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
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’.
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’.
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.
evidence seems to suggest everything was planned. Minutes
of the C.R.O meetings mention for example ‘if our decolonisation plans go well’.
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.
colonial affairs as part of a ‘cost-cutting exercise’.
To better ‘gauge whether, from the financial and economic point of view, we are
likely to gain or lose by [the colonies’] departure’,
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
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
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’
(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. 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’.
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’.
adopted as a policy by a Conservative government means ideological ramshackle.
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’.
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’.
Macmillan’s majority could undertake the end of Empire partially thanks to the
side-lining of traditional Toryism. 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’.
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
and the ‘Federal Moment’
sheds light on how decolonisation was construed. The top-down approach undertaken
by ‘post-imperial federations’ shows the ‘imperialism of decolonisation’.
British Conservatives, including Macmillan, had in mind ‘a move towards
decolonisation […] as a means of securing imperial control’. 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’
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.
Fanon, for whom decolonisation meant the ‘complete extrusion of all foreign
influence from the new state’,
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’.
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
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’.
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
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
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’.
Pan-Africanism proved too difficult to implement,
and ‘nationalism vanquished its transnational competitors, notably imperialism
Due to settler politics, African nationalism was more racialized than in Asia.
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’.
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’.
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’.
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’
rule by coercion became the only (im)possible
The agenda for decolonisation was also set by other Imperial powers. The rapid
decolonisations of France and Belgium accelerated the process for Britain too.
noted that ‘some results of French policy are bound to have repercussions,
possibly unfavourable, in British territories’.
The 1957 Independence of Ghana initiated a chain reaction. In 1958, De Gaulle
insisted on Britain and France deciding together what path to follow.
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’,
his power of ‘putting on the brake [was] very limited’.
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’.
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.
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,
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.
‘Macmillan and the Wind of Change in Africa, 1957-1960’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 38, N°2, 1995, Cambridge University
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