In the decades following the Second World War, Britain was forced to adapt to a new role in the world. F.S. Northedge maintains that 'the most striking fact is, of course, the decline of British power continuously over that period.' 1 This included a contraction of Britain's military and naval strength, a retreat from her imperial commitments and, in the longer term, a move towards integration within Europe.
The term 'continuously' is perhaps misleading. It took some time for British governments to come to terms with a changing role and the administrations of Attlee and Churchill had an optimistic-even overambitious-view of British power. They viewed Britain and the United States as equal partners in leading the defence of the free world against the threat of Soviet aggression. During the 1940s, at least, Britain actually took the initiative on several occasions to spur the United States into action. As the first part of this chapter shows, Britain still had aspirations to be one of the superpowers. By the beginning of the 1950s consciousness of British decline was beginning to dawn and plans were being considered for changes in Britain's defence and overseas commitments. The Suez Crisis, dealt with in the second part, greatly accelerated this trend. The adjustment became more conscious and deliberate between 1957 and 1970, and, as the third part shows, decline had become self-acknowledged. It was certainly apparent to analysts at the time; according to J. Frankel: 'Britain, a member of the victorious Big Three at the end of the second world war, has in little more than twenty-five years accepted the status of a major second-rank power and has decided…to seek entry into a regional grouping.' 2