The Oxford History of the British Empire - Vol. 4

By Alaine Low; Judith M. Brown et al. | Go to book overview

14

The Dissolution of the British Empire

WM. ROGER LOUIS

When the Cabinet in the aftermath of the Second World War came to grips with the problem of liquidating the British Raj in India, a consensus eventually emerged that is basic in understanding British motives and aims during the subsequent two decades of decolonization: 'withdrawal from India need not appear to be forced upon us by our weakness nor to be the first step in the dissolution of the Empire.' 1 There was a corollary: whatever the outcome, it would be presented to the public as the result of British policy. To the world at large, the British would be seen as remaining in control of events. History would record a commitment to self‐ government that had been planned and fulfilled. The British aimed to control their own destiny, presiding if possible over the rebirth of the Imperial system rather than its dissolution. As events transpired in the late 1940s and 1950s, they found that they had to reshape the old Imperial structure into a new framework of more or less equal partners. The British would secure the collaboration of moderate nationalists by yielding control before the initiative passed to irreconcilables. Influence would thus be retained by transferring power. Nationalism would be channelled into constructing nations in harmony with British interests. British imperialism would be sustained by means other than domination.

The actuality did not conform to the hope. The British lurched from one crisis to the next, sometimes turning adversity to advantage. The idea of ostensible equal partnership never quite overcame Asian and African scepticism. What emerged was mutual accommodation based on self-interest. With the general public, and later with some historians, the Whiggish idea of progress towards a goal met with some success. The archives now reveal an infinitely more complicated story,

____________________
A version of this chapter was delivered as the Cust Foundation Lecture at Nottingham University in April 1995.
1
Cabinet Minutes (46) 108 Confidential Annex, 31 Dec. 1946, CAB 128/8. For critical discussion of the topics pursued in this chapter, see John Darwin, Britain and Decolonisation: The Retreat from Empire in the Post-War World (London, 1988); R. F. Holland, European Decolonization, 1918-1981 (London, 1985); and the introductory chapter in Ronald Hyam, ed., The Labour Government and the End of Empire, 1945-1951, British Documents on the End of Empire Project (BDEEP), 4 vols. (London, 1992), I, pp. xxiii-lxxviii.

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