It is perhaps surprising that in the long history of the British Empire, spanning several centuries, that it was not until 1957 that a full cost-benefit analysis of the possession and administration of colonies was for the very first time undertaken. This could be taken as evidence of the haphazard approach towards Empire that had long characterised British attitudes to its incredibly diverse collection of territories, colonies and obligations stretched across the globe. However, this 1957 review entitled Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies was very much requested at a time of weakness and turmoil for the British Empire coming as it did in the wake of the disastrous Suez Crisis and the hurried replacement of Anthony Eden as Prime Minister by Harold Macmillan in its wake.
The Suez Crisis had revealed to the British establishment that she was no longer a great power along the lines of the United States and the Soviet Union. Her financial, military and diplomatic weaknesses had been revealed in harsh terms by 1956 Suez Crisis. Harold Macmillan was in many ways put in to power to try and salvage what he could with regards to the British relationship to the United States, with its European allies and with the Commonwealth governments. Into this delicate diplomatic minefield, Macmillan sought to re-evaluate Britain's colonial and defence agreements with not one but two reviews. The Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies review had the most direct bearing on the remainder of the British Empire. However a second review entitled: The Position of the United Kingdom in World Affairs whilst ostensibly examining Britain's diplomatic and defence commitments, also took into consideration its colonial possessions in terms of suitable bases, defences and strategic requirements. Taken together, these two reviews would substantially escalate Britain's decolonisation process in the light of the lessons learned over Suez.
It should be remembered that the decolonisation process had already started in earnest with the independence of India in 1947, with Ceylon, Burma and Palestine in 1948 and with both Malaya and the Gold Coast in 1957. However, notwithstanding the birth of these new countries, there had still been remarkable cross party consensus on Britain keeping the majority of its existing colonies. Politicians on the left and the right believed that most of these remaining colonies were generally too underdeveloped to be given independence as such. It was felt that there would be a long journey towards self-government before independence could even be considered. In fact it should be remembered that in the late 1940s (during the Labour administration) and the early 1950s (under a Conservative administration) there had been a remarkable expansion in the size and scope of the Colonial Service as experts in specialist fields like agriculture, health, engineering, eduation and fisheries were recruited to develop the economies and infrastructure of these colonies. In many ways the British Empire of this period had become one of the World's most important development agencies.
There was at least one new ulterior motive for these benign intentions to develop the colonies. The developing Cold War made Western governments in general nervous that weak, unstable and newly independent nations might be ripe for Communist takeover. Indeed, the Malaya campaign in the late 40s and early 50s was fought largely on this basis. In that case, the carrot of independence was presented as a prize to Malayans on condition that they turned their backs on Communism. It should be said that the confusion of nationalist aspirations with sympathy for Communist ideals muddied much of the decision making process in this period. In fact Eden's suspicion of Nasser's association with the Soviet bloc had been one of his reasons to intervene in Suez and topple the Colonel. On this particular occasion, President Eisenhower was less inclined to agree with Eden and was worried that such precipitative action might end up pushing leaders like Nasser towards the Soviet bloc.
It was partly because of this confused state of affairs that the new Prime Minister Harold Macmillan had ordered these two reviews. The Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies review was undertaken by the Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, whilst the The Position of the United Kingdom in World Affairs review was carried out by the Cabinet Secretary, Norman Brook. The two certainly overlapped in aims and objectives and indeed Norman Brook also contributed a Treasury analysis to the first review also. Alan Lennox-Boyd was a dedicated Colonial Secretary who felt committed to the development process and certainly did not anticipate a sudden departure of Britain from what he felt were long running commitments to its colonies. However, he saw merit in undertaking the review saying "If it is to be worth doing, it must be done thoroughly; and it will take a good deal of time and involve consultations with a number of Departments." There was particular concern at the financial forecasts and predictions that would have to be made especially as many of the colonies were in the process of Federalisation which complicated and muddied the economic connections of various colonies considerably. Notwithstanding these difficulties, the extensive review was completed in a remarkably brief period of just seven months.
But had Macmillan already decided to speed up the decolonisation process even before the review had been published? Was the cost benefit analysis a ruse to provide political cover to someone who had already made up his mind that the territorial expanse no longer conferred great power status and that the cost of maintaining these territories may well be weakening rather than strengthening Britain. One of his requests for the review included him requesting:
"I should like to see something like a profit and loss account for each of our Colonial possessions, so that we may be better able to gauge whether, from the financial and economic point of view, we are likely to gain or to lose by its departure. This would need, of course, to be weighed against the political and strategic considerations involved in each case. And it might perhaps be better to attempt an estimate of the balance of advantage, taking all these considerations into account, of losing or keeping each particular territory."
Furthermore he requested information about:
"which territories are likely to become ripe for independence over the next few years - or, even if they are not ready for it, will demand it so insistently that their claims cannot be denied - and at what date that stage is likely to be reached in each case."
From these statements, it is clear that a reduction in Britain's imperial commitments was considered even before the review was completed:
"There are presumably places where it is of vital interest to us that we should maintain our influence, and others where there is no United Kingdom interest in resisting constitutional change even if it seems likely to lead eventually to secession from the Commonwealth."
Despite his Prime Minister's heavy hints at an escalation of the decolonisation process, Alan Lennox-Boyd perhaps deluded himself into failing to realise the true extent of Macmillan's likely course of action upon receiving the cost benefit analysis. This is perhaps most starkly revealed when he wrote to Lord Salisbury about Macmillan's above quotes:
"I have assumed that, in using the word 'independence' in this context, the Prime Minister had in mind the status which we usually describe as internal self-government. It is generally recognised that, whereas some territories, by themselves or in federal arrangement with others, should eventually attain independence as full Members of the Commonwealth (ie on the model of Ghana and the Malay Federation), there will remain other territories which, in the foreseeable future at any rate, appear unlikely, for various reasons, to be able to acheive anything other than a considerable degree of internal self-government, with the United Kingdom remaining responsible for at least their defence and external relations"
The cost benefit analysis did point out that Britain traded to a large degree with these colonies and that many of them held considerable sterling deposits. Furthermore, although Britain spent over £50 million a year on developing its colonies, the vast majority of the development budget for the empire came from the colonies themselves - which provided 5/6ths of the budget through local taxation and loans, and much of it was spent on British expertise and products to help with the development process. At a time when Sterling was still regarded as a world reserve currency, the size and importance of the Empire as an economic area was not to be totally ignored. However, against these costs needed to be added potential security costs for policing and defending these colonies, not least from their own independence movements.
It was not just Alan Lennox-Boyd who was concerned at a potential stampede for the exit. Norman Brook was also concerned that Britain might leave its colonies too soon and in too weakened a state to survive as viable political units:
"The United Kingdom stands to gain no credit for launching a number of immature, unstable and impoverished units whose performances as 'independent' countries would be an embarrassment and whose chaotic existence would be a temptation to our enemies."
It should be remembered that France was in the process of its own decolonisation difficulties at this time having recently been evicted from Indo-China and being mired in a deadly conflict in Algeria at the time of publication of this review. The idea of cutting and running versus the concept of an almost feudal noblesse oblige was a major consideration.
When push came to shove though, the Treasury in particular was concerned that Britain could stay too long:
"To sum up, the economic considerations tend to be evenly matched and the
economic interests of the United Kingdom are unlikely in themselves to be decisive
in determining whether or not a territory should become independent. Although
damage could certainly be done by the premature grant of independence, the
economic dangers to the United Kingdom of deferring the grant of independence for
her own selfish interests after the country is politically and economically ripe for
independence would be far greater than any dangers resulting from an act of
independence negotiated in an atmosphere of goodwill such as has been the case
with Ghana and the Federation of Malaya. Meanwhile, during the period when we can
still exercise control in any territory, it is most important to take every step open to us to ensure, as far as we can, that British standards and methods of business and
administration permeate the whole life of the territory."
This was perhaps something of a rose-tinted appreciation of what might or might not be achieved. It failed to take into account the sheer diversity of colonies under British administration and that some of these held considerable numbers of European settlers who may not have been so willing to shed connections with Britain willingly such as in Kenya and Rhodesia. Furthermore, it failed to anticipate the dissolution of the Federation exercise which had been attempted to try and create more self-sufficient and interdependent economic blocs. The disintegration of these Federal structures would cause a myriad of problems for the affected colonies and in some cases cause some bad blood between hitherto friendly neighbouring colonies.
Alan Lennox-Boyd's conclusions for the various colonies were far more nuanced. It is clear that he fell more on the noblesse oblige side of the ledger of imperial responsibility. He concluded that only the following were ripe for independence within a decade of his report:
Nigeria, perhaps in 1960 or 1961 (or quite soon thereafter).
West Indies Federation, perhaps in 1963.
Central African Federation (after 1960)
Singapore, if it joins the Federation of Malaya.
It was clear that he felt that the vast majority of colonies were too underdeveloped to risk setting them free in the turbulent world of the late 1950s. However, it was also equally clear that his Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, was more inclined to speed up the process than the Colonial Secretary realised. The ultimate sign of the Prime Minister's intentions were only fully revealed when Iain Macleod was brought in as the new Colonial Secretary after the 1959 General Election. Iain Macleod was a far more radical minded politician and was more willing to take drastic action to reduce Britain's imperial obligations. In many ways, the Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies review of 1957 was a turning point in the history of the British Empire - even if its effects were not not felt in full until 1960. Had Macmillan already made up his mind on speeding up the decolonisation process even before he commissioned the review? It should be remembered that before he was Prime Minister he had been the Chancellor of the Exchequer and kept a keen eye on Britain's financial obligations and its inherent weakness which had been revealed all too starkly in the Suez debacle. The review itself provided an in-depth rationale on economic and political grounds for considering independence for many colonies which had hitherto been assumed not to be constitutionally nor developmentally ready for it. Macmillan sat on the review for 18 months doing very little politically with its conclusions and recommendations. It was not until he received his own electoral mandate in 1959 that he felt politically strong enough to escalate the decolonisation process with his new Colonial Secretary, Iain Macleod, as his henchman in chief. Allied to this appointment was the production of yet another review entitled the Future Policy Study and which seemed to play up the importance of the Atlantic Alliance (US and Europe) and underplay the importance of the Commonwealth and the remaining colonies. Within a year, Macmillan had made his Wind of Change speech in South Africa and ushered in his own 'Scramble Out of Africa' and started the final decolonisation process in earnest. There is something of an irony in that it was a Conservative politician who really pressed the foot down on the decolonisation accelerator. The Conservatives had been regarded as the guardians of Empire and even in the early 1950s Churchill as Prime Minister had hoped that there would be a new Elizabethan era for Britain and its Empire. Macmillan certainly had form in changing his political stance to suit his predicament. For instance, he had been one of the most vociferous hawks in favour of Eden's Suez policy before it all came crashing down on Anthony Eden's head. Somewhat paradoxically, Macmillan was regarded as a safe pair of hands in the aftermath and was even recommended by Churchill as a replacement for the damaged Eden. He would prove to be far more radical in colonial terms than the vast majority of Conservatives may have realised when they selected him as their leader and hence Prime Minister. The Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies review was one of those government documents designed to provide political cover for a course of action that the Prime Minister knew would be unpopular and knew would be most unpopular within his own party. It is something of a sad irony that its original author, Alan Lennox-Boyd, did not anticipate just what a revolutionary document he had penned for his Prime Minister.