Empire, State and Society: Britain since 1830

By Jamie L. Bronstein; Andrew T. Harris | Go to book overview

12
Winds of Change
Politics, 1945–1979

In his short story “Toba Tek Singh,” the Urdu writer Sadaat Hasan Manto described the impact of the partition of British India on a group of institutionalized people with mental illness. As the country was divided into India and Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of people on each side were relocated to the other side of an arbitrary border, depending on whether they were Hindu or Muslim. The insane world outside the madhouse reflected the world within its walls; inmates did not understand how Pakistan could have been created out of what was formerly India, or why they were being sent away from their ancestral homes to live in a place they had never been to before, on the basis of ethnicity alone. The title character of the short story, Toba Tek Singh, unable to find out whether his home village has been consigned to India or Pakistan, finally makes a last stand, collapsing in the no-man’s land between India and Pakistan – a no man’s land for which the British were partially responsible (Manto 1955).

Since 1832, Britain had been a great naval empire, but the political story of the postwar period transformed into one of reevaluation, contraction, and change. The Second World War – and particularly the fall of Britain’s naval fortress at Singapore – had illustrated how untenable worldwide military commitments were to a small island nation in an age of industrialized warfare. The war had also created a set of expectations at home – expensive expectations about what government would provide to its citizens – that could not be squared with the maintenance of a costly global empire. Britain thus found itself disengaging from its imperial role, and navigating two roles that overlapped: as a close ally of the United States, which was one of the two superpowers in a bipolar world; and later, as part of an emergent Western European economic force.

But Britain’s imperial disengagement, like its imperial engagement over a century earlier, came with its own expenses. British withdrawal forced the

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