded that there was inevitably some falsification of history in such celebrations, even if for good causes. In the interests of harmonious race relations in Britain and in recognition of the rapidly growing economic power of South Asia countries it was politic to present the transfer of power in 1947 as fulfilling the deeper purposes of British rule, and to claim that the British and the then-Indian peoples had parted in due time as friends. 1947 was therefore to be celebrated. That message is also relayed in The Daily Telegraph's The British Empire: 1497-1997, 500 Years that Shaped the World. "Nothing became the British as a people of empire like their leaving it," John Keegan writes. He describes "the old British Empire" as "a region of prosperous and peaceful states, ruled by legitimate governments ... Much of that success is due to Britain's decision not to resist their imperial subjects' desire for independence but to sponsor and foster it."

This is not an altogether convincing way of describing Britain's 20th-century imperial policy. Britain did not plan Indian independence. After 1945, an overstretched government of India was on the point of collapse. There was no alternative to a transfer of power, even at the price of partition. Not the least of Mountbatten's achievements was to invest the inevitable, and the suffering that went with it, with grace and a sense of fulfilment. Independence for India did not signal a purposeful march towards independence for British Africa. In the 1940s and 1950s determined attempts were made, under intensified colonial rule, to develop African resources for British use. The unravelling of the African empire was piecemeal. Considerations of the viability of colonies as independent states were set aside in a desire to reduce British commitments.

The liberal interpretation sees the end of empire as voluntary relinquishment of power to those deemed ready to take it on. It may involve extensive distortions of the record, but is not a total fabrication and reflects contemporary imperial rhetoric, at least from the 1920s. The triumphalism of 1897 was transitory. The term Commonwealth came into use at the end of the first world war, embodying the view that the empire was a voluntary alliance of free peoples. Non-white populations at first had no place in it, but their eventual inclusion became part of the rhetoric of the second world war. A British empire of freedom was contrasted with the tyranny of Germany or Japan.

Preparing the British public to accept the loss of empire may not have been the intention, but that was the effect. Ideals of Commonwealth during the 1950s and 1960s, encouraging expectations that independence meant not separation but the perpetuation of British influence, now look almost as outmoded as the ideas of 1897.

Current liberal interpretations have grown from past practice as well as past rhetoric. Full-scale wars of repression were not fought after 1945. Although there was no purposeful preparation for independence, representative institutions developed in most parts of the empire. By the mid-20th century, they were well established in India and were gaining ground in parts of West Africa, but had made little progress beyond the settler communities in East and Central Africa.

Refusal to fight wars of repression and willingness to incorporate local opinion into colonial government is sometimes ascribed to innate British liberalism. But avoiding war and making constitutional concessions more realistically reflected a fundamental assumption of imperial management: empire must not become a burden on Britain itself or interfere with other British interests.

Wars to retain empire did not only involve issues of humanity. They were expensive, possibly diverting British resources from other commitments. The resources of empire could be fully deployed in primarily European wars, but there were limits to the commitment of British resources outside Europe. During the second world war, the first priority was defending Britain and defeating Germany. In the cold war, commitment to Nato overrode all imperial claims. Even limited engagement east of Suez came to be seen as an insupportable burden.

The legendary figures of modern British colonial administration are the district officers, engineers and medical men who brought order and progress to "their" people. But they were always thin on the ground, their influence usually limited. Direct contact between expatriate officials and the mass of the ruled was beyond the resources of empire. Authority had to be devolved to local people and the cooperation of elites secured. If they withheld their cooperation, government could not be carried on. By the mid-20th century, elections were the inescapable price of cooperation. Such concessions were intended to shore up colonial rule, not subvert it, still less prepare the way for its total replacement. Nevertheless, they provided some practical preparation for independence in many territories.

The story of the British empire's last 100 years is less one of decline and fall from apogee to extinction than continuous adjustment. Until well into the 1950s both Labour and Conservative governments were determined to maintain an imperial presence. It had, however, always to be affordable and not conflict with other priorities. Tactical concessions, dignified with liberal ideology, had to be made. This ideology helped the British people to adjust their view of empire and is still a potent force.

British people can, so long as they do not ask too many questions, derive some legitimate comfort from the last phases of empire. It is particularly unwise to ask questions about Hong Kong. "What do the British people feel about the end of empire in Hong Kong?" I was asked by another Chinese interviewer. "Pass" would have been a better answer than the obfuscations I actually offered.

Peter Marshall is former Rhodes professor of imperial history, Kings College London.

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