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Book Review

 

White, Nicholas. Decolonization: The British Experience Since 1945, (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1999). 153 pp, $15.00.
 

      The book is part of a larger series called "Seminar Studies in History", a project begun in 1966 to bridge the gap between specialist studies and general surveys and to decrease the time between the publication of new research and its availability to students. To accomplish this goal, White has synthesized a large body of work concerned with British decolonization much of it written in the last fifteen years. White defines the problem in a short introduction: why was British decolonization so rapid, and what were the most important factors that influenced it? The result is a brief text that introduces scholars to some of the most current and important debates surrounding British decolonization.

      White begins by discussing the importance of metropolitan policy decisions. After the war, the new Labour government at first saw empire as a way to rescue Britain from severe economic problems starting a new phase of imperialism lasting until nineteen fifty-one. During this phase, the British imposed protectionist policies throughout the "sterling area" and stressed colonial development projects such as the East African Groundnuts Scheme in an effort to accrue U.S. dollars. (9) The British government also hoped to leverage the empire to create a "third force", independent of either Soviet or U.S. policies. Both African colonies and Middle Eastern protectorates were reappraised for their strategic value. Political reforms were designed to establish a limited set of institutions for self-government that would hopefully pacify colonial nationalists, shield Britain from international anti-colonial pressure, and stimulate social and economic development. (15) The policy of "indirect rule" was abandoned in favor of cultivating moderate nationalist groups. Eventually, newly independent colonies would join a multi-racial and democratic Commonwealth that would act as a global stabilizing force. In this light, the withdrawal from India and Palestine can be interpreted as a strategic redistribution of resources.

      White argues that this pattern began to shift in the early nineteen fifties. Colonial development projects failed to produce the expected returns, and Britain increasingly turned to the emerging European Economic Community realizing that closer European integration offered better opportunities for growth. The European Union was also preferable strategically since nuclear deterrence made distant bases obsolete. (34)  However, White introduces other scholars who do not see a clear-cut move to abandon empire noting that Britain saw the emerging multi-racial Commonwealth as one of three supports of foreign policy, the others being European integration and the "special relationship" with America.

      In what is arguably his weakest section, White examines the role of colonial nationalisms and the impact of post-war imperial policy on their formation. In Africa and Southeast Asia, the "second colonial occupation" focused on promoting economic development that disrupted previous forms of production and enflamed nationalist sentiments. Along with the metropolitan project of limited self-government, this allowed nationalists to quickly expand their power base beyond urbanized elites undermining controlled reform. However, White notes that colonial nationalisms were hardly monolithic as in the case of Malaya where the indigenous, Chinese, and Indian communities which competed to determine Malayan identity after the British proposed a unified successor state. (57) This disunity allowed the British some room to maneuver by selectively supporting or undermining certain movements. White argues that any discussion of nationalisms must recognize the active British role in shaping them, consciously or not.

      In addition to metropolitan and colonial factors, international anti-colonialism influenced decolonization. After the war, stated American policy was anti-imperialist. More pragmatically, the U.S. felt that colonies were prone to Communist propaganda and that imperial economic policies interfered with the free market. Thus, the U.S. often allied with moderate nationalists to combat Communist expansion and display their anti-imperialist credentials. White argues that the Communist threat was a major reason why Britain worked with moderate nationalists even in cases where a large white settler community existed. (69) Still, he notes that international pressure was not absolute. The Soviets, until the late nineteen fifties, were ideologically constrained from supporting "bourgeois" nationalisms, and the United States was willing to abandon anti-imperialist morality in favor of anti-Communism and global stability. For both the U.S. and the Soviet Union, intervention in the "Third World" occurred mostly after independence.

      An important example of the changing world order is the Suez Crisis of 1956, and White devotes an entire chapter to it. Some authors view it as a watershed showing that the U.S. had become willing and able to intervene against empire. Suez demonstrated that Britain could not embark on a "third path", could not depend on the Commonwealth, and could no longer maintain both the value of its currency and participate in "prestige" wars. However, others disagree with giving Suez such importance. Macmillan largely continued the imperial policies of Eden, the Treasury was already aware of the weakness of sterling, and the "special relationship" resumed particularly where American Cold War and British colonial interests intersected. White quotes Eden as saying that Suez had not "changed our fortunes" as much as "revealed realities". (87)

      In the last chapter, White identifies several post-war similarities between British and other European decolonizations with European metropoles trying to extract as much economic value as possible from colonies and instituting political reforms and various sorts of egalitarian partnerships in order to do so. They began to reappraise the strategic value of their empires, contend with colonial nationalisms, and shift their focus from the colonial "periphery" to the European "core" while also managing their relationships with the United States. White does identify some differences. (98) France, for instance, was far more centralist, insisted that metropolitan decisions would be the final word, and limited colonial political involvement to institutions of the metropole. This alienated colonial nationalists and made controlled decolonization more difficult. The French were also unable to react coherently  to changes in the empire as a series of weak coalition governments never adopted a clear plan.

      There are a few points where White may overstate his case. He implies that internal divisions weakened colonial nationalisms to the point where they became relatively less important than internal metropolitan factors. (55) While it is perhaps true that formal nationalist movements were unable to realize their potential fully, the literature suggests that resistance movements in general significantly limited the scope of European actions in empire as noted by authors such as Philip Curtin, Michael Adas, and James Scott. European empires contained this costly resistance when they were politically and economically secure, but their ability to do so after the war appears more limited. A discussion of resistance beyond formal, normative Western nationalism would improve this section. White also underplays the importance of empire to British identity stating that other empires were important to metropolitan identities in a way that "the British Empire had never been a central expression of ‚Britishness'." (100) However, as John Mackenzie notes in Imperialism and Popular Culture (1986), the prospect that the Empire was weakening in the early twentieth century actually increased the role of imperialism in British identity. Linda Colley ("Britishness and Otherness", 1992) and David Armitage (The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, 2000) argue that the very notion of "Britishness" is a direct consequence of imperialism and that without an overseas empire, British identity has shifted with the re-emergence of separate Scottish, Welsh, and English identities. These are just a few examples of a wide body of literature linking imperialism with British identity.

      These caveats aside, this title generally succeeds in presenting a brief summary of relatively recent research to a student audience while acknowledging various historical debates. It includes an appendix containing primary sources that are referenced in the body of the text which instructors can use to discuss the role of documentary evidence in historical research. A series of maps is also included which aid in placing the topic in its proper geographical context. In short, instructors and students of the British Empire should find this book an engaging and enlightening read.

 

 

Aaron Whelchel
Washington State University

 

 
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