The British Empire Library

Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties

by Peter Hennessy

Peter (now Lord) Hennessy is a historian who specialises in post-war British political history. Indeed this is a book which focusses on what many people assume was a quiet decade of British political development; cruising towards affluence (as the title of the book suggests) whilst still cherishing traditional institutions which had helped to win a world War just a few years earlier. It seemed a time that Britain was still pre-eminent in fields of diplomacy, politics, science, military endeavour and yet as the author makes it clear in this book, this decade was anything but serene. There was an awful lot going on under the hood as Britain had to deal with harsh new post-war economic realities and a dawning realisation that Britain was struggling to stay at the top table in the era of Super-powerdom. Furthermore, Britain would find that its Empire, which had for so long been considered as an asset, become far more unwieldy and begin to cause serious difficulties for Britain's politicians throughout the decade. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this decade marked a watershed in Britain's imperial history. In 1950, even the radical Labour government of Clement Attlee, which had granted independence to India and Palestine, was still beholden to the idea of developing Britain's remaining colonies and preparing them over many more years to come to gain the infrastructure and expertise to be able to exercise some form of self-government or a far off date with independence. Strangely, the Colonial Office saw a massive increase in its manpower in the late 1940s and early 1950s as thousands of experts and advisers were recruited to help develop the colonies and raise the living standards of the imperial subjects in what became the world's pre-eminent development agency in the era. And yet by 1960, the then Prime Minister had made his Wind of Change speech and plans were afoot, from the Conservatives no less (the considered arch defenders of Empire), to jettison vast swathes of colonies in a remarkably short period of time. So what happened in this pivotal decade to go from consensus over imperial responsibility between the two main parties to decolonisation thrust into the highest of gears. Reading this book helps to understand the processes that led to this transformation in this pivotal decade of imperial history.

It should be said that this is a long and somewhat discursive book. It comes in at over 600 pages of text complemented by plenty of notes, a comprehensive bibliography, chronology and index. However, the author's style could be regarded as idiosyncratic by some. It does appear that the author, who grew up in this decade himself, has met and discussed these issues with many of the key actors over the years and seems to have a store of almost inexhaustible anecdotes which help enliven the pages and bring the characters to life. Some might say that the almost embarrassing richness of these connections and diversions might obscure the underlying history and narrative at various points through the book. However, if you want a genuine feel for the decade and the motivations of the principal politicians, civil servants and military men then this book gives you much more than a traditional history book does. It may mean that you have to wade through extraneous information at times, but the context and motivations are certainly expanded upon even if sometimes in highly unexpected directions.

Notwithstanding the tail wind of Attlee (who is largely covered in Peter Hennessy's book on the 1940s: Never Again), this book is principally concerned with the Conservative Prime Ministers of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan. The 1950s is forever connected with the period of Conservative ascendency. Although these were Conservatives who in many ways bought into the consensus politics of the Post-War era and kept many of the Labour Party's groundbreaking reforms in place throughout the 1950s. It is certainly clear from this book that Churchill had indeed lost much of his vigour and enthusiasm for political battles. He was briefly inspired by the Coronation of the young Elizabeth as Queen and certainly dreamt of a new Elizabethan era that might allow the British to find a new Post-War purpose through the Commonwealth and through scientific innovation. Churchill the reformer seems to have disappeared into history and to have been replaced by Churchill the manager or perhaps Churchill the senior statesman. He did retain enormous prestige both at home and around the world but it became clear to him at least that it was the USA and the Soviet Union who were increasingly calling the shots. He did try and keep Britain in the game as evidenced by much of this book being taken up with the development of the 'British Bomb' throughout the decade. Intriguingly, this process had actually been started most secretly by the previous Labour administration. Churchill was actually most impressed to have found out that he and Parliament had been kept in the dark so comprehensively about how much progress had been undertaken towards a British Bomb when the Conservatives came to power in 1951! This was especially so given that Britain had found itself largely cold-shouldered by its former close ally the United States when it came to atomic weapons development. In the US, the McMahon Act had been passed in 1946 in direct contravention of an agreement between Roosevelt and Churchill himself to share in the developments of the atom bomb as a weapon. This Act was carried out during Truman's term of office largely as the direct consequence of Cold War espionage, some of which was undertaken by the British scientist Klaus Fuchs on behalf of the Soviet Union. Still though, this Act rankled throughout the corridors of Whitehall for most of the 1950s and forced Britain to develop its own Atomic and later its own H-bomb. It was felt necessary to invest so much into this weapon in order to keep Britain politically and militarily relevant and to keep their feet firmly under the top table. Somewhat paradoxically, Churchill was appalled by the potential devastation that an atomic war might presage and much of his diplomatic effort in his last years was to try and limit and even remove these lethal weapons from the battlefield - to little avail in the face of US and Soviet determination to expand their own arsenals and project their own military power so comprehensively. The British Bomb in many ways was a Commonwealth Bomb in that its researchers and scientists came from all over the Commonwealth, its testing was conducted in Australia and the Pacific and its intended use was originally at least to protect all British and Commonwealth territories. It was hoped that nuclear weapons might actually help reduce military spending commitments which were running at very high levels throughout the 1950s - at or around 10% which is an almost unimaginable figure these days. Of course, this drain on the military was partly explained by the growing Cold War and NATO commitments, but it was also due to the legacy costs of Empire especially as independence movements grew in popularity and militancy. Troops were despatched to Malaya, Kenya, Cyprus and many other colonies throughout the decade. Keeping a place at the top table was proving to be a costly undertaking and one that was undermining the British economy. On the face of it, Sterling was still a major, perhaps even the second, reserve currency in the 1950s but this economic status was increasingly built on sand as events in 1956 were to reveal.

The hinge to this decade was undoubtedly the Suez Crisis unleashed by Eden who had developed a personal antagonism towards Nasser of Egypt and who conflated British prestige with military decisiveness and a requirement to stand up to dictators. Unfortunately, not only did much of the world disagree with the British and French on this matter, but the US administration of Eisenhower took a particularly dim view of the military action - especially given the timing of the invasion just days before his own re-election bid. The book goes into considerable detail into how and why Eden made such a fateful decision with its undeniable catastrophic diplomatic and economic consequences. It is something of an irony though that he had been encouraged into taking such a hawkish view by one Harold Macmillan who would soon replace the hapless Eden as he advertised himself to be a safe pair of hands in the wake of the debacle. At heart though, Suez revealed Britain as very much a paper tiger. It was the run on the Pound Sterling which unnerved the Chancellor Macmillan and forced Eden to climb down in order to gain much needed financial support from Eisenhower's administration. There was perhaps no better illustration that Britain was no longer in the same league as the United States in terms of raw power. Suez saw her relegated in power and forced many of her decision makers to reevaluate Britain's role in this post-Suez world as reality hit home after what the author calls in the book as the 'short Post-War period'.

For students of decolonisation, it is what happens in the mind of Harold Macmillan and leading Conservatives from 1957 to 1960 which helps explain the sudden acceleration in the jettison of Empire. During these years, Macmillan ordered a series of reviews which have been largely lost to popular history and yet were so important in redefining Britain's role in the world. The most important one for colonial purposes was the review entitled: Future Constitutional Development in the Colonies undertaken by Alan Lennox-Boyd on the orders of Macmillan. The author suggests that the Colonial Secretary was perhaps unaware of the full implications of the groundwork he was undertaking on behalf of his new Prime Minister and just how the document would be combined with other documents like The Position of the United Kingdom in World Affairs and the Future Policy Study of 1960 to undermine the rationale of the Empire and the Commonwealth and to start the full tilt towards decolonisation. One is very much reminded of the axiom that only 'Nixon could go to China' in that only a patrician Conservative politician like Macmillan could have taken the decolonisation bull by the horns. Peter Hennessy suggests that the final decision to let go of much of Africa was not taken by Macmillan until 1960 itself after having digested all these reports and having travelled around the remnants of Britain's Empire and Commonwealth in Asia and then in Africa himself culminating with his all important Wind of Change speech in the South African Parliament which had so recently agreed on its policy of Apartheid. There seems to have been a particular trigger point on this final tour of Africa in West Africa when he met Sir James Robertson. Macmillan went on to say:

"Are these people fit for self-government?" and he said, "No, of course not." I said, "When will they be ready?" He said "Twenty Years, twenty-five years." Then I said, "What do you recommend me to do?" He said, "I recommend you to give it to them at once." I said, "Why that seems strange." "Well," he said, "If they were twenty years well spent, if they would be learning administration, if they were getting experience, I would say wait, but what will happen? All the most intelligent people, all the ones I've been training will all become rebels. I shall have to put them in prison. There will be violence, bitterness and hatred, They won't spend the twenty years learning. We shall simply have us twenty years of repression, and therefore, in my view, they'd better start learning [to rule themselves] at once." I thought that was very sensible.

Another thing which comes through this book is the extent of Cold War feeling playing into the decolonisation process. Time and again, the concern at hanging on too long to colonies against the will of the governed was at the back of decision makers' minds. They were convinced that it might prepare the ground for Communists to take advantage of the destabilising situation and see the newly independent nations turn their backs on the West and embrace Communism. Even the famous Wind of Change speech had a powerful Cold War corollary attached to it:

As I see it, the great issues in this second half of the Twentieth Century is whether the uncommitted peoples of Asia and Africa will swing to the East or to the West. Will they be drawn into the Communist camp? Or will the great experiments in self-government that are now being made in Asia and Africa, especially within the Commonwealth, prove so successful, and by their example so compelling, that the balance will come down in favour of freedom and order and justice?"

The three great themes of the Fifties in terms of Britain's future Foreign Policy direction revolved around 1) Commonwealth and Empire 2) or the United States and 3) the embryonic European Economic Community. At the beginning of the decade Labour and Conservatives alike would have put the pecking order in that sequence of Commonwealth/Empire then USA then Europe. However, Suez threw the apple cart into the air. It was Macmillan who began the process of picking up those apples and he seems to have come more and more to the conclusion that the Commonwealth/Empire was becoming less an asset and more a liability. It had not helped that the Commonwealth countries had not come to the aid of Britain in its Suez difficulties. And as decisions to downsize the military were played out in the post-Suez climate (and also the abolition of National Service) non-strategically important colonies were increasingly green-lighted for independence and the hoped for thankful new rulers rather than resentful and sullen resistance and liberation movements. Strangely, despite Eisenhower's lack of help over Suez, Britain drew much closer to the US during the premiership of Macmillan. He had his own private connections to Eisenhower from the war years and was able to jump start the old friendship - particularly with the long hoped for abandonment of the McMahon Act and a resumption of Anglo-American cooperation on nuclear matters. However, it is the change of direction towards Europe that was possibly the most consequential of Macmillan's tilts. He realised that there was little love for Europe in the UK, but increasingly convinced himself that Britain would find itself increasingly marginalised by this rising political force. Although it was not achieved during his own Premiership, it was Macmillan who began the institutional shift in Whitehall that would see Britain begin the application process to join Europe. There was certainly an element of wishful thinking on how much they might be able to shape the emerging EEC (which was precisely why de Gaulle vetoed Britain's applications in the 1960s). But the shift from Empire and Commonwealth towards a Europe can clearly and unequivocally be laid at the feet of Harold Macmillan. It is perhaps hard to think of a politician who would seem to have been less likely to have made such a momentous policy shift. And yet after his 1959 General Election victory with his 100+ seat majority, he soon set about decolonisation in earnest. Perhaps he had not fully appreciated just how quickly he would achieve this process himself when he chose Iain Macleod to be the new Colonial Secretary to put his plans into operation. One of my favourite quotes of the book is from Sir Alec Douglas-Home who later succeeded Macmillan as Prime Minister:

"When I was in the Commonwealth Office and Macleod was in the Colonial Office, he was always for galloping along with independence as fast as he could. I took the view that every year gained gave the countries a better chance when they became independent to be viable. There was something to be said for both points of view.

When one looks at some of the African countries, one realises that another five years of tuition wouldn't have done them any harm. But Macmillan was beginning to think that our destiny lay really in Europe, so I think he leaned rather towards the faster programme than the slower. If you want to put it in a nutshell, I think that Macmillan was a wind of change man and Macleod was a gale of change man."

And by 1964 almost the entire African Empire had gone with just the thorny issue of Rhodesia with its large settler population in addition to the black African population to resolve. But the direction of travel was clear even to the Europeans in Rhodesia who promptly declared UDI in their vain attempt to opt out of Macmillan's decolonisation policy.

This book may well be about Fifties Britain in general but it is interesting to read how Colonial and Commonwealth issues still played such a vital role in the political discourse and life of the nation during that decade. Time and again issues in Kenya, Cyprus, Nyasaland, Malta, Nigeria and many other colonies all had issues which popped up and had consequential results on the politics and even political careers of politicians back in Westminster. These were not merely legacy issues, but issues of real bite and import. Britain started the decade very much an imperial power but finished that same decade with a determination to lose that imperial responsibility once and for all. To understand this crucial phase in British imperial history, you really need to understand the Britain of the 1950s which makes a book like this one such an invaluable place to gain a wider insight into the wider motivations behind decolonisation.

British Empire Book
Peter Hennessy


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