Why did a Conservative Government Signal the End of Empire in Africa

by Thomas Harbor
(Studying Politics and Economics at Sciences Po (Paris) and History at la Sorbonne)

             As John Darwin noted, ‘before 1939 it was usual to suppose that even if the pattern of rule in the colonial world was modified, ultimate European control would continue almost indefinitely almost everywhere[1]’. In a postbellum world, Labour and Conservative politicians alike construed Empire as an evolving paradigm, not a dying one. Empire, under Michael Doyle’s extensive definition, is defined as a ‘relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social or cultural dependence[2]’.

 

In 1960, the Conservative Prime Minister Harold Macmillan embarked on an African Grand Tour, visiting Ghana, Nigeria, the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, ending his official trip in South Africa.  In 1960-61, half of African countries were already independent.  The Prime Minister’s ‘wind of change’ speech in front of the South African parliament in Cape Town almost immediately entered the discourse of decolonisation. Labelled as a ‘Black Monday’ by right-wing conservatives who formed the ‘Monday Club’, this speech for many ‘signalled a policy change in decolonisation in Africa[3]’.

 

To ascertain why a Conservative government signalled the end of Empire in Africa poses multiple issues. It stresses that a government engaged in a policy at odds with its core ideological tenets. But the crux of the argument is on how to construe the verb ‘to signal’. Does ‘signal’ mean to convey an instruction or does it just indicate that an event has occurred. This essay will discuss to what extent decolonisation was a policy-backed process by a conservative government. This essay will develop (i) decolonisation as a ‘planned obsolescence’, but also (ii) as a reactive movement with an emphasis on agency.

 

 

            Archival evidence seems to suggest everything was planned[4]. Minutes of the C.R.O meetings mention for example ‘if our decolonisation plans go well[5]’. Macmillan’s administration produced many reports, which highlights its Weberian-cum-bureaucratic view of Imperial relations. This Government-Whitehall view would therefore aim for an ‘uneventful and welcome independence’ of African territories, as Macleod put it in 1961.

 

Macmillan saw colonial affairs as part of a ‘cost-cutting exercise[6]’. To better ‘gauge whether, from the financial and economic point of view, we are likely to gain or lose by [the colonies’] departure[7]’, Lord Salisbury was asked to draw a Profit and Loss account for the Empire. The Empire contribution was under severe scrutiny due trade imbalances and currency volatility. Minutes of the Cabinet Economic Policy meetings show how the ‘precarious state[8]’ of Britain’s external finances and the Imperial issues were interwoven in interdepartmental government discussions. The Sterling area, which buttressed Empire-building, was tumbling. The full convertibility of Sterling, enforced in 1958, put a further strain on Britain’s economy. More importantly, it made the underlying rationale of an Imperial Sterling Area redundant. Keynes had noted that Britain could not financially sustain the political and military requirement of Empire without US loans. Post-Hobsonian authors, such as Paul Baran (1957), presented decolonisation as a policy geared to embrace the change in capitalists’ best interests. However, Darwin notes that ‘surprisingly little official account was taken of British commercial interests and opinions in the approach to independence[9]’.

 

Britain’s rationale for decolonisation seems find a more satisfying with international relations and high politics. The explanation here is twofold. First, Britain prioritized the strengthening of the US Special Relationship. The three Churchillian interlocking circles – the Atlantic, Empire and Europe – had changed postbellum. The ‘Future policy study, 1960-70[10]’ (1959) set out a blueprint for a realignment of Britain’s strategic interests with the US. The report took as granted that Britain’s world power was declining. The Suez debacle in 1956 constituted a severe blow in that regard. Therefore, the Atlantic alliance had to be ‘the core of our foreign policy’. The Atlantic Charter (1941) was key in preserving good relationships with the US. In December 1960, Resolutions 1514 and 1541 were adopted by the UN General Assembly. They constitute the legal underpinning of the right to self-determination in international law[11]. John Hargreaves puts forwards that Macmillan’s colonial policy was aimed at saving the US-UK special relationship, which would have been tarnished had the UK insisted on keeping its African colonies. Second, decolonisation was an anti-USSR policy. The report ‘Africa in the next ten years’ (1959) emphasized that ‘If Western governments appear to be reluctant to concede independence […] they may alienate African opinion and turn it towards the Soviet Union[12]’. The Asian example, the Soviet intervention in the Congo, and the rise of Marxist intellectuals in Africa embodied the Communist threat. In Macmillan’s own words, decolonisation and the struggle against communism were the two biggest single historical trends of the twentieth century. In Africa, they formed a system. Ovendale summarizes this view, stating that decolonisation was ‘partly due to international considerations, and to Cold War politics and the need to prevent Soviet penetration in Africa[13]’.

 

Decolonisation adopted as a policy by a Conservative government means ideological ramshackle. John Gallagher[14] puts forward the key to decolonisation is to be found in an impossible triangle between Domestic Politics, Great Power Diplomacy, and the Terms of Colonial Collaboration. This is a powerful analytical model. As diplomacy undertook a paradigmatic shift, domestic conservative politics were shaken. The triumph of social democracy, high-mass consumption, and the appearance of the Soviet threat ‘marginalized the adherents of the imperial idea[15]’. Decolonisation was led by Whitehall, not Westminster. But, following Darwin, the traditional Tory paternalism embodied by Lord Salisbury was side-lined under Macmillan’s premiership. The Bow Group – liberal-minded conservatives – outnumber the Monday Club, whose members defined decolonisation as being ‘pushed out of one country after another cheering loudly to the pulling down of the Union Jack[16]’. Macmillan’s majority could undertake the end of Empire partially thanks to the side-lining of traditional Toryism[17]. It should be noted that the Imperial discourse did remain embroidered with Imperial paternalism, signalling the reminiscence of a high-minded imperialism. The Lugardian idea of trusteeship was still very present among policy-makers, and British decolonisation prided itself that the ‘transfer of power was effected over tea in an atmosphere of sweetness and light[18]’. The impact on the ‘terms of colonial collaboration’ is crucial. To know why Conservatives undertook decolonisation has a huge bearing on how it was undertaken. The Central African Federation[19] and the ‘Federal Moment[20]’ sheds light on how decolonisation was construed. The top-down approach undertaken by ‘post-imperial federations’ shows the ‘imperialism of decolonisation[21]’. British Conservatives, including Macmillan, had in mind ‘a move towards decolonisation […] as a means of securing imperial control[22]’.  Therefore, the imperial mind-set is not only present in colonial discourse, it is a bedrock of the policy itself. There are many definitions for ‘decolonisation’. The ‘official mind[23]’ of policymakers envisioned the legal-cum-constitutional transfer of sovereignty as a pure legal formality. The key goal of decolonisation was to keep imperial influence through indirect rule, ideally through Commonwealth[24].

 

            Frantz Fanon, for whom decolonisation meant the ‘complete extrusion of all foreign influence from the new state[25]’, probably had a different definition of decolonisation that Whitehall officials. It can also be argued that Britain signalled the end of Empire because it had no other choice. This second strand of argument emphasizes on the ‘wind of change’ as a political fact to which Macmillan is reacting. We will stress Macmillan’s policy was reactive in the light of the general trend of decolonisation, the impossibility of bloodshed in Africa, on nationalism as a sweeping political force.

 

The Fifth Pan African Congress, held in Manchester in 1945, warned that the ‘future could hold bullets as well as ballots’, that ‘Africans might have to appeal to force in an effort to achieve freedom[26]’. Violence was the only possible outcome, ‘British rule in Africa could be maintained only by force and British public opinion would reject the use of force for this purpose[27]’.  The Hola incidents in Kenya, more generally the Mau Mau revolt and the 1959 events in Nyasaland were seminal in Macleod’s acceleration of decolonisation as ‘any other policy would have led to horrible bloodshed[28]’. The publication of the Devlin Report in 1959 into the Nyasaland disturbances was an electroshock as it talked about a ‘police state’. In 1959, J. Enoch Powell denounced colonial violence in the Commons: ‘We cannot, we dare not, in Africa of all places, fall below our own highest standards in the acceptance of responsibility[29]’. Until 1959, Conservatives did not perceive a big risk of violent upsurges in Africa. The high risk of violence was the crucial stimulus according to Horowitz[30]. John Darwin stresses that Macmillan’s government accelerated decolonisation when it realised that formal empire would lead to disturbances like those in Asia at the end of WW2. Drawing from the East-Asian example, but also the Congo and Algeria, policymakers realised ‘subversive wars’ could not be won.  F. Fanon thought violence was a liberating force, a path towards state creation.

 

The upsurge of violence was underpinned by the rise of ‘national consciousness[31]’. Pan-Africanism proved too difficult to implement[32], and ‘nationalism vanquished its transnational competitors, notably imperialism and Marxism[33]’. Due to settler politics, African nationalism was more racialized than in Asia[34]. This element underlines that ‘Conservative colonial policy makers […] were aware of the change embodied in the emergence of African nationalism but tended to underestimate its intensity[35]’. This led policy-makers to bet that Africans would comply with ‘multi-racial’ partnerships, which was an ‘error of judgement’ according to Horowitz. The electoral successes of African nationalist parties such TANU in Tanganyika or KANY in Kenya took Macmillan’s government ill-prepared. In the lens of agency theory, how could once-compliant colonial subjects show their agency and politically structure it to implement decolonisation? Sartre stresses how the ‘European élite undertook to manufacture a native élite […] and branded them with the principles of western culture[36]’. Wallerstein explains this phenomenon by ‘the rise of colonial nationalism as an ideology through which an educated colonial elite progressively mobilized mass following, skilfully exploiting the racial exclusiveness of their masters […] successfully inventing imaginary nations[37]’. Another explanation of agency is given by Robinson. He sees nationalism as a symptom, not a cause, of colonial breakdown. The reliance of the colonial state upon collaborators thanks to the ‘divide and rule’ colonial governance is key. When ‘this clockwork politics no longer sufficed[38]’ rule by coercion became the only (im)possible colonial governance.


The agenda for decolonisation was also set by other Imperial powers. The rapid decolonisations of France and Belgium accelerated the process for Britain too. Lennox-Boyd[39] noted that ‘some results of French policy are bound to have repercussions, possibly unfavourable, in British territories[40]’. The 1957 Independence of Ghana initiated a chain reaction. In 1958, De Gaulle insisted on Britain and France deciding together what path to follow[41]. The 95% of ‘No’ to a French Community in Guinea had an impact on the British Empire in 1958. In 1960, the surrender of Italian trusteeship over Somalia bolstered nationalist claims in British colonies. When Macleod put forward trying to set the pace ‘not as fast as the Congo and not as slow as Algeria[42]’, his power of ‘putting on the brake [was] very limited[43]’.

 

            To conclude, although there was a rationale for decolonisation, there was no large-scale withdrawal plan. It seems more accurate to see ‘Decolonization in East and Central Africa [as] the outcome of several different decisions made on separate occasions during the years 1960-3, and the general theme of disengagement which prevailed […] after the 1959 General Election was a consequence of a new climate of opinion rather than of a comprehensive cardinal plan[44]’. Above all, decolonisation reflected changes in the international and African situations, not a change at the Colonial Office. To that regard, the ‘wind of change’ blew, and would have blown, whatever the majority in Westminster and the policies enacted in Whitehall.

 

 

 



[1] DARWIN, John, ‘Decolonization and the End of Empire’, in WINKS, Robin, The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume V. Historiography, 1999.

[2] DOYLE, Michael, Empires. 1st ed. 1986, p.45.

[3] OVENDALE, Ritichie, ‘Macmillan and the Wind of Change in Africa, 1957-1960’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, N°2, 1995, Cambridge University Press, p.455

[4] HYAM, Ronald, and LOUIS W (eds.), The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-1964, University of London, 2000.

[5] Colonial Relations Office, 5th December 1961, Hyam, Ronald, and Roger Louis W (eds.), The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-1964, University of London, 2000, Part II, p.259

[6] OVENDALE, Ritchie, Ibid., p.459

[7] OVENDALE, Ritchie, Ibid., p.459

[8] C.E.P, 22 May 1957, in Hyam, Ronald, and Roger Louis W (eds.), The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-1964, University of London, 2000, Part II.

[9] DARWIN, John, Ibid., p.5

[10] HYAM, Ronald and LOUIS William, Ibid., p.36

[11] The Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples was passed on December, 14th 1960. It recognized that ‘the peoples of the world ardently desire the end of colonialism in all its manifestations […] all peoples have the right to self-determination’.

[12] HYAM, Ronald and LOUIS William, Ibid, p.47

[13] OVENDALE, Ritchie, Ibid, p.457

[14] GALLAGHER, John, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2004

[15] GALLAGHER, John, Ibid.

[16]HOROWITZ, Dan, ‘Attitudes of British Conservatives Towards Decolonisation in Africa’, Royal African Society, Vol. 69, N°274, 1970, p.22

[17] David Goldsworthy (1970) notes that before 1959, Macmillan was unable to attempt any liberal move for fear of intra-party ramble in the first General Election since the Suez debacle of 1956. 

[18] DARWIN, John, Ibid., p.11

[19] Or Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (1953-63)

[20] COLLINS, Michael, ‘Decolonisation and the Federal Moment’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 24:1, 2013

[21] LOUIS, W & ROBINSON, R, ‘The Imperialism of Decolonization’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 1994

[22] COLLINS, Michael, Ibid., p.21

[23] ROBISON, Ronald and GALLAGHER, John, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism, IB Tauris, 1961 [2015]

[24] Macmillan exposed his plan to ‘transform the ‘old empire’ into a ‘new commonwealth’ in a speech pronounced on April 2nd 1958 at Central Hall, Westminster. In 1951, this was already on Secretary of State for the Colonies Oliver Stanley’s agenda, addressing the Commons, who declared the government ‘pledged to guide Colonial along the road to self-government within the British Commonwealth’. A few years before (1943), the same speech had exposed the same motives but referring to ‘The British Empire’ instead of ‘Commonwealth’.

[25] DARWIN, John, Ibid

[26] BRENDON, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, 2008, p.512-3

[27] HOROWITZ, Dan, Ibid., p.10

[28] Macleod, The Spectator, 1961

[29] OVENDALE, Ritchie, p.471

[30] HOROWITZ, Dan, p.279

[31] Ronald HYAM notes that WW2 was seminal is the rise of an ‘African politcal consciousness’ and had destroyed ‘the white man’s prestige […] as an instrument of government’.

[32] For example, Ghana’s constitution (article 2) left a possibility of abandoning a national structure to integrate a Pan-African political union. The failure of Pan-Africanism is not the subject of this essay, but it can be noted that Gamal Abd-El NASSER, leader of Egypt, famously turned from a Pan-African leader to Pan-Arabism as a doctrine.

[33] COLLINS, Michael, Ibid., p.1-2

[34] It could be observed that settler politics are not very present in this essay. Although settlers had sympathies in Westminster among Conservatives, the feeling of treachery of settlers was not felt very strongly by MPs, except the right-wing Tories that had a less significant voice under Macmillan as noted before in the essay. Ronald HYAM notes that Macmillan’s premiership was characterized by the fact that White Settlers had less influence than what was commonly accepted under previous PMs, when it was believed the ‘settler threat to be as big as the communist one’. The reduced size of Settler Politics therefore reflects this diminished influence in early 1960s as compared with the 1950s.

[35] HOROWITZ, Dan, Ibid., p.11-12

[36] FANON, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961, Preface by Jean-Paul SARTRE

[37] DARWIN, John, Ibid., p.7-8

[38] DARWIN, John, Ibid., p. 8-9

[39] Secretary of State for the Colonies between 1954-1959

[40] HYAM, Ronald and LOUIS William, Ibid., p.46

[41] SHIPWAY, Martin, ‘The Wind of Change and the Tides of History: de Gaulle, Macmillan and the Beginnings of the French Decolonizing Endgame’, in BUTLER, L and STOCKWELL, S (eds.), The Wind of Change. Harold Macmillan and the British Decolonization, 2013, pp.180-194

[42] Macleod Cabinet Memorandum (January 1961), quoted in: HYAM, Ronald and LOUIS William, Ibid., p.41

[43] According to Julian Amery MP, figure of the Monday Club, appointed to the Privy Council in 1960 and son-in-law of PM Macmillan, quoted in HYAM, Ronald, Britain’s Declining Empire. The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp.241-326

[44] HOROWITZ, Dan, Ibid., p.18

1950s map of London
Africa
References

HYAM, Ronald, Britain’s Declining Empire. The Road to Decolonisation, 1918-1968, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp.241-326

 

MURPHY, Philipp, Party Politics and Decolonization: The Conservative Party and British Colonial Policy in Tropical Africa, 1951-1964, Oxford University Press, 1995.

 

GALLAGHER, John, The Decline, Revival and Fall of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, 2004

 

BRENDON, Piers, The Decline and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997, 2008

 

HYAM, Ronald, and LOUIS W (eds.), The Conservative Government and the End of Empire, 1957-1964, University of London, 2000 [A few extracts of Part II]

 

FANON, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth, 1961, Preface by Jean-Paul SARTRE

 

LOUIS, W & ROBINSON, R, ‘The Imperialism of Decolonization’, Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 1994

 

DARWIN, John, ‘Decolonization and the End of Empire’, in WINKS, Robin, The Oxford History of the British Empire: Volume V. Historiography, 1999.

 

SHIPWAY, Martin, ‘The Wind of Change and the Tides of History: de Gaulle, Macmillan and the Beginnings of the French Decolonizing Endgame’, in BUTLER, L and STOCKWELL, S (eds.), The Wind of Change. Harold Macmillan and the British Decolonization, 2013, pp.180-194

 

OVENDALE, Ritichie, ‘Macmillan and the Wind of Change in Africa, 1957-1960’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, N°2, 1995, Cambridge University Press, p.455

 

 

HOROWITZ, Dan, ‘Attitudes of British Conservatives Towards Decolonisation in Africa’, Royal African Society, Vol. 69, N°274, 1970, p.22

 

COLLINS, Michael, ‘Decolonisation and the Federal Moment’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, 24:1, 2013


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